Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fifty Shades of Sepia

Fifty Shades of Sepia
Skin lightening vs. accepting diversity in South Asian advertising, fashion & showbiz

Laaleen Khan

Makeup by Vani Nath; Photo by Chang
(An abbreviated version of this has been published in Libas magazine).

* Featuring exclusive interviews with Aaminah Haq (New York), Aamir Mazhar (Dubai), Atiqa Odho (Karachi), Cyrus Dalal (Mumbai), Faisal Farooqui (Lahore) Humayun Farooq (Karachi), Kavita Emmanuel (Chennai), Mariam Omer Farooq (Lahore), Maryam Rahman Agha (Karachi), Mehrbano Sethi (Lahore), Natasha Saigol (Lahore), Vasanth ‘Vani’ Nath (Mumbai). 

* Special thanks to Amber Rauf at Lowe & Rauf (Karachi), Payal Kripalani (Mumbai), Tanya Hingorani at EnGild (Mumbai), Zofeen Saigol at Pitch Media (Lahore).

If advertising mantras are anything to go by, people tend to covet what they don’t—or can’t—quite have. When ivory skin yearns for a bronze tan, a subsequent sunbathing trip to a beach, tanning salon (or a cosmetics counter for discreet self tanner) is in order. However, when mocha complexions desire a peaches-and-cream transformation, the results can be more extreme.

Alek Wek
Five years from now, estimates that the worldwide skin lighteners market will be worth a whopping $20 billion, thanks to women and men from Africa, Asia Pacific and the Middle East striving for lighter looks. Poverty levels seem to have little effect on beauty choices within the same continent that produced supermodels Iman (Somalia) and Alek Wek (Sudan): the WHO ascribes Nigerian women as the world’s highest users at 77%, followed by 59% in Togo and 27% in Senegal. Among tropical Asian climes, drastic trends include vaginal whitening in Thailand, and Glutathione products ingested in excessive amounts topically, orally and intravenously in the Philippines to reduce users’ melanin levels. Asian Scientist Magazine estimates China’s current skin-lightening industry at $5.5 billion and India’s to reach $3.6 billion by next year. Not quite what Bing Crosby alluded to when he sang, ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.’

The great Bollywood whitewash
In the Indo-Pak subcontinent, ‘whitening’ facials are a common staple at both high-end spas and low-end salons, while the retail sector brims with multinational ‘lightening’ products and mass-marketed ‘fairness’ creams.
Cyrus Dalal Photography

Mumbai-based fashion photographer, Cyrus Dalal, feels that “selling insecurity has been the modus operandi” of multiple industries over the last century. He explains, “A conglomerate of industries…keep people from feeling satiated about their present state…The possibility of feeding people solutions for ‘fixing’ themselves to achieve perfection handcrafted by cosmetic giants is limitless.”

Photo by Maryam Rahman Agha
“There is a long history behind the obsession with light skin, owing to caste and culture,” says photographer Maryam Rahman Agha of Wonder Years, Karachi. “South Asians are very racist and this deeply ingrained notion is perpetuated by peer groups, magazines, billboards and TV adverts…focusing mainly on 'fair skinned beauties’ often fabricated through Photoshop techniques! Bollywood stars and cricket players regularly endorse this idea by appearing in ads for skin-whitening products.” 

Bollywood celeb endorsements of skin lightening products

In 2009, Kavita Emmanuel, Founder Director of Women of Worth (WOW), launched India’s ‘Dark is Beautiful’ movement aiming to “address the toxic belief that a woman’s worth is measured by the fairness of her skin.” Emannuel elaborates, “Using fair-skinned actors has been the norm in Indian cinema in general. There have been instances of a few actors who are dark and have gained popularity in spite of the bias associated with dark skin. What is shocking is how some of our current fashion designers believe that Indian clothes just look better on European models, and (that) fair skinned models sell their designs better. Fashion photographers who would like to work with dark skinned models are discouraged by clients.  So the European-looking agenda can be seen in all media, not just Bollywood.” 

Makeup by Vani Nath; Photo by Chang
Mumbai-based makeup artist/filmmaker Vasanth ‘Vani’ Nath would have to disagree. In my experience till now in the (fashion and showbiz) industry, a natural and bronzed look is considered much more glamorous…I’d think an actress like Deepika Padukone looks lovely bronzed,” he says. “Lots of darker skinned models have entered our fashion industry and become huge successes.”

Amy Jackson
Celina Jaitley
Nargis Fakhri
Yana Gupta
Despite assurances by industry professionals, Bollywood continues to import Eurasian and Caucasian women (along with Hispanic and Arab) in what Britain’s Daily Mail calls ‘the Katrina Kaif effect’ that has seen an influx of would-be starlets including Brit Amy Jackson, Brazilian Giselli Monterio, Mexican Barbara Mori, Czech-Pakistani Nargis Fakhri, German-Indian Evelyn Sharma, Moroccan Naura, Swede Elli Avram, Russian Kristina Akheeva, Dutch Victoria Koblenko and Aussie Tabrett Bethell.

Evelyn Sharma

Aaminah Haq in a makeup-free selfie

Veteran Pakistani model and New York-based Brand Manager for Isabelle Lancray USA, Aaminah Haq says “Other than Kareena (Kapoor) and Katrina, all the major players in Bollywood like Priyanka (Chopra) and Deepika are very desi girls with a healthy golden/bronzed complexion.” Citing actor-models Aamina Sheikh and Amna Ilyas as examples, she asserts, “The most beautiful in Pakistan have always been the women with beautiful, bronzed skin. It's about time we embrace our inner beauty and love ourselves for who we really are.” 

Bipasha Basu

“Bollywood has a few darker skinned complexions such as Deepika, Bipasha (Basu) and Rani Mukherjee because it has a variation of states it caters to,” opines Dubai-based Aamir Mazhar of Savvy PR & Events. 

“Darker skinned models have made it in Pakistan like Iraj Manzoor and Neha Ahmed because of their camera posturing and catwalk abilities.”
Neha Ahmed

Tall, dark and handsome?
Fair and Handsome campaign, India
Men, it seems, are similarly keen consumers of skin lightening products in the subcontinent. India’s Business Standard reports how, prior to Emami’s launch of ‘Fair and Handsome’ for Men (currently endorsed by Shahrukh Khan), 30% of Indian males used women’s fairness creams. This was rapidly followed by Fair & Lovely (FAL)’s ‘Max Fairness’ for men (endorsed in Pakistan by cricketers Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Mailk), Garnier Men Powerlight (endorsed in India by actor John Abraham) and product lines by Nivea for Men and L’Oreal that extend to men’s grooming and skincare products offering oil control, sun protection and face wash.
Max Fairness campaign, Pakistan

It doesn’t get any more macho and rugged than the Pakistan Army, reportedly the biggest consumer of FAL in the country. “Our consumer connects showed that there was a significant proportion of closeted male users of Fair and Lovely products who use products purchased by mothers, sisters and wives,” explains Humayun Farooq of Unilever Pakistan, which produces the Max Fairness line for men. This was not a major surprise…We promote (the) usage of safe fairness solutions which produce results over a longer period of time and are not instant in nature. None of our brands produce instant fairness on immediate contact. A thin film of cream covers the face which, based on the complexion of the consumer can give the effect of foundation but not more.”

Glamourizing brown-ness
While many people across the developing world continue to be ‘colonised’ by a white-is-better/happier mentality, there are celebrities who speak out about the phenomena.

Indian-origin supermodels Lakshmi Menon and Ujjwala Raut triumphantly appear on the runways of European couturiers in “an industry that’s dominated by blond-haired, blue-eyed women” (as Menon puts it to’s India Ink while actress Freida Pinto causes a frenzy of flash photography each time she hits the Hollywood red carpet. Notably, it is only after their international successes that they were invited to grace the covers of leading Indian glossies. “It is more shameful than hypocritical,” says WOW’s Emmanuel. “Our industries are not hiding the fact that they prefer lighter skinned models. Having said that, kudos to our ladies for not giving up on their dream and shaking things up internationally.”

Although I worked in India for several years, I never had much success since all the big ad campaigns featured Bollywood starlets,” admits Menon, while Pinto confides to The Independent that “people (in India) are so fascinated by white skin…there are actors who admit it–the fairer you are, the easier it is…The amount of pancake cream on your face is ridiculous…If a cream can give you confidence then you really have to check your whole confidence department in the first place."

Kavita Emannuel attributes celebrity supporters to help her campaign “gain visibility” within India and internationally. “They have helped jump start conversations in the media as well,” she says. “It’s great to receive support from within the industry especially when it comes to us challenging the industry to change their approach to selecting talent or even portraying stereotypes.”  
Nandita Das

Actor Nandita Das, celebrity spokesperson for Dark is Beautiful, told the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, “When I do an urban character or if I do an affluent educated character then invariably, either the make-up artist or director or somebody will come and kind of sheepishly tell me ‘I know you don’t like to lighten your skin but because you’re playing an educated character, maybe you should.’”

Reportedly, other Bollywood actors who have refused to endorse fairness creams include Akshay Kumar, Esha Gupta, Bipasha Basu, Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma.

Aaminah Haq during her modeling career
Aaminah Haq also expresses derision on the subject. I am actually a huge anti skin lightening/skin bleaching-agent advocate,” she says. “I find these products racist, degrading and insulting our collective intelligence. When I started modeling (in Pakistan), there was this trend to whiten models which translates to make up artists applying a porcelain base so that you have an unhealthy chalky continence…I would insist make up artists keep my make up as close to my natural skin tone so that I don't look like a geisha girl. However, (after) Photoshop, all of us were bleached to desi gora standards of beauty which is ridiculous as 90% of the women in the subcontinent are not Snow White beauties!”
Cyrus Dalal Photography

“The fashion industry to a certain extent does represent all skin tones,” says Cyrus Dalal. “Most of our top ramp models are of a darker hue…Advertising is where there is a big discrepancy between skin tones.  Bollywood as well doesn’t cater to darker skin tones.”

The ‘Miss America’ race-storm
Stoic despite the flurry of racist comments about her ‘terrorist’ ethnicity among Americans and her ‘dark’ complexion by Indians, Miss America 2013 Nina Davuluri (a New Yorker of South Indian origin) revealed to The Washington Post, “(In India), the more fair-skinned you are, the more beautiful you are. And they spend tons of money on skin-lightening creams, bleaches, products, and here (in the USA) it’s vice versa; we spend so much on tanning products.”
Nina Davuluri's Bollywood dance performance

Kavita Emmanuel describes Davuluri as “inadvertently” becoming “an icon for racial and colour discrimination.” She adds, “She is Indian American and yet, was criticized by both these countries. By choosing to rise above the discriminatory comments, she is truly promoting and celebrating cultural diversity. My question to our nation is, ‘instead of celebrating that an Indian won a contest, why are we shocked? Why are we unable to accept her success? Is the colour of her skin really that big a deterrent for us to celebrate with her? We are so bothered by the racist remarks made by Americans. Fair enough. But how about looking at racism or colourism to be more precise in our own nation against our own people?”
Freida Pinto

I feel like this whole idea of wanting something that you don't really have is also very American in a way,” notes Freida Pinto. “They love tanning! Why the hell are you tanning that much? Then in my country people want a fairer skin tone! It's just crazy…So when I was that Indian export that went to America and people were wanting that natural tan – which I don't really have to go through tanning (to acquire) – they were excited to include something in their culture, into their film industry, that was not really there already. Or not properly or appropriately represented. So I just feel that this was a change.”

‘Lightening’ vs. ‘brightening’ claims
For many, it seems that the intent is to even out the complexion rather than effectively lighten all of the skin.

One of the main facts is that some people develop uneven pigmentation due to unprotected exposure to the sun. These (lightening) products are essentially sunblocks at the end of the day and can help with that,” explains Aamir Mazhar.

Garnier Pakistan
As CEO of Luscious Cosmetics, Mehrbano Sethi affirms, "South Asian skin tones are extremely prone to uneven pigmentation and this is their main concern, as well as good coverage in liquid and powder foundation products. ‘Skin-lightening,’ as such that it pertains to products that lighten dark spots and pigmentation, even out skin tone and texture and provide adequate sun protection, are necessary to address regional skin problems and concerns. This is in stark contrast to mass market brands that encourage skin-bleaching or a skin colour several shades lighter than is natural, which I believe are highly unethical and lack sufficient regulation in Pakistan…I can attest too the fact that the preoccupation with lightening, defined as obtaining a skin color several shades lighter than your own, has waned over the years. The quest for the South Asian woman, like any other in the world, is for a relatively flawless, radiant, even complexion without dark spots or pigmentation.” 

Regarding cosmetics products marketed as ‘brighteners’ in western countries and ‘lighteners’ in the eastern hemisphere, Sethi says it’s “a rose by any other name... The global product category for over-the-counter lightening/brightening/whitening products that contain a regulated percentage of active ingredients and are available without a doctor's prescription, is essentially the same, utilizing the different names or terms that resonate with their target market, culture and region. Caucasian women do not respond at all well to ‘whitening,’ but will rush to buy a ‘brightening’ product to lighten freckles and dark spots. Asian women respond to ‘whitening’ and ‘lightening.’ Brands like Shiseido in Japan use ‘white’ as a preface to an entire skincare range.”
John Abraham for Garnier Men, India

Fairness products also act as preventive and protective agents against sunlight, dirt, ageing and other deterrents,” explains Humayun Farooq of Unilever Pakistan. “They ultimately nurture the skin for the future and make (users’) outlook and self perception positive.”

Shades of beauty
An image from Atiqa Odho's ad campaign
“Being beautiful makes a woman feel powerful.” is how Atiqa Odho puts it in the philosophy of Odho Cosmetics, with a product line that includes an SPF 15 face powder in warmer shades like Walnut, Chocolate and Coffee.

Luscious Cosmetics’ only skincare product, Ultra Protective Whitening Base SPF 35, is described as “a multi-tasking suncreen, makeup primer, and moisturizer that has skin-clarifying and dark-spot fading properties.” Explains Mehrbano Sethi: “We use the term ‘Whitening’ in the product name because it was inspired by a Japanese formulation now commonly known as BB cream and is meant to convey radiance, skin clarity and an even skin tone to the Asian consumer.”

Rooshanie Ejaz styled by Natasha Saigol
Light skinned complexions are our country’s idea of beauty but I find it to be an old school of thought,” says Natasha Saigol, head stylist and makeup artist at the Natasha Saigol Salon in Lahore. “In some cases, I have been requested to go lighter and in a few of these cases I have. I stick to my own expertise and encourage clients not to go lighter and to be confident in their own skin tones. I believe that pictures should portray what the model and her make-up is actually looking like because after all, Photoshop can make anyone look beautiful.”

By Mariam O Makeup Studio
Mariam Omer Farooq, a makeup artist who produces Kishmish organic products in Lahore, explains, “Brides with darker skin always want to look five shades lighter than their usual tone…I have yet to meet someone who has asked me to stay true to their complexion unless they are naturally fair. I have always had to 'whiten' people up!” 

Sonia Mishal; Photo by Faisal Farooqui of Dragonfly

“If you take advertising work for example, all the models are overdone and their skin tones are way different (than actuality),” explains fashion photographer Faisal Farooqui of Dragonfly in Lahore.  “In bridal (photography) we try to keep in close to natural (skin tones). In the end, it’s always a customers' choice and preference.”

As a photographer, it is exciting to work with dramatic and varied skin complexions like one would experiment with different colours on a canvas,” says Maryam Rahman Agha. “However, working on a commercial project it is understood that the client is by and large looking for light skinned models to represent their brand. Experimental fashion shoots are an exception,” she adds. 

The verdict
A Caucasian model for Emami India's Zyada campaign
 “There is a South Asian mindset that ‘fair (equates) beautiful’ which will take time to balance in the minds of consumers at large,” admits Humayun Farooq. “In most cases, we believe that skin lightening products (offer) comfort and confidence to a South Asian.”

Change has to begin in our homes and permeate into other arenas,” stresses Kavita Emmanuel. “Aren’t we a nation with 1.2 billion shades of beautiful?”

As Aaminah Haq puts it, “I am a brown girl and I embrace it. Too bad if someone else can't.”


Think about it...would any of these talented young Hollywood success stories have made it as Bollywood A-listers? Why not?

Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project)
Aziz Ansari (Parks & Recreation)

Reshma Shetty (Royal Pains)

Sendhil Ramamurty (Beauty & the Beast)

Dilshad Vadsaria (Revenge)