May 28, 2019
As an exercise to start with, I type on my Google search bar these three words: Beautiful Women India. The result? I see images of Bollywood (India’s equivalent to Hollywood) actors, all of whom are either Fair or Very Fair, Tall and Slim with an ultimately flat body appear on my screen. Yes, you are right in thinking that this brings us back to the entire debate on India’s obsession with fairness and the different ways in which the society and the media continue to police women’s body by placing them within this ideal archetype that equates beauty with light skin and a perfectly toned body.
India or I would rather say South Asia’s obsession with fairness is not unknown. Feminists and activists have been engaging with communities across the globe for decades to address this issue. There have been hard-hitting campaigns such as the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign that have tried to battle prejudices against colourism and celebrate the beauty within. But alas, not much has changed and fairness creams continue to sell like hot cakes, furthering the belief that “fair is the ideal.”
Last year, I was at a team building session with my colleagues. One part of the workshop required each of us to share what we thought was the biggest challenge we had faced in our lives and how we overcame the same. It was indeed an emotional session where each of us shared an aspect of our personal challenges. One of my colleagues shared her experience of growing up as a dark-skinned, chubby girl and how she often received flak from her family and friends on not doing enough to get the ideal look. This, she said often made her feel inadequate and left her with an inferiority complex and a low self-esteem. ‘“What I had developed in plenty was a constant sense of insecurity,” she explained. It was at that moment I realized that she was not alone in this fairness game.
As women or must I add this caveat; as dark skinned women, growing up in Asia, we have all been subjected to discrimination at some point in our lives. Be it in school where a fairer classmate of ours was made the lead in a play or in college where our fellow classmates fell for a more light skinned girl or the arranged marriage matrimonial market in Asia, especially in India and Pakistan where families continue to look for a “Fair, Tall and Lovely” bride for their son, instances are many and hit you like a ton of bricks.
On my recent visit to India, I was at a park and saw this group of little girls place their hands against each others and compare which one of them had a lighter skin. The one with the darkest tone was immediately called “Kaali” (the word for ‘Black’ in Hindi) much to her disappointment. And this was not all. The fairest amongst them shared her excitement of how she was the “Snow White” of the group. Completely aghast, I could not stop but question the extent to which the media be it literature, cinema or advertisements continue to influence the society and reinforce the social and cultural norms that seek to normalize the ideal beauty.
A close look at children’s literature and there are ample of examples in the form of nursery rhymes or fairy tales and even folklores where fair is not only glorified but also synonymous with goodness while dark or black is associated with the evil.
A classic case in point is the age-old nursery rhyme ‘chubby cheeks, dimple chin….’ Having chubby cheeks, dimple chin, rosy lips, teeth within, curly hair and very fair makes you not only lovely but the teacher’s pet.
Remember the fairy tales- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Rapunzel or even Hansel and Gretel where the protagonists are the golden girls and the bad ladies are not only wicked looking but have a darker complexion. How can I not discuss the myriad mythological and folk tales from the Indian sub-continent, which also perpetuate and reinforce this skin colour bias by portraying princesses and goddesses as fair and pink while the demons and the evil forces are often grotesque figures in black; with an underlying implication that fair people are never evil? And now coming to the realm of advertisements. How would you react if I told you that your prospects of finding a job and having a career get better only if you are fair? You would find it ridiculous, right? But well, this is the message that the fairness cream advertisements drive across India. Let me throw some light on this by reconstructing a typical fairness cream ad for you:
A dark-skinned girl walks into a room for a job interview. She fails to bag the job and comes home disheartened. She hears her father lamenting, “How I wish I had a son and not a daughter!” The underlying implication being how she could neither get a job to provide for him or get married because of her dark skin. Dejected, feeling miserable the daughter skims through the jobs classifieds in the newspaper and sees an opportunity to be an air-hostess. But being dark-skinned, her chances of getting the job are poor. Right at that moment, the television flashes an advertisement of a fairness cream that not only makes you fifty shades fairer but proportionally also increases your confidence. Thus, she uses the cream, nails the interview and confidently takes her first flight as an air hostess.
Moral of the story: Fair is your mantra to be successful. Really?
Mass media is one of the easiest ways to communicate with people. Right from our childhood different narratives continue to influence us and shape our understanding of people, communities and the society around us including our bodies. Be it the stigma that my colleague faced or the seemingly innocent game the girls played leading to the one with the darker skin tone feeling dejected, one cannot ignore the central role media has played in shaping their experiences and perpetuating the bias. It thus becomes imperative to challenge stereotypes and adopt a more inclusive approach that values and respects diversity. While it is the moral and ethical responsibility of media outlets to produce more responsible content and avoid reinforcing stereotypes that create discrimination of any form, as educators and community professionals, we can and should counter-engage with communities and battle any kind of prejudice. An advertisement by Dove just does that. Hitting the right note, it shatters chubby cheeks, dimple chin in the most powerful way. By representing strong women striving hard to achieve their dreams, it portrays their strength and courage as they move forward each day closer to their goals. Thus, breaking the one-dimensional definition of beauty and questioning the standards it places on young girls and women.
As I write this, I do admit that things have been changing over the years. But still, a lot needs to be done. Let’s create a society where women irrespective of colour and size are accorded the respect and place they deserve. A society where women take pride in what they are and are not required to hide themselves under layers of whitening creams that continue to objectify them.