by Suhasini Jha
“Don’t play too much in the sun or you’ll get dark!” “Look at that poor girl’s complexion, wonder who’ll marry her!” These shrewd comments often passed casually seem familiar, don’t they?
In today’s India, matrimonial ads are not complete unless people state “fair” or “wheatish” or anything but dark as one of the prerequisites. During pregnancy some women eat saffron, convinced it will lighten their baby’s complexion. Young girls with dark skin grow up tackling the typical Indian auntie’s unsolicited comment or advice to “turn” the natural complexion into a luminescent skin tone.
Indians today spend more on Fair and Lovely than they do on Coca Cola and it doesn’t take a genius to guess why. Today rows and rows are filled with the aforementioned magic potion in our supermarkets-promising to lighten the skin tone in less than six weeks.
Wonder what made the bleach seem so innocent and just a “gentle cream”? Our beloved Bollywood and the most prominent stars with their lack of conscience helped keep the ball of internalized racism rolling.
It is well documented: in 1978, Unilever launched Fair & Lovely cream, which features successful Bollywood actors; not hesitating to send out a message that says: ‘Fix your skin color to fix your life’. What this perpetuates is that if you are dark you’re already defeated and not even hard work can do the job that a fairness cream could do for you.
Bollywood itself is dominated with actors that are fair-skinned to play the heroes and heroines on big screens while the roles of criminals and uneducated peasants are kept for the dark-skinned to make the part look “more convincing”.
Actor Nawazzuddin Siddiqui made news for highlighting the industry’s fixation with skin color in this tweet.
Nawazuddin’s tweet is perhaps a response to what Sanjay Chauhan, the casting director for the actor’s film Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, told Deccan Chronicle : “We can’t cast fair and handsome people with Nawaz. It would look so weird. You have to take people with distinct features and personalities when pairing them with him.”
The elitism in skin color that prevails in Bollywood has received a warm welcome on the fashion runways as well. The ramp had once been the space for chocolate-hued beauties in the industry to work with the biggest names in fashion. Reasons offered by print ad executives and fashion show organizers are remarkably similar in this 2010 Open Magazine. Caucasian models look better, are skinnier, and are at par with Indian supermodels and also cheaper.
Even the most renowned fashion designers and advertisers in India don’t shy away from making their obsession with white skin clear to the world. Sabyasachi- a prominent figure in the fashion business promotes his latest collections with Eugeniya Belousova- a milky-complexioned Russian model for the aesthete of his work. He describes his own collection as, “an International styling with an Indian soul”. It is the Indian psyche: that white skin also reads as “international”. Putting a foreigner in your clothes makes your publication or brand look instantly successful and global. However, this is only for the European models as black or Asian models won’t give Indian brands that “international look”.
An excerpt from the Washington Post story further proves the point:
“Indians have a longing for that pure, beautiful white skin. It is too deep-rooted in our psyche,” said Enakshi Chakraborty, who heads Eskimo India, a modeling agency that brings East European models here. “Advertisers for international as well as Indian brands call me and say, ‘We are looking for a gori [Hindi for white] model with dark hair.’ Some ask, ‘Do you have white girls who are Indian-looking?’ They want white girls who suit the Indian palate.”
Recently, a model Renee who hails from Bagicha, Chhattisgarh made headlines for her striking resemblance to music icon Rihanna. The model spoke to Hindustan Times about her struggles of being dark-skinned in a country that fancies the white. “They told me all models are into prostitution. I won’t become a model unless I pleased clients. Being dark had already killed my chances,” recalls the model. Photographers would tell makeup artists to make her 3-4 tones lighter and heavily photoshop her pictures. “Sundar ladki ka makeup toh koi bhi kar sakta hai. The real challenge is to make a dark girl look good and I have done it,” said a makeup artist once publically after doing her makeup. Few are willing to turn around rules. For most of the people, beauty strictly means fair skin. It will take time to rewrite set norms, but I am happy I am part of the change,” she laughs.
Renee claims to bag as much as one third of the work as her fair counterparts and recalls how she was made to feel small and inadequate.
Rihanna came to rescue for this model’s career but many dusky beauties still have to struggle to prove that they are worth it while a Russian model makes it, by just being white.
Few perceive the plague of colourism to be a parting gift of colonization and caste-ism. An elaborate explanation to this could be that white people have always had more power than us. They ruled us for centuries and the natives during the period of colonization experienced racism at the hands of Europeans. These are now the developed nations with better education, wealth and infrastructure. Another clue often offered by many is that the ancient Indian caste system helped drill the idea that being dark equates with being a “lower class-untouchable” and being fair-skinned with being an upper-class “Brahmin”. However, others including researchers are often dismissive of this argument.
“There is no established causal relationship or even correlation between skin color and caste. But … there is a strong perception that skin colour and caste are linked and as long as that perception lasts, it will matter a great deal,” says Radhika Parameswaran, researcher of colourism in India and Professor of media studies at Indiana University. “So there is a widespread and entrenched perception that lighter skin color equals higher caste”, she concludes in an interview.
Perhaps few consider reasoning our affinity to lighter skin with colonization, caste and class but we implicitly let a brand like ‘Fair and Lovely’ and its spin offs become this country’s favourite for decades. If only, we could ditch the delusion that fairness and beauty are synonyms and let the fact that no matter how much Fair and Lovely we smear on our faces, we will never become blonde, sink in.
The unattainable European standards of beauty will continue to push several young girls with indigenous features in a pit of self doubt and the feeling of not being enough. Since, these are no longer subtle biases but a reason to deny people of equal opportunities, it’s not wrong to say that it’s a crime to be dark-skinned in a country of dark people.
Suhasini Jha is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and a journalism student.
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