When Fair is Lovely

Indian actress and chairperson of the ChFrom the time I came into the public domain and have been written about, 9 out of 10 articles start by describing me as being dusky or earthy.

A reference to the colour of my skin doesn’t escape the best of journalists.

The prerequisite for being an actress is to be fair. So I guess it is essential to qualify anything that is an aberration. Or, is it simply a manifestation of an inescapable conditioning?

I can say from my own experiences that the colour of my skin definitely featured in most introductions and comments about me, right from my childhood. From people saying, “poor thing she is so dark” to “you have nice features despite being dark”.

Had it not been for my parents, for whom this was not a topic of conversation, I would have grown up believing I was just not good enough.

Thanks to them, I defined myself through nurturing many different interests. How I looked was unimportant. It was only in later years I realised how fortunate I was.

I have often wondered why are we supposed to feel proud or ashamed of attributes that we are born into.

I have done nothing to be born as a woman, a Hindu, an Indian or dark.

Mobile5But then there are choices I have made through the years that have been mine and if I must be judged, let those be the ones. But this is easier said than done. I am shocked to see the rise in the number of fairness creams, dark actresses looking paler and paler with every film and magazines, hoardings, films and advertisements showing only fair women. You could ask what is there to be shocked, as all this has always existed. But with more women in the work force, voicing their desires and concerns, more debate about gender equality and sensitivity, one would imagine that racism of this sort would be on the decline.

Of course, now the insecurities of men are also surfacing with equal number of fairness products for them.

Such pressures and so little public debate around it!

Am I over-reacting here?

Whenever I interact with college students, especially young girls, I invariably get a question to the effect, “How come you are so confident despite being dark?” It took me some time to understand its ramifications in its entirety, but when I went deeper I realised how inadequate so many young girls felt purely because they couldn’t live up to the societal standards of beauty.

Every film and women’s magazine told them how ugly they were. It made their personalities shy, hesitant, insecure, not good enough. I grappled with how to make them understand the worthlessness of this pursuit as I took my confidence for granted.

Gradually I found myself championing the cause of colour! When a sales-girl tries to sell me a fairness cream or a salon woman insists on bleaching my skin, I find myself giving them a lecture against it.

Perhaps, some of it is unwarranted as they, too, are victims of that same system. Strangely, how educated or affluent you are has no bearing on this prejudice.

Desire for a fair child makes some parents believe that drinking milk first thing in the morning will ensure a fair child. A friend of mine suffered his entire childhood as his brother was fair and he was asked how come he turned out to be so dark. There is no dearth of such stories that we all would have heard, experienced or perpetuated in some way or the other.

Nandita SmilingWhat with fairytales like sleeping beauty talking about “who is the fairest of them all” and Snow White and Barbie dolls becoming role models for little girls. Right from our childhood the message is clear, and in later years it is only reinforced in many ways.

Film songs call a girl gori (fair) or “pardon the dark because it has a good heart” in a song like kale hain to kya hua dilwale hain. Look anywhere and everywhere, there are blatant and subtle reinforcements that only fair is lovely.

Pigment of Imagination

Clip_23When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America, racists in the United States gave free vent to their prejudice on social media networks like Twitter. Their comments ranged from garden-variety hate against foreigners to deeply Islamophobic bilge. Some called her Miss Al Qaeda, others Miss Terrorist, and still others made offensive remarks about the colour of her skin.

Back in India, where few things are more celebrated than an Indian’s success in the United States, whether that’s in San Jose, the spelling bee or a beauty pageant, people are shaking with outrage that Americans should react in this manner to the achievement of a Person of Indian Origin.

But before rushing to denounce American attitudes, it would be pertinent to ask if Ms Davuluri would have ever made it past the qualifying rounds of a beauty contest in India. In a country where a multi-crore rupee cosmetic industry thrives on promises of lightening a woman’s skin colour in 10, 20 or 30 days, it is fair to say that the dark complexioned 24-year-old would not have stood a chance.

At least multiculturalism is held up enough in the U.S. for the jury to have given her the title, and full marks to America for that. Had she been in India, far from entering a beauty contest, it is more likely that Ms Davuluri would have grown up hearing mostly disparaging remarks about the colour of her skin; she would have been — going by the storyline of most “fairness” cream advertisements — a person with low self-esteem and few friends.

If this sounds like an exaggeration, think back on when was the last time anyone with Ms Davuluri’s skin tone won a beauty crown in India; or the last time anyone saw a matrimonial advertisement seeking “a dark girl” for a handsome boy. Rather, Indians have felt the need to create a new word, ‘wheatish’, to euphemistically describe the melanin in their skin, and this word litters the rows of matrimonial columns apologetically.

In the film industry, which also goes by the same beauty standard, the number of dark actors, female or male, can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare. If anything, the situation is getting worse, with the fairness fascists expanding their territory to include men who, like the women victims of such advertising, are promised promotions, social success, and more, as soon as their skin tone becomes a few degrees lighter.

Depressing though this may sound, the truth is that the Indian idea of beauty is not very different from the imagined ideal of ‘Ms America’ that those racist hate-tweeters in the U.S hold dear: white or nothing.