india's obsession with fair skin

“When you say ‘Black is beautiful’ you are saying, ‘Man you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being'”-Steven Biko

Growing up as a girl with dark skin in India, is not easy. Every time you attend a public function, some aunty comes to you to tell you “how tanned you have become!”or if you have a fairer sibling, parent or spouse, you are constantly compared to them on the basis of your skin colour. Unless you are exceptional in terms of your physical attributes or your achievements, it is very hard for a dark skinned person to be called “beautiful”. Indian mothers pray, make offerings and drink saffron infused milk to give birth to fair babies. In addition to the high frequency of dowry murders, sexual abuse, rape, there are some implicit tortures that girls go through. Facing humiliation, insults and criticism on the basis of physical appearance is not something new. This especially has been affecting girls for centuries, girls are born to get married and if a girl is not physically attractive (on the basis of socially prescribed beauty scale) no one will marry her. Stigmatizing on the basis of skin colour is one such tradition in India.

Fair skin and advertisements

How many dark skinned girls have you seen in advertisements except in that of fairness cream ad (where the girl turns into a fair skinned by the end of the ad!)? In almost all the advertisements, ranging from soap to TV, the main character is a fair girl. Although in some advertisements there are dark girls but they are doing some side roles. Let us come to fairness cream ads now. I don’t understand why is it necessary to turn into fair skinned person? In fact, when we are asking people to use fairness cream we are unknowingly looking down upon the people who are dark skinned. Dark skinned girls are the butt of all jokes in regional comedy shows. Although it’s a positive sign that nowadays some models and film-stars like Kangna Ranaut, Randeep Hooda and Ranbir Kapoor are standing against this fairness craze by saying ‘No’ to promotion of fairness products. It is a consistent theme of most of these advertisements where a dark skinned girl is initially ignored by the man of her choice but when she switches to the fairness product, that man comes back to her. It not only shows fairness as a desirable quality but also the shallowness of a relationship which is based on skin colour rather than real human attributes (which is often not the reality). Sometimes, due to the repetitive campaign in support of fairness promotion people actually associate beauty with fairness.

Fairness and films:

Look at the actresses of Bollywood. They are mostly fair skinned (If not all). Dusky skinned or wheatish skinned actresses are ridiculed and often they are offered negative roles. Also, due to the constant pressure to “look good”, they resort to fairness treatments like melanin therapy to improve change their skin colour. It’s more like a mentality where the colour black is associated with evil whereas fair, white things are associated with virtue, goodness and beauty. Take the long list of bollywood songs like “dhoop me nikla na karo roop ki rani, gora rang kala na padh jaye”, “gore rang pe na itna ghuman kar” “chitiya kalaiya ve” in all these songs fair skin is praised and is portrayed as a really valued and desired trait. Black is only desired when it is the colour of hair or eyes. The hypocrisy becomes most apparent when we worship dark skinned Hindu God Krishna, or Goddess Kali matha, but prefer a fair skinned girl as the bride for our sons and give our daughters many home-made tips to get fairer skin. Even in a Bollywood song the lyrics says “Yashomati maiya se bole nanda lala, Radha kyu gori mai kyu kaala?”, which shows even lord Krishna is not happy with his dark skin and hence desires a fair skin like Radha. Unknowingly and unintentionally we hurt all of them who are beautiful in their own ways or who may have a healthy skin on the basis of our deeply rooted stereotypical notion. There is a song “Hum kale hai to kya hua dilwale hai”, which means although I am dark-skinned I have a fair heart. In all these songs, darkness is reflected as something disliked and unexpected by the society.

Stigma and dark skin

Growing up with dark skin is a bad experience. Starting from school one is continuously ridiculed for skin colour by peers and sometimes even by teachers! One must remember that like all other stereotypes, stereotypes based on colour of skin are mostly implicit. For example, even when one dusky skinned kid is not explicitly told that her skin colour is undesired, behaviours/attitude of the people make it very apparent(may be she has less number of friends). May be she finds herself not appreciated as ‘cute’ or ‘you look like a doll’ by her teachers when her fair mates are regularly complimented. Sometimes teachers have bias in the attribution of guilt as well. For example, one of my friends once told me that he was punished more in school as the teachers found him ‘unattractive’ and therefore more likely to be the culprit. Sometimes, statements from parents or relatives like ‘You are dark, this colour does not suit you’ may make a little girl realize that she is born with something completely undesired if not unacceptable, and she cannot get rid of it. Every doll she plays with are pink skinned, every fairy tales’ princesses are fair. Think “Chubby cheeks, dimpled chin poem”! And by the time she reaches adolescence, which is most important stage in identity development, she loses all the confidence. She ends up not liking herself. This lack of confidence reflects in her attitude, behavior and performance, all through life. Bias on the basis of skin colour may also affect job interviews. Therefore in India, skin colour is one deciding factor of how happy and successful one is in relationships, marriage and even career.

I don’t know where and when it started. But honestly, I can’t see an end. Because, even people with dark skin do not believe in their beauty and therefore, they also search for a fair skinned girl while looking for a bride for their family. This vicious cycle therefore continues. I have seen very few people who are happy and proud of their dusky skin tone, may be because they have learnt things the hard way. But, one should use one’s own logic. Acceptance from society is less important than acceptance from one’s self. You look most glamorous when you feel beautiful. Skin colour does not really matter until and unless your skin is healthy. For example Kangna Ranaut in an interview once said “First, it’s important to understand that good skin or beautiful skin, whether bright or dull, has nothing to do with its colour. It’s about having healthy, clear skin with a natural glow, which can be achieved in any skin colour across the world. I have grown up in a family with a varied range of skin colours and each one of them has glowing skin, so I don’t identify with the ‘fair equals beautiful’ concept at all”.

Image Credits: Pablo Miranzo Via Flickr.com (No changes have been made to the original image)

Image License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Creative License Legal Code: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Disclaimer: The image used in the article is merely representational and is not associated with the matter discussed.

Read More: The Fairness of being Unfair

Sucharita Maji
Sucharita is a Research Scholar in Department of Psychology at IIT Kanpur. Her research interest lies in the field of Social & Health Psychology; with focus on gender issues, women & mental health. She enjoys Ravindrasangeet, cappuccino and a good read in her leisure time.