“Fair skin is a requirement” – announced one of the ads from the matrimonial section of the newspaper and that is when my grandfather decided to drop that person from the list of the potential grooms for his eldest daughter. Thinking at the edge of my window while mother narrated the story – I wondered, has beauty since time immemorial been associated with being fair? Is it that my dark complexion is not suitable enough for society? Or is it possible that this notion has been fed to us unconsciously? Is it so that different stakeholders have done nothing but made profits out of the plight of the others?
These questions came to light for many when Hindustan Unilever Limited decided to drop the word ‘fair’ from their most selling product ‘Fair & Lovely’ and instead sell it as ‘Glow and Lovely’. Many started to question these patterns after these profit-driven companies, media and entertainment industries took an effort to deconstruct this core belief of colour prejudice/colourism. The motto for this product suggests, “to inspire women to create their own identity”, while the implication of this product reveals/narrates lack of confidence, undesirability and prosperous futures exclusively for fair-skinned individuals.
Such products have innumerably tried to alter the understanding of beauty and provide a benchmark for a particular skin type while demeaning others. This tag line, hence, proves to be quite ironical while strengthening deep-rooted stereotypes. Truckloads of commentary around this issue reveal the stranglehold skin tone has had at the workplace, home and with strangers – with common quotes being, “dhoop mein matt nikal, kaali ho jayegi (don’t go out in the sun, your skin tone will get darker); itni kaali ladki hai, rishta kaise hoga (due to your dark skin tone, how will you get married)?” Many who face discrimination based on their colour have had a positive outlook towards the same, while others resort to these fairness creams.
Tracing The Roots Of Coloured Biasedness In India
Given the political environment of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and numerous other anti-racist protests, it becomes only essential to reassess how such stereotypes are strengthened and engrained in an individual. While desiring fair/white skin has been entrenched in our systems since the colonial era or prior, it becomes of utmost significance that one questions the roots of this dogma.
Numerous researchers have narrated the history of India dating back to the times of Aryans who were in a constant tussle with the tribal communities (of India) over land, wealth and cattle. The gods of the former like the Soma are described as fighting the ‘black people of India’ (Dasyus). However, Hindu mythology also records the presence of significant individuals like Draupadi, Krishna and Kali as having darker skin tone. Hence, it is quite visible that dark skin was associated with heroes and enemy alike.
But when did the discrimination start to materialize? It must be highlighted herein that it is only during the colonial era that the fair-skinned, differential featured lords claimed themselves to be “superior and poised” than the “barbaric dark coloured” Indians. Their discrimination was so evident that even their settlements were termed as ‘White Towns’ (Mishra 2015). This gave birth to the idea of colourism in India which then came to be associated with the system of caste and class. Udit Raj (leader of the Indian Justice Party) stated that “Fair skin became a symbol of power and wealth and those who equate beauty with it are subconsciously hankering after a higher status; those who are shunning black are, perhaps, rejecting the slavery that it connotes whether in India or the US”.
Such products have innumerably tried to alter the understanding of beauty and provide a benchmark for a particular skin type while demeaning others.
The notion of demeaning darker-skinned individuals did not leave the Indian mainland with the digression of Britishers in the 20th century. Rather it was further linked with the caste system practised since generations. While the Brahmins, the white priestly caste, were preferred by the colonial masters in the public domain of administration and education, it was left to the non-dominant caste Indians to carry out the work for others (physical work requiring them to be directly exposed to the sun) and subsequently become ‘undesirable’.
The distinct features of the Brahmins (fairer skin, thinner, pronounced nose) became the desirable sect of the population while the features of the Dalits were perceived to be resembling the slaves of the United States (Dhillon 2015). This prestige was then resonated in social status, power and high caste with which the Brahmins were associated and consequently their shunning of lower caste people who had darker skin tone (owing to the occupational work carried out by them). Therefore, whiteness became fluid in fixed ways i.e. whiter the skin – higher the social location and desirability.
The Role of the Media
The media has not only added oil to this burning flame by glorifying lighter-skinned models but has kept the flame alive by telling individuals to alter their natural colour tone. Fairness creams in all their sincerity have played along the lines of the caste system by considering fair-skinned people superior in the hierarchical ladder than those with darker skin.
This borrowed idea of colour biasedness has reflected ideas of exclusivity and undesirability. Bollywood has not been foreign to such internalized racism – rather has furthered this social conditioning. Songs like “hum kale hain toh kya hua, dilwale hain” have signalled at favouring one group over the other based on skin tones. Additionally, the protagonists – be it Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan, John Abraham and Priyanka Chopra have been accompanied by helpers and even at times villains (Sunil Shetty in Main Hoon Na, Lalita Pawar) having dark-skin – expressing the idea that inferior or negative roles are equivalent to darker skin types.
These actors have also not refrained from endorsing brands like Fair & Lovely, Olay, L’Oreal and Garnier – to name a few. Then why do these actors suddenly feel the urge to speak out during the anti-racist protests while they have been the oppressors in institutionalized racism? Is it that they want to capitalize on the political climate and increase their fan base? It can also be noted that none of the aforementioned actors publicly announced their support towards such a drastic step and only decided on coming out during the anti-racist protests to gain social media approval. On the other end, certain actors like Tannishtha Chatterjee did express their admiration towards this step, yet such news made no swing in B-Town.
The notion of altering one’s natural self has also been extended with the routine of filters and photoshop. These attempts seem to be fools’ errands, wanting for an individual to be seen differently. However, entrepreneurs have capitalized over this phenomenon of trivializing some and cashed out on the insecurities of individuals. The stakeholders involved like the companies of these fairness creams, media houses, celebrities endorsing the same or the whole supply chain involved have only concerned themselves with the selling scale and profit margins, undermining the consequences.
During the colonial era, the fair-skinned, differential featured lords claimed themselves to be “superior and poised” than the “barbaric dark coloured” Indians.
Capitalists carry out the strategy of emotionally targeting consumers without keeping in mind the accessibility, affordability and affect involved. Caste and race being staunch characteristics in India, intertwined with the notion of fair skin being superior, has been minting millions. These ideas then converted into advertisements are endorsed by influencers which try to set a statement for the achievable and desirable standards of beauty, proving it to be a hindrance for many.
These silly advertisements do nothing but crawl into our skins to tell us to look a particular way rather than accepting who we are. Dr Kandhari’s Skin & Dental Clinic, New Delhi, told Indian Express that “the agents used in these creams work by inhibiting the melanin production (produced by melanocyte, colour producing cells of the skin) in our bodies. Many of these creams come with steroids in them, which further lead to sensitive skin. If at all some of these creams are to be used, one must consult a doctor before doing so”.
It was also further quoted by the specialist that desiring a lightened colour tone by numerous shades is over-ambitious and unachievable. If the experts are of such a view, then what is the general public willing to achieve by using such products? The next time you pick up a product due to the promises it makes, I would request you to dig a little deeper and think a bit harder as to what are you exactly willing to achieve by using such products?
Such products sold in the market aim to brighten the skin, promote the idea of hiding freckles and blemishes, but in no way further the idea of being comfortable in your skin. Why is it that I have to “look” beautiful when I can “feel” empowered, strong and beautiful from within? Why can’t society let me be comfortable in my own ways rather than find faults in whatever I do and the way I look?
It has often been (mis)understood that looking beautiful would provide strength and empowerment. But is it about the way I look or the way I feel? While online platforms tell me that I am not beautiful enough, my inner self feels equally damaged. The stalwarts have not let this thought stray aside even for a minute, but have continuously launched products to look fairer and freckle-free. Manifestations of whiteness have been glorified and romanticized with a universal undertone to it, without realizing that such notions are not natural.
External driving forces like whiteness, slim, tall have taken a front seat in the rat race of being successful and these products have played the role of a catalyst by capitalizing on such a majoritarian outlook. The companies associated should aim at changing the game and its rules rather than a mere name alteration. On this note, I am reminded of the attempt by some celebrities to use their platform to fight such taboos and bring about a change in the perspective of many by launching a video India’s Got Colour (by Nandita Das). But this only proves to be one piece of a larger fight which has been penetrating deeper and deeper into our roots.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Times of India