Day 9: In All Fairness

Okay, this is a departure from the prompts which I have been sticking to so far,which are optional in any case, because I really wanted to do a post on this.

Where do the roots of India’s obsession with fair skin lie? Were the seeds of fairness-mania sown around the time the British arrived on the scene? Or was it when the Mughals first came here from the Middle east–they are bound to have been several shades lighter than the indigenous population?

Could it be that repeated colonization led a people to suffer from an inferiority complex, mixed with a sense of awe and admiration for all things foreign, including skin colour? Be that as it might, the fact remains that in a tropical country like ours, where most of the population is fifty shades of brown in colour, this obsession for white skin is unhealthy.

This post by R’s Mom has been at the back of my mind since morning. How much are children affected by the grown-ups’ prejudices regarding skin colour ? As a child, I was  aware that I was considered better-looking than my darker-skinned cousins( by my grandmother and others in the extended family). I didn’t really mind being considered better-looking, so it did not bother me at the time. Today, I shudder to think of how being dark might have affected the self-esteem of said cousins at a very young age.

It was Fair & Lovely that first tapped into the pressure on dark-complexioned women to become lighter-coloured, and it struck gold. In the pre-liberalization days of limited choices, Fair and lovely had a dedicated user-base. I had numerous friends in school who applied the cream religiously. Fair and Lovely advertisements were  and still are notoriously obnoxious–typically showing depressed, dark-skinned women, who had been ignored by employers and men, suddenly finding brand new boyfriends and great careers after their skin had been lightened by the cream.

Now, of course, there are n number of products giving Fair and Lovely a run for its money. Every company–from Nivea to Garnier to Olay to Ponds’–has jumped on to the fairness gravy-train. Advertising today is slicker and less in-your-face, but the message makes itself clear nonetheless. They take care not to call themselves fairness creams –instead, they  claim to ‘lighten’, ‘brighten’ and ‘whiten’. So ubiquitous are they that today you will be hard-pressed to find a day-cream or a moisturizer that does not mention lightening /brightening anywhere on the packaging!

The list of celebrities endorsing these products is formidable. Priyanka Chopra, Kajol, Sonam Kapoor and Esha Deol are only a few of them. Yami Gautam of Vicky Donor fame was the Fair and Lovely face until recently, but looks like she has been offered a more lucrative deal by Garnier, because I recently spotted her in a Garnier Light ad .

The fact that they have started making fairness creams for men too is little consolation– that men are no longer spared the pressure to become fairer doesn’t make it any less unhealthy. And even a superstar like ShahRukh Khan is unable to resist an offer to endorse a ‘mardon wali’ fairness cream.

Even sunscreen lotions sell themselves in India by claiming to protect your skin from becoming darker when you venture out in the sun (which is true in a narrow sense), and not by creating awareness about how UVA and UVB rays can cause much harm to unprotected skin. They know the fear of darkness is more likely to get them new buyers than any scientific mumbo- jumbo.

The ‘Dark is beautiful’ campaign on facebook, headed by renowned actress Nandita Das has been making waves with its powerful ‘ Stay unfair, Stay beautiful’ slogan. It is a fact that these products will continue to sell as long as people buy them. Advertisers will continue to exploit prevailing prejudices and feelings. What you and I can do about it is studiously avoid using any product that mentions any brightening or lightening. And teach our children , again and again, that there is a reason why people in tropical climates are darker–the extra melanin in their skin protects them from the stronger sunlight in these parts. It should actually be accepted as a blessing.

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4 Responses to Day 9: In All Fairness

  1. I read both posts, yours and that of R’s Mom.
    I also checked out Ugich Konitari’s post which R’s Mom has referred to.

    Yes, I agree. Fair skin is at a premium in India. We are “racist” in this regard.
    I secetly suspect the sudden spurt in Indians winning the Miss World/Miss Universe crowns in the nineties may have had something to do with a secret International market plot to dump cosmetics on us. A thousand million people over two thirds of them not “fair” and wishing desperately they were, is not a small market.

    Strangely no one in Africa wishes he/she was fair. They are darker than we are and don’t even notice it. They may envy the White man his power and prosperity, but I wonder if, among themselves, they ever felt inadequate as regards their complexion. Like Africa, The Far east and South America are not concerned with complexion at all. Venezuelans and Mexicans too sport various shades but I doubt if they are obsessed with a fair “European” complexion like us Indians. What is it about us Indians?

    Nowhere is our colour prejudice more evident than in the “marriage market”. Just read the matrimonial columns. We are masters in inventing euphemisms. The term “Wheat complexioned” was possibly coined by Indians specifically for the marriage market. I have no idea just what exactly wheat complexioned means. I conclude it means a complexion the possessor is not really satisfied with but is still hoping to be admitted into the “fair” club as a member.

    I find this term as amusing as the old Middle Class term “High second class” for those who did not pass their exams with a minimum of 60 percent that would qualify them for a First class.
    No one is sure just what High Second Class actually means. Is it between 55 and 60 percent?
    Or anything above 50 percent? No official marks card or certificate ever mentions “High” second class

    Likewise, just how fair (or dark) is wheat complexioned? No one seems to know.

    Coming to children who are affected by this complexion obsession, I admit it is a difficult and challenging task to convince them that a dark skin is not a shortcoming. Kids can be cruel, in their innocence. Fair kids cannot be counseled to avoid noticing and mentioning of dark complexions. By the time the kids grow up, the damage is done and the scars stay on for a lifetime. Some dark persons I know, became more aggressive and concentrated harder on other accomplishments to make up for their dark complexion. This is unfortunate indeed. While becoming better is welcome, accepting darkness as a shortcoming in one’s personality, something to be made up for, is a sad thing.

    Incidentally, I thought this complexion obsession did not affect males as much as it affected females. I am now wiser. There is no shortage of males who wish they had been fairer.
    I had dark friends who frankly told me that if they get a fair girl to marry them they would be happy to relax other considerations, simply because they wanted at least their children to be fairer than they were.

    Height is another area, along with complexion, where no man ever is satisfied.
    However tall he is, he longs for those extra couple of inches.
    This inadequacy was strangely felt by a friend of mine who was 5′ 11″ tall!
    He deeply regretted missing that great benchmark figure for height viz 6′
    Why should 6′ be a benchmark? Isn’t it just a number? Try convincing him! He would wear shoes that gave him what nature denied.

    Another friend once told me :”complexion and height are two qualifications that secretly matter but are never listed officially in ads for jobs, for political and social correctness”. He told me with great conviction, that “other things being equal, the taller man gets the job. When the height is the same, the fairer man gets the job.”

    I wonder if he is right.

    Regards
    GV

    (I am posting this comment at both your blog and that of R’s Mom)

    • Loved your comment GVji. Your observations are astute and spot-on as always. You write so well and so objectively.
      Your friend’s hypothesis may well be true to a large extent, other things being equal. It is certainly true enough in the case of women that other things being equal, the one perceived to be better-looking/ more presentable is a lot likelier to land the job.

  2. R's Mom says:

    I read about the Dark is Beautiful campaign. I am not on FB, but I have heard they are doing great work. I just hope we create a generation who doesnt judge people by their skin colour 😦

    • I hope so too, RM. At least now there is a level of awareness of the issue. When we were little it wasn’t even politically incorrect for people to openly voice their skin-colour prejudices.

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