August 16, 2011

The unbearable lightness of skin colour

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, the feeling of wonder and admiration, is the perfect word to describe an Indian’s perception of the white man. Never before have they set eyes on such pinkish, delicate, gossamer skin. It has to be the perfect form of beauty; the form of beauty that Indians think they lack. No one knows when this love-affair with fair skin started but it has definitely come to be revered among the masses. From the time the 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.

However, it is important to remember that the issue of color is not one of racial discrimination in India. It will not be far-fetched to call it a solely gender-related 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. This may make many an American cringe and deny. But I will deal with that shortly. Fair skin has several associations- beauty, superiority, confidence, self-worth, etc., and such desirable qualities are easier achieved by fairer women. A paucity of melanin makes one a confident and a high-achieving woman! Of course, that is ludicrous rationale. But this belief is deeply entrenched in millions of minds, of both fair and dark-skinned people, that it 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, it now pervades in the Indian ethos, regardless of race and caste.

There is no belief that has gone unexploited by the media. The Indian media has played not an insignificant role in successfully stigmatizing dark skin. It has recklessly and ruthlessly driven in the notion, especially among women, of the superiority of fair skin.

Why is this issue largely limited to women? The answer to this is fairly simple. Like any other patriarchal culture, the man decides the norm of  what is to be deemed beautiful; he chooses his attractive mate while the woman is the chosen one. Possessing a fair complexion ensures a woman this coveted position. It naturally follows that she will be found attractive and beautiful by not just one man. Does it empower her to choose from this lot of attracted men, a suitable husband for herself? Of course, not! The notion is inconceivable in traditional patriarchy. The family(read: father) determines the appropriate mate for the woman; but the deciding factors are unrelated to the man’s physical appearance. Consequently, it completely obviates the man’s anxieties over his own attractiveness or fairness. It can never be so for the woman. In this system of arranged marriages, which still prevails, the dark-skinned woman is passed over for a fair one. The effect this system has on the woman is simply devastating.

The media perpetrates this seriously damaging tradition, resulting in tremendous anxieties for the Indian woman. 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. The Indian media has effectively been propagating this for decades now.


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.

3 comments to The unbearable lightness of skin colour

  • Thanks for the link to James Baldwin — it’s an amazing essay. But I have misgivings about yours.

    When you say “when the very first group of white men landed in India”, how far back are you willing to go? The British? The Portuguese? Vasco da Gama? Alexander and his army? The Aryan invasion? India has always had fair-skinned people, with periodical invasions and immigrations by more fair-skinned people.

    The other point is that in our epics, much evidence suggests that dark was considered beautiful — Draupadi was dark, Arjuna was dark, Krishna was dark (even today, the name “Krishna” or “Krishnaa”, which means dark, is used commonly for both genders), Rama was dark. At some point these dark-skinned people started getting painted blue. I suspect, by that time, Europeans were already getting a foothold here. Europeans were fair-skinned; they were superior (in technology, military power and economy); ergo fair-skinned was superior.

    As a counter-example, Indians greatly disrespected the Chinese (who are, on the average, undoubtedly more fair-skinned than us) until recently, and, I believe, do so even today (when that changes, perhaps the people from the north-east will get more respect in mainland India). This led to our underestimating the Chinese badly in the 1962 war, and getting hammered.

  • Shubha

    This is not an invention of the British nor one of Fair & Lovely. Colorism is mentioned in the Vedas and other Hindu texts. It has been embedded in Indian culture for quite some time.

  • deb

    Indian Women Bloggers Find Their Voice, in Their Own Language

    Unrelated, but interesting

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>