December 10, 2007

The Fair and the Lovely

Payal Saxena

THE STEREOTYPES: homemaker, femme fatale, bold and beautiful, supermom, sex bomb. The creators: television, cinema, advertisements, magazines. All depict women who can be beautiful only if they are white-skinned, reed-thin and look like Barbie dolls. Take mainstream Indian cinema. What is common across most of it is the depiction of women, who can never look disheveled, untidy or even a wee bit like their real life counterparts. When there is the portrayal of a woman, who cannot pass off as stereotypically beautiful by media standards, her transformation into the ‘normative beautiful’ becomes necessary.

This transformation usually also showcases her beliefs in what is true (she’s virginal and innocent), right (‘a good girl’) and driven by values (religious and traditional).

Beauty has moved out of the realm of mere aesthetic and now defines how ‘important’ a woman is — or isn’t. Until recently, there was a program called Indian Idol, a musical reality show that ostensibly graded participants only on the basis of singing and stage performance. In one of the episodes, a female participant was practically forced to to go through a makeover because the judges felt she had no “appeal”. An entire episode was dedicated to this makeover (which she hadn’t wanted in the first place) with eager cameras following every step of hair styling, facial and wardrobe change! Towards the end, the judges were allowed to comment on how she was “now” a fitting candidate for the show.

This is well in line with what the Fair & Lovely advertisements try to tell us — that a woman can be important or successful only if she subscribes to public standards of beauty, of which fairness is one of the primary conditions. Naturally, we have a soaring market for fairness and slimming products. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with somebody wanting to be fair or thin, but it is hugely problematic when these become the only yardsticks for beauty. Fairness cream advertisements repeatedly drum in the message that only someone who is fair can find a boyfriend, get married or be successful at work and woe betide the parents of a girl who is dark skinned. It is surprising that this socio-cultural obsession with an ancient stereotype continues to prevail in forms both extreme and subtle.

Most mainstream cinema lays greater stress on how women look than on what they say. Successful or smart women are tagged aggressive or shown as women who have used their sexuality to climb the ladder. The message is clear. It is not enough to be smart or successful; you must also be good-looking. There is such pressure on successful women to also look young and beautiful that face lifts and surgical alterations are becoming increasingly common.

When women’s looks are not the focus, it’s our personal habits and ‘moral’ attitudes. Canadian journalist Jenn Goddu conducted a study of newspaper and magazine coverage of three women’s lobby groups over a 15-year period. From the report on Media Awareness Network:

She discovered that journalists tend to focus on the domestic aspects of the politically active woman’s life (such as “details about the high heels stashed in her bag, her habit of napping in the early evening, and her lack of concern about whether or not she is considered ladylike”) rather than her position on the issues.

I would like to believe that there is some change happening. In recent times, Chak De India actually had women actors who were different from the quintessential ‘heroines’. ‘Citizen journalism‘, which has been introduced by some TV channels, actually allows homemakers and ordinary-looking women without make-up to get on television, give their story and be heard.

Media can be both limiting and empowering for women but it still remains a powerful way of asserting stereotypes. Unless we examine our understanding of ‘beauty’, we will continue to consume these images of objectified and stereotypical women for the vested economic interests of some. After all, what still sells is Fair & Lovely!

11 comments to The Fair and the Lovely

  • Broom

    Even in “Aaja Nachle”, Konkona Sen had to put on make up & play hard to get before Kunal Kapoor would look at her with any interest.

  • […] issue maybe done to death, but since we haven’t seen the end of it, Ultra Violet on the fairness, loveliness and women. Fairness cream advertisements repeatedly drum in the […]

  • Abi

    Here’s another story about cabin crew to support your post.

    In particular, check out the not-so-subtle euphemisms used by the airline managers/recruiters.

  • Not to absolve the media of any blame but in a growing economy, mainstream media will cater to what works and what sells.

    If we look back to what creates stereotypes in the first place, it is our homes, our schools, our parents and our peers. The media of course validates and endorses these stereotypes. But even in my household where both parents have Masters degrees and jobs and we live in so-called, “progressive” Bombay, my mother is always worried about my “wheatish” skin. I have gotten the freedom to do as I please for the most part but this antiquity has not disappeared.

    As a follow up to this post I’d love to see how we, the new generation can combat this stereotype that the media perpetuates, at home. Most of us cannot control the media, but how can we help adoloscent girls build strong body images despite it?

  • Mayuresh Gaikwad


    I am just thinking aloud on some issues.

    Fairness is God’s gift, some humans (men and women) have it, some do not. So it would be grossly unfair to select / reject any human based on his/her skin color.

    Similarly, intelligence is God’s gift, some humans (men and women) have it, some do not. Would it be grossly unfair to select / reject humans based on their intellect (I am talking of raw intellectual horsepower, whcih, I believe, is different for different people)

    Similarly, hereditary wealth is God’s gift, some humans (men and women) have it, some do not. Would it be grossly unfair to select / reject humans based on their personality, when it is clear that the environment where they were born into and the exposure they received as children have a major role in shaping their personality.

    Why do we feel that discriminating someone based on skin color is bad while discriminating someone based on intellect or personality (proven to be dependent on hereditary wealth) is acceptable to the society?

    On the issue of dowry, why is dowry considered bad when it is perfectly acceptable for a man to say that he wants a wife who earns atleast Rs.20,000 per month?Is this not some kind of dowry that the guy asks, only it is being paid in installments over the entire working life of the lady. Why can’t the right way to ask be – “I want a partner who understands me well, who loves me, will be loyal to me and will stand by me through thick and thin. That’s all I desire. I do not care whether she is rich or poor, fair or dark, intelligent or dumb, a careerist or a home-maker”

    Also, we say that women should have a right in the parental property. Completely fair. The only question here is – how is this fundamentally different from dowry? How do we ensure that the woman’s in-laws will not usurp the money which her parents bequeath to her?

    I do not claim that dowry is good – it is clearly a despicable custom which needs to be punished. Nor do I claim that men/women should be discriminated based on their color / race / gender / sexual preference etc.

    But I also feel that humans should not be discriminated against due to their background or anything which they have received at birth. Just as I do not choose my caste/gender/color/race etc, I do not choose my financial background, I am born into it. But somehow, we take this discrimination as legitimate.

  • If you don’t mind my saying so, this is a really incoherent piece. You say, “Beauty has moved out of the realm of mere aesthetic and now defines how ‘important’ a woman is — or isn’t. ”

    When was beauty in humans anything except biologically or socially determined? Even ‘an aesthetic’ is socially conditioned. To say it as if it is abstract or ideal is to miss the point.

    Also, you say “Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with somebody wanting to be fair or thin, but it is hugely problematic when these become the only yardsticks for beauty. ”

    I wonder if you see that this is precisely the argument that those who buy into the whole beauty mafia offer as an explanation? That they don’t see what is wrong with looking nice. That all feminists need to be loud, hairy bra-burners.

    I’m not saying that the media does not play a powerful role in perpetuating stereotypes. They might even play a large role in creating regressive roles for women that are contrary to what we see around us every day. One cannot underestimate the power of a lie repeated often enough to make it true. All I’m saying is your article not only says nothing new, it doesn’t make an argument for anything specific. Yes, the media perpetuates stereotypes. Yes, fairness is a big deal in India. So?

    You seem to be saying that examining the idea of beauty will help in eradicating such stereotypes. Great. How do you propose to do that?

    Please don’t think I’m not on your side. I just feel that a better thought out and argued piece would have gone a longer way in creating debate. As it stands, this piece says nothing that hasn’t been said before.

  • Sorry: errata. I meant, ‘that all feminists need not be loud, hairy bra-burners.’

  • It sucks. But it’s soceity that is to blame for this prejudice and the media are just using that.

  • tangled

    I’m sorry, but “Fairness is God’s gift” is probably one of the most despicable and narrow-minded statements I’ve ever heard. On what basis do you call “fairness” a gift? In what way is it better than “darkness”? Surely you can understand how intelligence can play a huge role in a person’s success, as can (and do) their courage, determination, grit, what-have-you. WHAT THE HELL DOES HAVING FAIR SKIN GET YOU??

    God, you’re an idiot. Simply based on people like you, “discriminating someone” based on intellect has merit.

  • Mayuresh Gaikwad

    Courage, determination, grit etc. are personal qualities and not God’s gifts. They can be developed with time.
    Raw intellectual horsepower cannot be altered with time, just as color of the skin, or the financial condition of your family during your formative years.
    Note that I am not arguing for discrimination based on color of the skin. I am just pointing out that discrimination based on color of the skin is similar in principle to the discrimination based on raw intelligence / personality traits due to inheritance, etc.
    To me, discrimination based on hereditary wealth is as bad, and any person born into a poor family will testify the discrimination against him in the workplace, where the only person differentating him/her from the other is the hereditary wealth and the lifestyle associated with it

  • HelterSkelter

    Space Bar, you got everything in your post right.

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