It is funny how much of a science Indians have made out of the gradation of darkness of skin. Most Indian languages have myriad names of shades of dark skin, and the skin colour – particularly of girls/women -- is a major concern for all and sundry. Although in most of the pale skinned world it is considered a thing of beauty, of health, and yes attractiveness, to have a tan – or darker skin -- anyone born with a dark skin in India knows how completely opposite our cultural reactions are to those of the white folk.
I am one of those “unfortunates”. I was born with what is called a “wheatish” complexion. And all my life I have had to face all kinds of strange things, simply because my skin has a higher percentage of melanin than some. In my formative years, yes it felt awful. I was lucky enough to have parents, at least, who couldn’t care less if I was purple or orange, but every single other person seemed to automatically go into the “poor thing she is so dark” mode. From friendly advice to my mom, about how to lighten my skin (everything from poultices of gram flour and turmeric, to almost voodoo like home remedies), to straight-out insults, I’ve seen and heard it all.
Luckily for me, I had a home atmosphere that – I realize more and more as I grow older and try to bring up my own little one – was fantastic and amazing. Somehow my parents managed to teach me that looks don’t matter in the least, and that skin colour is the absolute last thing that should have any effect on how I see myself, or anyone else. With their teaching, and my inherent contrariness, I managed to become the kind of person to whom looks are totally immaterial. However, society and media didn’t help one bit in that process, and actually actively hindered it.
And this was before the age of skin whitening products and fairness creams. Growing up, the only product on TV or radio that claimed to do anything to my skin was Vicco Turmeric cream which claimed to keep skin supple and protected, with only a sly and sideways reference to NIKHAR, which can be translated as glow. Then, when I was in my 20s, the big boom happened in the bleaching products industry. Starting with the familiar Fair and Lovely creams and the Fem bleaches, more and more products proliferated, very quickly, over every possible kind of media which promised miraculous and overnight transformations of dark as midnight unfortunates into fairer than the fairest paleface social royalty.
Our innate cultural bias against dark skin only added to the obsession, and a sizeable portion of people I knew in those years, (men in secret and women more openly), began using these products on a regular basis in the hopes of some unbelievable transformation from what they thought was an ugly duckling to a swan (on an interesting aside, the first book I bought my daughter was The Ugly Duckling, and this illustrated Indian version had a very dark grey baby swan as the UGLY duckling which grew into a beautiful milk white swan. That’s how deep the subliminal conditioning goes).
Today, I constantly worry about the warped messages media and Indian society are sending my six year old daughter. She not only has to deal with all the pressures we had growing up, all the prejudice, inherent discrimination, insults, and more, she also has to deal with what 2 out of every 3 ads on TV are telling her. In this kind of a situation, learning to see beyond skin when she interacts with others, and learning to base her self esteem on more than melanin content as she grows up, will be a long and hard fight. She’s fairish, fairer than me at least, but that’s an accident of genetics, and I refuse to let her learn to assign value to it. And society does teach you to.
I caught her saying things like “baba you are so dark yuck, look how fair I am” to her father. As if that wasn’t a big enough red flag, I’ve heard offhand remarks like “X is a bad girl mama, she’s so black!” each time I hear these things, I haul her up, explain that it doesn’t matter who is dark or fair, and that skin colour has nothing to do with who is a good and worthy human being and who is not. But I worry. I worry about all the ads she sees everyday for fairness creams, lotions and whatnots. And its not just every other channel on TV, the channels specifically aimed at kids, like Cartoon Network and Pogo and Nick, also have a disturbingly high number of ads for these products!
And, I don’t know if this is more feminist or egalitarian or what, men now have their own range of fairness and finicky skin care products from MACHO skin whitening creams to BUTCH oil control! LOL! So, now that men must worry about their looks, complexions and pimples as much as women have to, I wonder how anyone is supposed to find the time to study, evolve, make a career, have a family, and other such unimportant things in life. Oh! Wait! being fair will magically get you all that! right? Yeah... dumb old me!
And they keep getting more and more ridiculous – these ads. 10 years ago you needed to be a Fair and Lovely girl to become a model or an air hostess. Well, marginally acceptable I guess, given that looks are a major part of those professions. Then you needed to be fair, fair, fairer than fair, to get and keep a man – whether boyfriend or husband. In my opinion, any man who is with you because of the colour of your skin ( or how you look 10 years younger for that matter) is not worth having around. I would rather get rid of such a shallow creep and find someone who values my brains, my mind, and my nature.
These days however, it is even more than that. Dark women cannot be journalists, tour guides, singers, dancers, TV anchors, chess players, business owners, or anything else for that matter! I mean, please….you need to have a fair complexion to win at chess? On what planet???????? And as if that wasn’t meaningless enough, now the ads are venturing into the kinky world of fetishism! At least two ads in recent times are for whitening products that give you “underarms that are ready to be revealed” and encourage you to “go sleeveless on him”. Is that how desperate we are then? It's not enough to be fair and lovely and glowing and spotless and whatnot everywhere else? And the ad for the “go sleeveless” product is such a kinky one! Obviously it assumes men have a thing for UNDERARMS of all things! And the man is knocked speechless and struck dumb with lust merely because his girlfriend/wife flashes him a glimpse of some FAIR armpits?
Whatever dude! If you say so!