Fair & Lovely

Published in MARIE claire, november 2012 


I WAS 9 WHEN MY FATHER, an airline pilot, transferred from Karachi, Pakistan, with its chaotic hustle and bustle, to Islamabad. I loved to ride my bicycle along its elegant, calm, tree-lined streets and parks, but I began to notice that the time I spent outside was darkening my brown complexion. While my natural color was a medium shade that, in the right light, bordered on wheatish, I would never pass for fair in Pakistan—a nation obsessed with light skin. This seemed all the more unjust as my brother, a couple of years younger, was much fairer. So, one morning, to counteract the effect of my sun-tanned skin, I patted my face with talcum powder before heading out. A chatty lady from the neighborhood waved me over with a message for my mother, and asked why in the world I had powder all over my face. I mumbled something about dropping the flour and then quickly biked away. Sometime after that, I came home from school and noticed the trademark pink tube of Fair & Lovely, a popular bleaching cream, on my dresser.

Apparently I wasn’t as good at hiding my insecurities about my skin color as I had thought. The tube beckoned, but I hesitated, thinking of my father’s assurances that I was beautiful the way I was. Plus, the cream made dark skin seem like a defect—as if my color was an ailment and Fair & Lovely the cure. Curiosity won out and I finally tried some, making sure no one was around. After applying as directed, I stared at my face in the mirror. The ads, with their dramatic before-and-after pictures, had given the impression that some sort of instantaneous, Cinderella-like transformation was going to take place. But I didn’t feel or look any different. Instead, I felt myself becoming angry with my mom for buying me the cream. I stuffed the tube in a drawer and forgot about it.

It is difficult to say exactly where the preoccupation with light skin in South Asia comes from. Whether the British left it behind as part of their legacy of white supremacy, or it dates further back to the ancient Hindu scriptures, where light skin symbolized purity and higher status, the message is now everywhere in popular Pakistani culture. The lightening cream merchants have tapped into a deep cultural well and touched a nerve, promoting the already familiar notion across much of Asia that lighter is better.

Fair & Lovely, for instance, which launched in Pakistan in 1985 after great success in India—and which     quickly landed at the top of the lightening cream segment—successfully plays into the notion that fair skin is prettier than dark. It dangles the prospect of better marriage prospects, and academic and career success. (While geared toward women, there is now a men’s line, as well.) The industry is worth an estimated $50 million a year in Pakistan alone. The Fair & Lovely ads promise results within four to six weeks, and while the product lists ingredients on its packaging, a number of less-reputable whitening brands do not. In some cases, the latter have caused rashes and blotches.

The older I got, the more I understood that fair skin was more than a matter of beauty in Pakistan. It was a status symbol, an indicator of class—far more than just skin deep.

I inherited my complexion from my father, but for men in Pakistan, being dark isn’t quite the same. Women found him dashing. The fact that he was a pilot just added to his rakish charm. Visitors to our house would take one look at my face and declare, “Masood, she is your ditto copy.” My father would grin proudly. When I was very young, it made my head swell. I was the apple of his eye and wouldn’t have wanted to look like anyone else in the world.

Yet the comments I received, while not meant to wound—and at times were even meant as compliments—began to hurt. My great grandfather for instance, would declare that I had been sent from heaven to protect Pakistan from the evil eye. He was comparing me to a kaala teeka— a black mark placed on the body to ward off evil spirits from harming the wearer. I was also compared to especially dark Indian actresses during the ’80s when the Pakistani film industry was smothered by the military regime’s censorship and pirated Indian movies became the mainstay of our entertainment. “You have Anu Agarwal’s looks,” one of my aunts would tell me, referring to the swarthy, sensual film debutante. But poor Anu’s career as a leading lady didn’t last very long. She was considered exotic, not mainstream.

In school, my classmates were less flattering. One day, when they saw my mother dropping me off, they expressed disbelief. “But you look nothing like her,” they told me. “You’re so…dark.” I came home in tears. My father assured me that my complexion was beautiful, and that people all over the world who he’d encountered on his travels would bake in the sun for hours to achieve my color. But I was not out in the world, I was at home, in Pakistan.

We lived in Islamabad for just a year before moving back to Karachi. Media in Pakistan was picking up under a new regime and Karachi was the epicenter. Satellite channels, magazines and radio stations were popping up. The market was opening to new products, promoted through flashy TV spots featuring local boy bands from the emerging music scene, or models in T-shirts hawking soft drinks and ice cream on billboards. Things were changing in Pakistan. They were about to change for me, too.

My brother and his friends were interested in modeling, and when they went for an agency visit, I tagged along for fun. We entered a sparse, modern office located in the top floor of Karachi’s new, and only, upscale mall. We were called into a room and seated around a conference table. The talent agent, a middle-aged man with spiky hair and a half smile glanced around as he handed forms for us to fill out. He handed one to me. Embarrassed, I started to give it back. “Just fill it out sweetie, even if you’re not applying,” he said. I wrote in the information about my height, weight and interests. Then they photographed us before we left.

A month later, the agency called. My brother picked up. His excited expression suddenly disappeared as he handed me the phone. “It’s for you…” The agency had a commercial, the man said, and they thought I might be what they were looking for. Could I come in the following week to shoot a screen test?

My aunts had modeled for catalogs and women’s magazines when they were younger, and while surprised I had been chosen, they were supportive, giving me advice on how to present myself. I’d never posed in front of a camera, except for in family photos and at weddings, and the brisk pace of the shoot and the photographer’s disinterested attitude were unnerving to say the least. But I somehow passed the test and shot an ad for soap.

That ad turned into another for ice cream, then a full print and TV campaign for a telecom. I started hosting a primetime infotainment program on the country’s largest TV channel, and produced segments about women entrepreneurs for another. A year later, I won the best female model award at the Indus television network Music Awards. (Indus is a major Pakistani media company.)

That alone should have laid to rest my insecurities about my appearance—but it didn’t. Nor did it help that a number of successful colleagues in the industry were my shade, or darker, especially after a veteran commercial and fashion photographer told me that more often than not clients wanted fair-skinned girls in their commercials.

As my career progressed, I started to take note of just how far they were boosting my skin tone, especially in print. When I saw my billboard for 7UP unfurled on the side of an apartment building, I wondered who the fair-skinned girl was. The people passing by would never have made the connection between the real me standing there on the street and the billboard overhead.

Then the call came from Fair & Lovely, which wanted me for a campaign for a new cold cream. The memory of that pink tube on my dresser flashed through my mind. But it wasn’t for the lightening cream, I reasoned, and it might prove to everyone that my complexion was good enough to representsuch a famous brand. I said yes.

The first day of the shoot was straightforward, a series of portraits against a plain backdrop. My hair was pulled back into a ponytail and a few dabs of oil were applied to my face for shine. I wondered why lighting and makeup were so minimal, but thought nothing more of it until the next day, when a light-color foundation was applied and the photographer used bright lights. My natural complexion, I realized, was the “before” picture that the cream was promising to fix. (The product, it turned out, had brightening agents.) I was miserable.

Several months later, my billboard for Fair & Lovely towered overlooking one of the busiest intersections of Karachi. Two partially overlapping versions of my face looked out over the traffic. The darker one peered out awkwardly from behind the bright, smiling visage, like an envious twin. Instead of liberating me from my demons, the ad seemed to frame them larger than life. I had willingly participated in this charade, I thought. I had offered myself up as someone whom others were free to judge, and why? Who has the right to decide what is beautiful? For the first time, I felt angry about having ever felt ashamed that I wasn’t fair.

A year later, I moved to New York and married a man who couldn’t understand why I’d ever ever felt bad about my skin color. Like my father had, he cited the throngs of beachgoers tanning themselves as evidence that I was crazy. Although this past winter was mild. I was too busy to venture outside. After the weather got warmer, in anticipation of spring, my husband remarked. “You should go out and get some sun; you’ve become so pale.” I had to laugh.