Ever since I was a little girl, I have had to hear comments about how unfortunate I was to have not inherited my mother’s strawberry and cream complexion. Some so-called ‘well-meaning’ aunts have even gone to the extent of attributing it to her marriage outside her caste leading to the birth of children who were not ‘fair’. Years later, when my own kid was born, I was once again reminded of that comparison as she had supposedly inherited that magic gene from my mother’s family that had deluded me somehow [it’s another story that today she is a dusky teenager!].
Coming to the question, can there be fairness in India without fair skin? We are a nation of more than one billion people with a rich variety of people of different ethnic origins. Despite the diversity, many people across the country have two things in common: a dusky complexion and the desire for fair skin. The pressure is more on the ladies to be fair. Right from the time a baby is born there are remarks made about whether she is fair or dark. In Bollywood films that pull in the crowds, female stars almost always have fair skin. In fact the obsession to marry a fair girl is present even in those parts of the country where dark complexion is not a rarity.
It’s an aspiration that the mass media promotes widely, perpetuating the idea that fair is lovely. This aspiration has created a massive market for skin whitening creams that come in single sachets that cost less than 10 cents to expensive jars costing more than 100 dollars each. Skin whitening cream advertisements fill the airways, promoting fair skin as beautiful. The fair girl is desirable, she attracts attention and envy. The content is deftly manipulated to spread the idea that beneath every dark girl is a fair one waiting to be unveiled. But increasingly ads like these raise a question, are they unfair and ugly, marginalizing other forms of appearance, women who are not fair being made to feel unattractive, unsuitable for marriage, even faring poorly in the dream-job market. In such a society, someone who is dark might find it difficult to have a positive self-image what with teasing by peers at school right through to the times when matrimonial ads making the preference for fair skin no secret . Even some top models like Angela Singh Bais, whose careers take off internationally, are often overlooked in India because of their dusky complexion that is seen only as second best. Dusky women are seen as sexy and sensual but not the images of ‘wholesome goodness’ that India likes to project as the incarnate Indian woman. Until recently dark skinned models did not make it to the cover of magazines, but slowly there has been a shift in attitudes as far as haute-couture is concerned, but it will take years before the mainstream makes this shift, if ever.
For three decades now Fair and Lovely has been the leading fairness cream riding high on campaigns that depict dark-skinned women being snubbed by men, by employers and the answer to all maladies lying in the magic jar or tube that makes the fairy-tale ending available for a few rupees. The ads touch a raw nerve as they tend to be insidious, playing on anxieties that plague the souls of people marginalized by their skin-tone. It is estimated that a whopping two-thirds of Indian women buy skin lightening products. I had myself got myself a tube once and would probably have continued to do so unless my mother had given me a whole new perspective to the meaning of beauty. One other modern trend, as is evident from TV commercials, is that more and more men use fairness creams as well, with top Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan, John Abraham and Shahid Kapoor endorsing these and earning hefty sums in the process as, reportedly, this is a half a billion dollar industry. In so doing they prefer to turn a blind eye to the controversy it creates in insinuating the idea that fairness is a required ingredient for being a worthwhile human being.
Our attitude to foreigners, I dare say, is also guided by this obsession of the fair skin. At the workplace, I see this playing out so very often. When there are client visits from abroad, the fair skinned Europeans and the dark skinned Latin Americans or Africans are offered two different kinds of hospitality. We bend over backwards to make the former see best face of Indian hospitality while we demonstrate a much more relaxed, almost casual, attitude towards the latter. My NRI readers would undoubtedly correct me if I am wrong when I say that if the Indian guy or girl living abroad decides to tie the knot with a foreigner, there is less objection and resistance from the family back home if the new addition to the family is white. This is also apparent in movies where it is becoming increasingly commonplace to see the Indian hero being complemented by a bevy of seductive white-skinned foreigners.
This issue, obviously, is much more than skin-deep. Why do Indians nurture this deep-seated desire for fair skin? Is it a sign of living with the vestiges of colonialialism? Is it a sign of racism? Undoubtedly, it has an element of legacy from history and mythology. It has to do with the fair skinned Aryans coming to India and taking over the subcontinent from the original inhabitants, with the coming of the British and settling as the colonial rulers, with all gods and goddesses [Kali and Krishna, being rare exceptions] being depicted as fair, with associating the color of skin to economic and social power: fair skin with aristocracy and dark skin with menial labor. Therefore we can neither wish it away, nor will banning ads of fairness creams and other skin lightening dermatological treatments change things. The shift in mindsets that have happened so far has only remained at an intellectual level, by no means is it widespread. That the skin color divide is not about bad versus good is far from black and white, pun intended.
Awareness will only spread through debates and discussions on forums like these, if at all.
Photo credit: lizzie-elzingre.suite101.com
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