Light skin is still preferred in India
As both an A-list Bollywood actor and the host of India's answer to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Shah Rukh Khan sets hearts aflutter for all manner of reasons. Now, however, he has been accused of peddling a dream too far - in an advertisement for skin cream.
Khan, 41, a heart-throb star likened to an Indian Tom Cruise, has agreed to promote Fair and Handsome, a skin-lightening cream which panders to a widespread Indian desire for fairer skin. While darker-hued Indians spend a total equivalent to £160 million a year on such products - despite doubts about their effectiveness - the sight of Khan's chiselled features endorsing the cream has angered campaigners, who say it is "racist" to promote lighter skin as superior.
"We are against the product," said Brinda Karat, the president of the All-India Democratic Women's Association. "It is downright racist to denigrate dark skin."
The row over Khan's deal with the Emami cosmetics company reflects growing embarrassment among modern Indians about the popularity of skin-lightening products, which stems from a centuries-old cultural belief that equates fair features with high caste status, good looks and eligibility for marriage.
Protests by Miss Karat's group recently forced another company - Hindustan Lever, the Indian arm of Unilever - to withdraw television advertisements for its women's fairness cream, Fair and Lovely. The advertisements depicted dejected, dark-skinned women, who had been snubbed by employers and men, suddenly acquiring new boyfriends and glamorous careers after the cream had lightened their skin.
Yet most of India's 800 million population are puzzled to hear such creams described as symptomatic of an unhealthy self-image. In the matrimonials, the classified newspaper advertisements through which brides and bridegrooms are sought, a potential bride's porcelain skin is ranked as a more desirable attribute than a university degree. Film stars who are not naturally light-skinned are touched up to look paler on screen.
In everyday conversation, the ultimate compliment on someone's looks is to say someone is gora (fair). "I have no problem with people wanting to be lighter," said a Delhi beauty parlour owner, Saroj Nath. "It doesn't make you racist, any more than trying to make yourself look younger makes you ageist."
The creams' effectiveness is widely disputed, however.
"My maid has been using Fair and Lovely for years and I still can't see her in the dark," said Anuradha Kapoor, owner of a public relations firm. "But she goes on using it. Hope springs eternal, I suppose."
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