My mother thinks she’s the ugliest amongst her three sisters. Because they are the smooth colour of peeled almonds; my mother’s shade is that of the almond’s skin. Nutty. Brown. Dark.
You’d think it was a curse word – dark. A symbol of crudeness that brings shame in the mirror. It’s the mock-soft expression of an Indian auntie gazing at you on the bus. “Poor girl, look at her complexion. Who will marry her?” It’s the rows and rows of potions in the supermarket, promising luminescent magic – Fair and Lovely, 6 weeks to lighter, brighter skin! It’s the laser-like scrutiny of a potential father-in-law, sizing up your fairness – is it good enough for his son? And it’s having to be the smart or sporty one in school – the pageant-pretty position is occupied by some Ria or Anamika, who has genetically creamy skin but smiles and tosses her hair, saying it’s just her Neutrogena face wash, you should try it too!
If you’re dark, you have somehow already failed. But at what, nobody knows.
Indians today spend more on skin-whitening products than on Coca-Cola. In a country that wears Bollywood like a gaudy red bindi, it’s easy to see why. Some of our most prominent film stars endorse such products on TV, their faces paled and thus ‘beautified’ by ‘gentle creams’ – which is really code for bleach. In one particular ad, a struggling, dark-skinned actor is gifted a fairness cream by a Bollywood big-shot. Cue some festive music, digital retouching of his face and voila! He is suddenly a star. (Yes, I’m talking about that Fair & Handsome ad with Shah Rukh Khan).
What this perpetuates is the idea that it is not hard work but being pale that brings fame and success. How problematic is that? And yet it holds some truth. The heroes and heroines on our cinema screens are all fair-skinned – without exception. Darker-skinned actors are seen in the roles of uneducated peasants and criminals (Nawazuddin Siddiqui comes to mind). Or they are the leads in gritty, off-beat films, the kinds that are dubbed ‘B-list’ and barely make any money.
And if you are an Indian woman hoping to get married, you better buy some face packs and start using photo filters. Because the shaadi sites and newspapers are filled with demands for only fair-skinned brides. Don’t you know honey, being alabaster matters more than your BA! Countless Indians today, both men and women, are rejected by suitors because they’re more caramel than vanilla. They could be armed with degrees and careers, kindness and confidence, they could even make the best laddoos in the neigbourhood – but if they’re dark, then it’s doomed.
The ancient caste system in India has always equated being dark with being an ‘untouchable’ and fairness with being an upper-class ‘brahmin’. This introduced an interesting economic factor – the richer you were, the less time you spent outside, toiling away in the sun like a lowly worker. Thus, fairness became a kind of wealth – a mark of smoothness, of class, of polish.
Many people think India’s colorist malady makes it a racist country. And yes, this is a form of racism. But why is it there? The belief that fairness is power comes from the dregs of the broiling teapot of colonialism and caste-ism. Some are dismissive of this argument, calling it ‘1947 thinking’. But somewhere inside us, and not just in India, we have let the seed of the idea that white is superior to take root. White people have always had more power and authority than us – they were once our rulers and now they are the ‘developed nations’, with more education and wealth and infrastructure. They have the luxury of being our economic ‘saviours’. History has deluded us into thinking that education and power is synonymous with whiteness. This also explains why having an American or British accent instantly makes you ‘literate’ and favouring jeans over traditional dress makes a woman more cosmopolitan.
When I was a little girl, family members would chuck my chin, murmuring ‘She’s so fair. That’ll be good for her future’. Charms and potions were slipped into my palm – home remedies, herbal sunscreens – to protect my ‘lucky’ complexion. I was dumbfounded.
Because who says you cannot be unfair and lovely?