Many of us have seen Dove’s latest ad campaign as it makes its way around social media sites. Upon initial viewing, my first reaction was, “Wow!” They make a great point about how women view themselves, downplay themselves, and perhaps even emotionally handicap themselves when it comes to their physical appearance. I saw the reactions of the women in the video when they saw their portraits as others described them, and it was heartwarming.
A male friend then sent me a counter response to the video which made me think twice and almost feel ashamed at my initial positive reaction to Dove’s video campaign. Dove has gotten much credit in the past for its Real Beauty campaign, but it has also faced much criticism on whether its ads promote one kind of beauty over another. I myself took issue several years ago with the fact that Dove is owned by Unilever, the company that produces skin whitening creams and markets them in India and other parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia where dark skin is seen as ugly.
This is something I have struggled with, especially as a teenager when everyone is already concerned about their physical appearance, and then the wonderful world of adolescence makes everything 100% more serious, more dramatic. Growing up as a person of Indian descent, I was always surrounded with words and ideas indicating that light skin is more beautiful and dark skin is undesirable, even vile. I was told to stay out of the sun. Friends would wear long sleeves and pants to the beach so as not to get dark. All the Indian magazines and especially the Indian film industry cast light-skinned models and actors. And I’m not just talking about the golden tanned skin of American television and ads — no, even that was too dark for Indian mentality! You could have two identical twins, one light and one dark, and the fairer-skinned one would be favored. Even children’s cartoons depict honorable heroes with light skin and evil villains with dark skin. I recently learned that Facebook users can lighten their profile pictures with Vaseline’s skin-lightening app! How sickening.
When I was younger, I truly felt bad about my skin color, even though I was born and raised in the United States where the opinions on beautiful skin tone are different (but not necessarily better). I had many other Indian friends and family who likewise were obsessed with lighter skin because it is so engrained into Indian culture and society. It goes back centuries and is actually related to ideas about caste/social class, so deconstructing this notion will not be an easy or quick task. It was not until my early twenties that I realized that most people who were not of South Asian descent thought my skin color was beautiful. One friend told me I look great in gold, which is funny since all the Indian gold jewelry ads I ever saw featured light-skinned models! It never crossed my mind before that gold complements brown skin.
I recently watched a Bollywood movie (Wake up Sid!) with my husband in which the female lead (Konkona Sen Sharma) was a beautiful brown tone, but I was surprised that she was even cast! Although her skin is several shades lighter than mine, I could just hear many South Asian movie-goers: “She’s too dark!” I have seen multiple Fair & Lovely advertisements that blatantly tell the public that dark skin will make you unhappy and unsuccessful. Sadly, you don’t even need subtitles to understand the concept.
After reading the counter argument against the Dove sketches, I felt duped. I am usually immune to advertisements, mentally picking apart the ways in which the company is trying to get the public to buy its product. I suppose this was a different type of ad, though, and a very smart one — it did not directly place a product for the viewer to want to buy. It placed an idea, a value, that the viewer would forever link to Dove the next time they were in the skin care aisle of the supermarket.
I have been quite vocal in recent years about my distaste for this mentality about what is beautiful and what is not. I find beauty everywhere between pale, porcelain skin and deeply black skin. My husband appreciates me for who I am and compliments my skin color constantly (in less than romantic ways such as, “Your skin is beautiful golden brown like a roasted turkey!” But I know that comparison to food is the highest compliment =)) The only way we can start to change minds is to teach our children to love their skin color no matter the shade, and to respect other human beings based on values that are more than skin deep.