By Sonali Kokra Feb. 07, 2020
You can stop people from peddling fairness products, but you can’t keep them from equating fair with lovely. Yet cracking down on fairness cream ads is a great leap forward. It matters when the most popular men and women in the country are legally barred from telling us dark-skinned girls that this cream or that lotion will magically transform us into a “more acceptable” version of ourselves.
After the cringeworthy global embarrassment of having our Ministry of Magic AYUSH issuing official advisories that recommended what my mom calls “totkas” such as drinking water boiled with tulsi leaves; rubbing sesame oil, balms and other strange potions in the nostrils every morning; and taking diluted versions of a potentially fatal compound to prevent contracting Coronavirus, I honestly didn’t think it could happen. But it has. A few days ago, someone within the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare finally woke up and went to work.
The ministry has proposed several welcome amendments to the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954, to stay apace with changing times and technology. The draft bill forbids the advertising of any product that falsely claims to “cure” diseases they can’t provably cure. Which means no more advertising of products that promise fairer skin. No more telling frenzied parents that this health drink or that energy bar can boost brain capacity, memory, or height. No telling people that this toothpaste or that can make teeth stronger. And no “cures” for ageing or greying.
To show that the government is serious about cracking down on harmful advertising, if the bill is passed, repeat offenders can be slapped with a hefty fine of ₹50 lakh, in addition to a being imprisoned for five years, much, much higher than the measly year-long jail term for repeat offenders under the current law. The list of un-advertisable conditions stands at 78 in the draft bill, a 44 per cent jump from the existing list of 54. There are some truly delightful additions to this list that is undoubtedly going to haunt advertisers for at least the next 45 days, which is the amount of time the ministry has given to the public and stakeholders to come back with objections, comments, and suggestions.
You see, I had the misfortune of being born fair as a ghost, then turning dark in my teen years.
The absurdity of grouping the entirely natural processes of ageing and greying under “disease, disorder, or condition” aside, I couldn’t help but chortle in delight at the impending misfortune of companies and brands that have been, for decades, preying on (mostly) women’s insecurities and hawking remedies to imagined plights such as looking our age and accepting the presence of melanin in our skin.
Before I officially became too old to be married to a respectable Indian man who obviously considered a milky-white bride his birthright, I was among the tens of millions of women of “marriageable women” in India who reluctantly became part of the fairness industry. You see, I had the misfortune of being born fair as a ghost, then turning dark in my teen years. Obviously, that would not do. So, from age 13 to 30, my parents spent lakhs of rupees and much of their time in trying to procure my lost damakta gorapan and sunehra nikhar. Ubtans and pastes were mixed with vigour. Haldi, honey, malai, ghee, lemon, sea-salt… My face masks often had more exotic ingredients than the food we ate, true story. Relatives visiting from the US and Europe were ordered to bring back family-sized packs of lotions and potions with unpronounceable ingredients by my grandmother. She was convinced that the whiteness of the woman on the box would rub off on me. I’d dutifully apply them all.
Between 24 to 29, this obsession with my skin was at its peak. For my 25th, a loving uncle, worried that time was running out and all the “good, rich men” would soon be taken, gifted me a bridal package at a skin “clinic” that included peels, polishes, and other assorted horrors. Now unless you’re an apple, the thought of being polished and peeled should put the fear of god in you. But I didn’t know this then, and so I dutifully went for three (of ten) sessions. At the third session, the aesthetician slathered my skin with chemicals so harsh, it was as if she wanted the skin to melt off of my face. I kept shedding skin for a week after, and was under house arrest for 10 days, too scared to step out into the sun with what felt like burns on my face. My family swore off skin clinics, but the masking and moisturising saga continued.
Tragically, mine’s not an exceptional or particularly extreme story. Millions of girls and women in India endure similar nonsense, bordering on torture, thanks to our collective ridiculous obsession with fairness. I know dozens of women who didn’t learn how to swim in childhood because their families drilled it into their heads that, “nahi, nahi, tan ho jayega, skin kharab ho jayegi”.
I couldn’t help but chortle in delight at the impending misfortune of these companies and brands.
Even today, every time I visit a parlour, when I politely thwart every upselling attempt, the beautician whips out the brahmastra, guaranteed to obliterate every shred of resistance: “bahut tanning ho gayi hai madam, bleaching ki bahut zaroorat hai”, fully expecting me to gasp in fright and submit to her ministrations. There’s a reason women in India ride two-wheelers looking like Daku Mangal Singh, and that reason is not pollution or the fear of cancer. If carcinogens were the concern, the Indian fairness cream market, pumped with chemicals that can’t possibly be a good idea, would not be $450 million and growing.
It’s true, banning the advertising of such products is not suddenly going to cure us of our longstanding love for fairness. Nor is it going to suddenly stop the subtle snubs and ridicule that women with darker skin are often subjected to. You can stop people from peddling the product, but you can’t keep them from equating fair with lovely, or from shamelessly taking out ads seeking gori brides. We need a whole lot more than cracking the whip at brands and their endorsers. But banning these ads is still a great leap forward. It matters when the most popular men and women in the country are legally barred from telling us that this cream or that lotion will magically transform us into a “more acceptable” version of ourselves.
Maybe, if they’d been stopped 10, 15, 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have started looking for 700 signs of ageing while still in my 20s, and spent all that time furthering my career instead of agonising over problems that didn’t exist. And maybe I wouldn’t look at every new white hair like a nail in my coffin. But I’m glad it’s happening now. Here’s to a generation of women who won’t squander away the equivalent of a car’s downpayment on creams and sprays that will make their underarms match their faces.
Sonali Kokra is a journalist, writer, editor and media consultant from Mumbai. She writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle. In her 12-year-long career, she has written for national and international magazines, newspapers and websites. She was last seen as the lifestyle editor of NDTV, and HuffPost.com, and has published a coffee table book on Shah Rukh Khan.