For most African-Americans, it’s hard to comprehend that India of all countries would struggle with issues surrounding light and dark skin. So many of us simply associate such realities with our own communities and don’t realize that those issues also play out in other parts of the world. But the ample press that a Facebook page, officially known as “Vaseline Men Be Prepared”, aimed at Indian men, not women, allowing them to upload their pictures and then adjust it to see how Vaseline products can lighten their skin for a “fairer” or “whiter” complexion, has generated certainly proves just how pervasive this issue truly is. Interestingly, many of the reports in this company have not centered upon the psychology of why skin lighteners are such a viable market in India. Instead, the prevailing question is: why would a product as respectable as Vaseline exploit that psychosis?
The easy answer is “profit”. And, let’s be clear, skin lightening products in India are very profitable. In fact, so much so that, even before this Facebook page appeared, BBC News had done a story about the market as early as 2003. Therefore, Vaseline isn’t doing anything that is deemed culturally insensitive in India. It’s quite the opposite. Pankaj Parihar, representing the global advertising firm Omnicom which designed the campaign, shared that “the response has been pretty phenomenal” with Agence Presse-France when questioned about the campaign that launched in the second week of June.
Back in the U.S., as previously suggested, the response hasn’t been so rosy. Many Americans, white and black, are simply appalled. Given our knowledge of racism in this country, we understand that this market exists in India precisely because of racism. Like many other countries of color throughout the world, India has an entrenched history of colonialism and the preference for lighter skin is a lingering vestige of that. While many of us feel that it is in extremely poor taste for Vaseline to capitalize on that, we must realize that it’s not very different from what the cosmetic industry does on a regular basis.
One does not need smooth skin to navigate life. It’s desirable because, for women especially, men find smooth skin attractive. Last year, the Indian matrimonial site Shaadi.com conducted a poll of nearly 12,000 people and skin tone was the most important criteria for choosing a partner in three northern Indian states. For most of us in the United States, we don’t really notice the difference in skin tone of most Indians. Even in the Facebook ad, Bollywood actor Shahid Kapur doesn’t appear that dramatically lighter from image to image. In India, however, the slightest change is dramatic.
American companies or products as associated with the U.S. as Vaseline are often charged with racial insensitivity in incidents such as this one but Vaseline, like L’Oreal, Garnier and Nivea who also promote the skin lightening properties of their products in India, is not being racially insensitive in this instance. In the market Vaseline serves, they are culturally on the money. The market demand is for a product that lightens one’s skin and they are meeting the market demand.
Morally, however, they fall short. In the United States, there are times in which we demand that our companies or beloved products take the high road and put social responsibility above profitability. Such demands are not necessarily made in other countries. Now, skin lightening creams also exist in the United States but they differ in the fact that many are not used as much to lighten the skin as they are to even out skin tones. Ambi, a leader in the field, zoned in on this message a few years back and now promotes its products as skin tone “eveners” and not “lighteners”. Neutrogena even drafted Gabrielle Union at one point to also communicate the ability of their products to even out African American skin tones.
How does what is happening in India differ from the multi-million dollar African-American hair weave market in the United States? Although many African-American women style their hair in various ways, quite a lot of women who weave their hair are motivated by the fact that longer hair, curly or straight, is viewed as more attractive. In India, it’s lighter skin.
While it’s heartbreaking in the 21st century that a country such as India still feels that lighter skin is more attractive, it is reality. In April, Vogue India tried to promote darker skin as more desirable by featuring models with darker skin on its cover. If Vaseline stopped selling its product tomorrow, the desire for fairer skin would not disappear in India. That will only change through conscious efforts by magazines and other entertainment entities to promote all shades of beauty.
Even sadder, however, this controversy might not exist at all in this country if Vaseline had targeted women over men. After all, skin lightening creams have targeted Indian women for years now. Only recently, did it begin targeting men. There’s a greater tendency in this country to believe that, physically, men are alright just the way they are. Had Vaseline implemented this Facebook tool for women, would it have generated as much media attention? After all, the multi-billion cosmetic industry thrives on exploiting women’s insecurities and society’s perceptions of what constitutes beauty. Where is the outrage about that?