Of whitening creams and shameless hypocrisy

Being part of the Pakistani community, we have a responsibility to speak up against corporate greed that makes a primarily brown population more insecure than it is

A dark-skinned woman wants to apply for a job as an airhostess to support her old and ailing parents. She is well-qualified for the job. But there is one slight problem. Her dark and reprehensible skin. Why would an airline ever consider hiring a dark-skinned and, resultantly, unattractive woman? That would be tantamount to blasphemy. And we in Pakistan never commit blasphemy, now do we?

This world is indeed an unfair and cruel place. But luckily, there is a socially responsible company out there with just the right product for your problems and insecurities: Fair & Lovely. 14 days of using this product, and you will become not only the fairest girl on the block but also the loveliest. When the girl finds out about this, she rushes to the local supermarket to buy the product. A fortnight later, her skin is whiter than white, she gets the job, and everyone lives happily ever after. A wonderful success story, right?

This was the plot of an advertisement played during the 1990’s that I saw during ad breaks in the cartoon hour shown every evening from 6-7pm. Camp candy, interrupted by 30-second success stories like the one narrated above made for wonderful evenings.

Two decades later, not much has changed. Beauty companies that sell fairness creams in Pakistan still market their products by equating dark with undesirable, and fair with beauty. To an extent, these companies reflect the preferences of a society that is grappling with a fairness complex. However, the same companies are also guilty of cashing in on this insecurity and making it even worse. These companies, which claim to be progressive on so many fronts, shamelessly sell the idea of the ‘Fair & Lovely’ dream every day. The dream of a white, and resultantly beautiful, Pakistan.

Why is selling the ‘Fair & Lovely’ dream problematic, unethical and deeply damaging to the social fabric in Pakistan? Because it perpetuates a monolithic standard of beauty in which there are clear inferiors and superiors. Consider the following advertisement plots: individuals who could not find a suitable life partner, a well-paying job or have any social recognition. What do these three advertisements that have been used by companies over the years have in common?

They equate dark skin with inferiority which leaves absolutely no room to appreciate any skin colour other than white.

Since I am certain that companies like Unilever do not find this argument convincing at all, they should immediately stop hiring job applicants with darker skin in the name of logical consistency. Oh, but that can’t happen because these companies claim to be progressive. Except when it is inconvenient.

If ordinary people start mounting pressure on companies by speaking out against unethical acts that perpetuate Pakistan’s colonial hangover, these corporations might take it seriously

Shameless hypocrisy. I wonder why this phrase just popped into my head.

Let us for a moment assume that companies in Pakistan do understand that selling the ‘Fair & Lovely’ dream is unethical. Why then do they choose to keep selling it even when they claim to be socially responsible? The answer is simple: companies stand to make a lot of money from selling the dream, and there is no one stopping them from doing so.

Why would Unilever ever want to give up one of its most valuable brands when it is perfectly legal to sell them? It might be damaging to the social fabric in Pakistan. But what is that worth compared to the millions of dollars that can be made from capitalising on insecurity and making it worse? Hence, it is unlikely that companies will magically develop a conscience overnight and stop equating dark skin with inferiority. It is equally unlikely that the Pakistani government will suddenly start caring about this issue when it clearly has other priorities at the moment.

Knowing these factors, how can we navigate this space in Pakistan to make it difficult for companies to sell the ‘Fair & Lovely’ dream? The only option other than the government regulation that can seriously impact corporate behaviour is the societal pressure. If ordinary people like you and me start mounting pressure on companies by speaking out against such unethical acts that perpetuate Pakistan’s colonial hangover, companies might take it seriously. If enough people speak out, companies will take it seriously.

In a similar vein, this op-ed is a humble attempt to speak up against the ‘Fair & Lovely’ dream. I believe that being part of the Pakistani community, we have a responsibility to speak up against such corporate greed that makes a primarily brown population more insecure than it currently is. And maybe, after sustained pressure on corporations, we might see a day when instead of selling the ‘Fair & Lovely’ dream, companies start selling a colour-freedream that is inclusive and responsible.

The writer is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and has worked in the marketing department of Unilever Pakistan. Email mkchattha@gmail.com

Published in Daily Times, April 3rd 2018.