This is one of those posts I have been meaning to write all my life. You could call it decades in the making. Lot has been written and said about it. This is my take on India’s long and cherished obsession with all things fair.
Before I go any further with my post, I would like to point you to Exhibit A and B, two ads for a popular “fairness” cream in India.
These utterly offensive ads are for Fair & Lovely, a popular fairness cream sold in India for years. There are many such products and even more ads that claim to make the consumer, fair. Why in heavens would anyone, leave alone tens of millions of them, want to get fair is then the follow up question. For that, I will take you down India’s rich and long culture. The heritage we love to brag about.
India’s history claims that there are two major races that reside in the subcontinent- Aryans and the Dravidians. There are different theories on where the races originated from but suffice to say, they are the two main ones whose descendants constitute the majority of Indian population. The Aryans are fair skinned for the most part and the Dravidians are of darker complexion. In a nation where caste and race have played a major role in shaping and continuing to shape the nation as a whole, this difference in color is a critical distinction. One that is used as a addendum to the caste card or so to say, the darker you are, the inferior you get. Now this is not always the case in today’s cross pollinated environment but it has been closer to the statistics over the last century. As a result, the association of fair with superior and dark with inferior.
History teaches us a lot of things. And in this particular case, it encourages people to work with their ancient prejudices and preconceived notions in creating a strong desire for all things fair and all people fair. And this obsession is one that assumes inhuman proportions of the kind one encounters only in history books.
A “Fair” Progeny
It starts when a child is in its mother’s womb. The mother is fed a diet of items long believed and never proved to beget fair children. Popular among this list is saffron. Expensive saffron is purchased and used in everything the mother eats as food. The faith in saffron is such that people who cannot afford the expensive flower by-product overreach to make sure they do what is “right” for the unborn child. When the child is born, the first question aunt and grandmothers ask over phone is if the child is fair. Lost are questions about the height, weight, good health, and everything else clinics meticulously document. The only thing that matters to many is the color of the child. During the cradle ceremony for the child, old ladies openly comment on the color of the child- a fair one is the cynosure of all eyes while a darker complexion prompts matter-of-fact statements that are incredibly offensive like “She is a beautiful child inspite of being dark”. Dark children are playfully called, “Black God” by their mothers and grandmothers.
The Dark Kid in school
For the first few years, the darker complexioned child doesn’t realize the social stigma that is to follow her in the coming years. Reality strikes when the girl approaches middle school. Girls of the fairer kind start bandying together. Boys openly prefer talking to fairer girls as it is the cooler thing to do. And much of this is fed by the reinforcement of the same thought by all society. Movies feature mostly if not always, fairer heroines. The male star is allowed to be dark to show him as one of the masses. The female lead is almost always expected to be fair, flawless and gorgeous. And this perpetrates the notion that the person of your dreams has to be fair- ignore everything else, but fair.
Eligible for Marriage
As the girl hits puberty, the mother subtly introduces the Fair & lovely cream to her daughter in the hope that consistent and prolonged use of it will make the girl fair by the time she is eligible for marriage. Indian matrimonial sites (hundreds of which cater to specific castes and subgroups of people) make the skin color one of their key filter criteria. One that is most often used right after the height compatibility and horoscope match. And parents of girls in an effort to give their girls an edge use words like “wheatish” to describe the complexion of the girl, just so it isn’t confused with dark. Interestingly enough, the girl is expected to agree to a darker boy if he satisfies all requirements while the boy is expected to always aim for the fairer one. The stigma of having an unmarried girl at home is followed only by having an eligible but “darker” complexioned girl at home.
The Blame Game
Conspiracy theories in recent years point to the fact that Indian women have been competing and winning at beauty contests so international sponsors like Unilever and Proctor &Gamble can push their products more to the burgeoning population. While these are theories at most, it begets the question- what is the role of companies in building a just and meaningful society. Is it selling whatever sells the most for a “fair” society or is it to break conventional notions of beauty and give importance to the intelligence and inner beauty of the woman?.
So who do we blame for this?. The people or the companies that perpetrate the crime by advertising “fairness” products the way they do. Is the younger generation any better or will it continue to live in the darkness of their parents and ancestors?. Something has to change. In the 21st century when an intelligent person is tremendously respected all over the world, the worst possible way of treating someone is by the color of their skin. India has to come out of its color complex.