June 01, 2011

The unbearable lightness of skin color

WHEN THE VERY FIRST group of white men landed in India, they must have been regarded with overwhelming curiosity and incredulity; not to mention, awe. Awe, that mix of  wonder and admiration, is the perfect word to describe an Indian’s perception of the white man. Never before had they set eyes on such pinkish, delicate, gossamer skin. Ever since dark-skinned Indians became aware of a fairer race, they readily took the inferior place while the fairer group comfortably felt superior (as a relevant aside, there is a poignant essay by James Baldwin that describes his experiences as an isolated black man in Switzerland). This has more or less been the relationship between the conquering white race and the subdued dark-skinned race for eons. In the past, dark skin has been viewed with revulsion and frequently associated with baseness. Even Shakespeare portrays Othello in bestial imagery. We would find such racial associations deplorable in the 21st century. In fact, discrimination of any sort is not condoned in most progressive nations. But the issue of color is not only one of racial discrimination in India. It is also an important gender issue.

It is an unwavering belief in people’s minds that fair-skinned women are beautiful. One can derive several corollaries from this unstated yet popular axiom. The most obvious one is that dark-skinned women are not beautiful. Fair skin has several associations — beauty, superiority, confidence, self-worth, etc., and such desirable qualities are easier achieved by fairer women. This belief is deeply entrenched in millions of minds and continues to be a successful discriminating factor in both social and inter-personal relationships. What was perhaps historically an issue regarding races, of the mixing of Aryan and Dravidian bloodlines, now pervades the Indian ethos, regardless of race and caste. And the Indian media has played a significant role in successfully exploiting this.

Corporations, like HUL with their fairness products like Fair and Lovely, are active perpetrators of the fairness fixation by exploiting the insecurities and ‘shortcomings’ of their vulnerable targets, women. The prevailing notion is that a fair complexion makes the woman more ‘marriageable’ or as I would rather call it, marketable.

This commercial is one of the many advertisements promoting fairness products like Fair and Lovely(the very juxtaposition of these two adjectives, creates the semblance of an equivalence and sends a strong message supporting the desirability of fairness). Though there are virtually hundreds of such commercials for the same product, the content remains the same. One need not understand the language spoken in the commercial to gather the message that is delivered. The dark complexioned woman, wearing dowdy, unattractive clothes, with an equally unobtrusive style of her hair, is overlooked by a potential suitor. Her eagerness for a courtship is instantly quelled and along with it dies her confidence. Fortunately for her, she discovers the magic of Fair and Lovely. Not only does it transform the color of her skin, it also fills her with self-confidence, enabling her to make the transition from a frumpy unattractive plain Jane to an ethereal pink-chiffon clad ideal beauty. No doubt, she is now chosen to be a bride.

It would be disingenuous if I do not mention the ‘revolution’ that has taken place in the media and its perception of women. Majority of Indian women are educated and employed and a significant number of them follow fast-track career paths. The marriage context is now incongruous. The companies brainstormed a way of selling fairness to the independent, modern woman. The content of the commercial is modified to depict a modestly attired but ambitious woman, who follows her passion, only to be met with disappointment because of her dark skin. Once again, Fair and Lovely does the trick and her dream is eventually made successful by a man who selects her based on her newly gained fairness.

It is hard to believe that these ‘new-age’ commercials pacified protesters of such products, till the time companies devised new strategies to increase the market share of their products by producing fairness creams for men and also, by expanding into the global market. Additionally, these products now masquerade as holistic cosmetics, employing euphemisms such as ‘complete skin-care’, ‘blemish-free skin whitening’ and ‘glowing fairness creams’. These camouflaged fairness products are a big hit among employed women who continue to harbor insecurities about their complexion and resort to suppressing their trauma of possessing dark skin.

Fairness creams for men is a miniscule component of the elaborate marketing mechanism of fairness products. The men’s products are a fairly recent entry into the Indian market; this is merely a marketing technique to explore newer territories rather than an exploitative method targeting a preexisting social stigma.  Globalizing these products has brought about a furor again but at the same time it is being misconstrued as racism.

Regardless of how these products and the media have changed over the years, these products still erode a woman’s self-worth and promote an unhealthy self-image, that thwarts truly liberated self-expression. Even if one does not care for conformities, it is a tough battle to continuously ward-off impingements by a discriminating society that identifies fairness with beauty and success.


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