Fair Skin, India and the Makeup Industry

Colourism in India and Across the World

  Of all the inherent cultural and social contradictions that exist in India, the one that really stands out is our obsession with being ‘fair and lovely’. A country majorly comprising of dark skinned people deifying the white skin is our last remnants of the Raj, and unsurprisingly, it is to be seen in other such previously colonised countries such as Nigeria. This is also commonly referred to as the ‘Snow White Syndrome’. It is unfortunate, and more than anything, very confusing, because – in Western countries, people choose to tan, whether it’s at a tanning salon or the beach. In India, people worry about going on holiday because they will come back tanned and will have to “scrub the tan away.”

Colourism fuels the beauty industry in India, and negatively perpetrates the minds of children at a young age. It leads to low self-esteem, and fuels racism on various levels. This is clear in the daily assumptions that people make – dark people are automatically assumed to be from South India. But it also shows racism in its true form – attacks against African immigrants, especially students, in India are very common, and are at an all-time high. It only validates the point how there exists a vicious white supremacy even in a country majorly comprising of dark skinned people.

The glorification of fair skin was first monetised when Unilever launched Fair and Lovely in India in 1978. The market has grown exponentially ever since – Indians spent over $550 million on fairness products in 2014 alone. Fairness products currently have a higher market share than Coca Cola.

Aggressive advertising for such products is highly manipulative and unethical, and is possibly the largest contributor which spreads this belief. Recently, the Advertising Standards Council of India, in a welcome and necessary step, banned advertisements which depict people with darker skin as inferior. This does not stop the multi-million dollar industry from continuing to market otherwise; various Bollywood celebrities still endorse these products and newspapers are filled with full-page advertisements of fairness creams.

How far are people willing to go?

  While simple fairness creams and scrubs may are marketed far and wide, that’s only the beginning of what some people are willing to achieve their ideal complexion. Chemical peels, laser treatment, injectables and even surgery are other available options.

Glutathione is an antioxidant which is naturally produced by the liver. Its function is to protect the skin from UV rays and free radicals – these are what cause skin damage and pigmentation. These are now available in various forms: soaps, creams and even pills which are sold without a doctor’s prescription.

The worst of all is the exploitation of the glutathione injections. These are used by medical practitioners to counteract the side effects of chemotherapy such as hair loss, breathing problems and nausea. But it is now being used for skin lightening purposes, and dermatologists often get requests to administer the same. This has led to official concern and governmental probes are underway to stop the misuse of these injections.

Initiatives that celebrate Diversity

  There are various initiatives which take active measures to challenge the prevalent belief in India that beauty depends on skin colour. Women of Worth is one such NGO which was launched in 2009 and is backed by Nandita Das, and they also have a similar campaign for men called ‘Beauty Beyond Colour.’

Abhay Deol was one of the few Bollywood actors who spoke about this issue and actively called out his colleagues for endorsing fairness creams. In Pakistan, Fatima Lodhi started ‘Dark is Divine’ – the organization conducts awareness drives across various countries, and seeks to go to schools as kids of younger ages are more likely to be influenced by advertisements or remarks about dark skin. Till date, this organization has conducted drives in 27 countries including India and Sri Lanka.

Tinted is an initiative by Indian- American Deepica Muthyala which curates a list of makeup products which are best suited for medium to deep dark skin tones and to find things which are universally flattering. In her statement to the press, she said that the main aim of this project is to give those who are underrepresented in the beauty industry a community.

The Advent of Inclusive Makeup: Where does India stand?

  With colourism being so prevalent in some countries, makeup brands across the globe catered to fair people and many brands do not offer products which are dark enough. Not only were dark skinned people left with no option, but were also pushed to buy products which were too light for them. This changed with a revolution in the makeup industry, which began with various influential people calling out brands for their ignorance.

YouTubers such as Jackie Aina and Nyma Tang have always named-and-shamed brands which never catered to them, and this led to brands collaborating with them to expand their range. Currently, Ain has a range of Too Faced foundations made specifically to fit dark to deep dark shades, and Tang has a MAC partnership for creating lipsticks suited for deep dark skin tones.

Certain brands have always been inclusive and have won the hearts of many for the same; MAC is one such example. A cult favourite, MAC’s foundations and concealers come in a plethora of shades keeping in mind different undertones, and despite its steep price, it continues to do very well globally. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty changed the game when it launched in late 2017, by introducing 40 shades in its foundation, ensuring that everyone found their match.

These brands have paved the way for the industry as a whole to expand: drugstore brands like Maybelline expanded to 16 shades and medium-range brands with stand out products like Tarte concealers, launched 10 shades exclusively for dark skin. However, the situation in India is abysmal. While newer brands like Sugar Cosmetics and Nykaa’s in-house make up range do have some shade diversity, they still largely ignore the darker shades; this is again, ironic, because a significant part of India’s population falls in the ignored skin-tone range.

The worst, however, are the drugstore brands. India’s popular Lakme has three shades at best which go up to fair-medium, and doesn’t do any better in its new range in collaboration with Kareena Kapoor. Colorbar also has very few shades and most of the shades look the same, with no regard for neutral undertones. The global drugstore brand Maybelline, which has a wide range abroad, sells only the former half of its entire collection in India.

A lot of inclusive and affordable brands now retail in India, such as LA Girl, Makeup Revolution, Wet n Wild and NYX. None of these are Indian brands, but are the only options available in the market at present. While the success of these brands indicates that there is a demand for diversity in makeup, Indian brands have not attempted to tap the potential of the same.


Akhileshwari Anand is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University.

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