Shortly after I turned 15, I had my first stint with a beauty product — Lakme’s soufflé foundation. The darkest shade in that collection had washed me out, leaving a bright yellow tint on my face.
Friends would talk behind my back, “Why can’t she just stop caking up her face?”
Growing up in Kerala with my skin tone (NC 45) was a “life sentence” — where mothers, grandmothers, friends and even strangers would offer fairness tips. Simple routines like ‘washing face’ and ‘scrubbing hard’ would be shared, as if my skin color was dirt and it could be washed away.
Why do advertisements always show white-skinned models?
In 2021, we are not too far from the times when ‘Fair and Lovely’s’ fairness cream advertisements showed that you had to be fair to succeed in life, but the Indian beauty industry is moving at a snail’s pace to include products that can be used by brown-skinned people too.
Go to any major beauty website in India right now and in all probability, you will not find brown-skinned models on their homepage. Because that is a card played only while giving brown people the annual token acknowledgement in a single magazine edition.
Not to mention what passes of as brown skin tones in the beauty industry today are ‘dusky’ Radhika Apte or Bipashu Basu, just celebrities who have the ‘right’ level of melanin in their bodies.
On why we always see white-skinned models in advertisements, Ruchika Bhotra, a senior psychologist from Faculty Minds, Mumbai, said that it is easier to associate white skin with beauty “owing to people’s badly ingrained ideologies of what beauty is.”
“And since ads need to make a strong impact in 10 or 30 seconds, the advertisement world does not bother to make any changes,” she added.
Impact on people
But this misrepresentation has had a staggering impact on us for years.
The impact of the negative portrayal of brown-skinned women in advertisements has made Sarah Sarosh, an occupational therapist and beauty vlogger, feel like her “skin tone wasn’t acceptable in a society — when in reality my skin color was similar to that of the majority.”
Sarah did not feel ‘beautiful enough’ growing up because, she said, “People always had something to say about what I can do to make my skin colour fairer, to be more ‘beautiful’.”
“Every advertisement for any beauty product was aimed at getting fairer. They weren’t advertisements targeting a skin concern, instead it was all about making you fairer,” she added.
On just how bad the lack of representation is, Ruchika said, “We see a huge impact on the mental health of teenagers and young adults and even adults in their 50s and 60s. Teenagers have a very strong sense of understanding difference in skin colour and the sad part is that they are even teased about it in schools because that’s how parents and grandparents are all talking about in terms of the standards of beauty.”
She believes that in the long term, this results in self-confidence issues which are so deep-rooted that it could turn into an inferiority complex. “This complex can affect every aspect of their life. It can hinder them personally, even interpersonally in relationships,” she said.
“As compared to a person who has so called ‘fair skin’, the kind of effort and emotional resilience a person who is ‘wheatish’ has to show is a lot more; a lot more effort has to be put in to gain that confidence, to keep building on to that confidence to believe that they can get the same kind of opportunities as people with fair skin do,” she added.
Research evidence from across disciplines found that women’s lighter skin tone and important life decisions — like education, salary, success in marriage market—had an association, noted a study by Arzi Adbi, Chirantan Chatterjee, Zoe Kinias, Clarissa Cortland and Jasjit Singh on how women's disempowerment pushed them to prefer harsher skin lightening products, reinforcing colourism.
After years of backlash for discriminatory representation of skin colour in their ads, Hindustan Unilever’s fairness cream ‘Fair and Lovely’ turned into ‘Glow and Lovely’.
“However, you cannot disregard the fact that they still have made very strong impacts which they had already created so it’s going to take generations to eradicate this idea of beauty being represented by ‘white skin’,” the psychologist added.
Using such skin-lightening products was one way “structural discrimination” was “biologically embedded” into women of colour, the study revealed.
Not many options for brown skin
As a 15-year-old makeup newbie who discovered that beauty brands also didn’t cater to my skin colour, I had validated this misrepresented idea of beauty.
There was no eye shadow, foundation, CC cream or lipstick from local brands that was dark enough to suit my skin colour. But M.A.C, Makeupforever, YSL and expensive international brands had them. They also had pictures of swatches on brown skin tones.
Beauty enthusiasts echoed similar thoughts on the lack of makeup products for people like me.
Janki Prakash, a postgraduate student in fashion design based in Italy, said that she never used foundation for a long time because it would turn her face “grey”.
This happened because “Lakme, earlier, had white and pink undertones that would often leave me looking white-washed,” she added.
While working as a professional makeup artist in Kerala, Janki recalled she didn’t have a “single Indian product to work on darker skin tones.”
“I had to use a dark colour foundation from Smashbox that my sister bought by mistake. I’d use that on my darker-skinned models and brides,” she added.
She said, “I don’t know which company caters to really brown people. I can’t think of anything other than Fenty or MakeupForever.”
She believed that Rihanna was the one who finally brought in the necessary change in teaching the beauty industry, at least internationally, about the economics of being inclusive with her brand ‘Fenty Beauty’ which Forbes estimated to have raked in a whopping USD 600 million in sales in 2019.
But, the beauty industry in India is not too far from tapping into this potential.
Indian makeup brand Ruby Organics is one of the very few brands that caters to this gap in the industry. “We only cater to brown-skinned and Indian women. Even the colours, pigments and textures that we use have been personalised to Indian skin, which is actually very rare to find,” the founder of the brand, Rubeina Karachiwala, said.
Rubeina spent around five years doing R&D to ensure that her products suit the Indian skin tone. She said, “The highlighter we have for example, one is really light and another that is slightly peachier which can actually stand out on darker skin tones — this you won’t find in a lot of brands. Things like this we have intentionally done from the beginning.”
Indian skin tones cannot be brushed under ‘Fair’, ‘Wheatish’ and ‘Dusky’.
Vineeta Singh, the founder and CEO of SUGAR Cosmetics, said, “Each of these three have at least 10–15 shades within that range. However, consumers and brands, both, have been segregating skin tones only as three shades for the longest time. The fact that every skin tone, be it light, medium or deep, has different undertones is always forgotten. Our content and communication has always been educative, showcasing guides and tutorials to help women identify their true skin tone and purchase the right shades.”
Diversity isn’t a trend, it is a necessity
Karishma, the founder of an inclusive made-in-India beauty brand ‘FAE Beauty’, agreed that the industry is undergoing a transformation, albeit slowly.
She said, “You see very often, a lot of brands representing more colours, but then before launching campaigns or any sort of communication around these people of different colours, they’ll photoshop their models to the point of ‘perfection’ — smoothening out their pores, lightening their skin, even if you’re dusky, it’s ‘the right amount of dusky’. Even if the intention is there, it’s like there’s not much follow-through on it. But international brands outside of India are doing a fantastic job with this.”
She hopes that Indian brands realise that “diversity is not just a trend but an absolute necessity.”
In the past two-three years, homegrown boutique beauty brands like FAE have been cropping up with the intention of being ‘clean’, ‘no cruelty’, ‘inclusive’, ‘organic’ and ‘chemical-free’.
SUGAR cosmetics’ Vineeta said, “The beauty industry has come a long way. However, this deep-rooted belief of ‘fairer is better’ may take some more time to completely be erased. The increase in the exposure to international trends of inclusivity has definitely helped start this positive change in brand and consumer mindsets. In the past few years, we have seen many Indian brands introducing a wider range of foundations suitable for Indian skin tones, and skincare brands signing deeper toned models for their advertisements. We also saw sensitivity to the usage of the word ‘fair’ by a beauty brand, showcasing examples of change.”
While the pressure to be more transparent and more inclusive piles up on FMCG brands, some big corporations have taken baby steps in the right direction.
Dove’s running campaign on bringing back the focus on the idea that beauty can mean anything, and Fair and Lovely’s name change, are all indicative of the slow change swaying the industry.
But we have a long way to go in reversing the years of misrepresentation done by many brands.
Market beauty products to real people
Ruby Organics’ Rubeina believes that change needs to come from both the brands and the consumers, but brands need to take on the responsibility to usher in change in the way beauty is represented.
“We have done research into how the media represents standards of beauty and the impact of it on our mental health. These things affect you at a very subconscious level, what you see and perceive is constantly building up in your mind, you don't realise how it begins to influence your perception, hence I believe brands have to take responsibility, because at the end of the day you are spending huge amounts of money to get views, to get clicks, all these things affect the way people see themselves. This way we are influencing the generation X," she said.
"It is very irresponsible to market something in an unrealistic manner, more than anything, without transparency and truthfulness,” she added.
She believes that “if one of us starts taking responsibility for what we say or do or claim, it will create a ripple effect. It will cause more people to jump on the bandwagon.”
FAE Beauty is one of the brands causing that change.
They hire models who have brown skin colour, those who have textured skin tones, and are of different genders, shapes and sizes. Karishma said, “We are trying to represent as many people as possible in the communication, images and product.”
“I personally see a gap, I see a lack of options for several groups of marginalised people that are not being accurately represented by the industry,” she said on why they wanted to be more inclusive.
The need to do something different stemmed from how she felt walking into a makeup store long ago. “I remember feeling so defeated and deflated, like I could never match up to the standards of beauty being set on young impressionable teenagers like myself back then. But certain groups of brands, unfortunately, a lot of them are international, are doing a fantastic job with this though.”
She added, “We wish we had seen people on ads and billboards whom we could relate to. There’s this sort of boundary that the industry has set on people that ‘beauty is a formula.’ You have to be thin, fair, have sharp features, big eyes, dark hair to look pretty.”
“The results have been very evident for FAE,” the founder said, adding that they’ve had people messaging them saying, "I can buy lipstick online for the first time in my entire life because I can actually see what it will look like on my skin tone because I’m dusky and I’ve never seen a dusky model on a beauty website."
YouTuber Sarah also felt that the brand was on the right path, “The efforts of a small homegrown Indian brand are everything I’ve ever wanted to see in the Indian market.”
Karishma added, “For us, beauty is not a formula, it’s a feeling. For that reason, we don’t touch up our models’ faces, we don’t photoshop their bodies, we don’t correct flyaways. Let’s be real, everyone has flyaways, so why do we have to paint an unrealistic idea of beauty?”