Buy skin cream, purchase a dream

Fair and Lovely: Hope in a bottle for the Indian sweeper woman? A reader writes

By Andrew Leonard
Published February 14, 2007 3:52PM (EST)

Yesterday's post on the politics and economics of Fair and Lovely skin-whitener cream sparked an anonymously signed reader letter worth highlighting:

I am a woman who grew up in India and now lives in the U.S.

There is undoubtedly a skin color bias in Indian society and originally the Fair and Lovely ads used to be targeted at young middle-class women of marriageable age who wanted to improve their chances in the marriage market. So, when I read of a woman on a lower rung of the socio-economic ladder buying and using that product, I see an aspirational aspect to her purchasing decision.

And I laud the fact that she has the wherewithal to make that choice/decision. Because, twenty years ago a woman from the sweeper class would NOT have had that option.

However, people on that lower rung do tend, in general, to be darker than people on higher rungs. So, the extent of skin lightening that the sweeper woman expects or needs is quite different from what the slightly better off college student does. Also, the sweeper is nobody's fool. She has a more keenly developed sense of how much she has to work to be able to buy a tube of Fair and Lovely, and what other purchases she has to forego in order to make that purchase. Also unless the product actually works--- she can find out in a matter of months just how much skin lightening has occurred -- the sweeper woman is likely to stop using the product relatively quickly as well.

The bottom line, according to me, is this: in a life defined by back-breaking hard work, living in shanties and having no self-nurturing options, the tube of Fair and Lovely offers a tiny respite. If HLL makes a profit along the way, so be it.

BUT, here is where my contrarian view comes in: the advertising is undoubtedly deceptive. There is something ghoulish about selling "hope in a bottle" not to upper class women, but to those who have the least. Surely HLL can figure out a way to market the product as something other than a skin lightener while also keeping its aspirational allure?

Or, to make up for profiteering from the product's dubious promise, fund other initiatives (night school, public service campaigns about health/nutrition, free magazine subscriptions) that do more to empower and enlighten (pun not intended!) their consumers?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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