I was late into catching the second season of the now much-talked about OTT show, Made in Heaven. Much has been written about it already—both in newspaper articles and on the social media. Some have heaped praises, some have been critical, some have termed it “preachy”. But when the credits rolled after the first episode—which explored the significance of skin colour in India—all I could marvel at was how this continues to be a subject of relevance even today. That I was watching the show soon after a long conversation with a friend made the point even more stark. “She asked me for a fairness cream,” my friend had said about her daughter, shocked and dismayed in equal amount. Her child is just five.
When I was young, I remember being asked by my mother to rub wedges of lemon on my elbows and knees to "lighten" the skin colour. Turmeric, I would hear women tell each other, could lighten the complexion, so would gram flour. Two and half decades on, a lot has changed. We have even become the first country in the world to land on the unchartered territory of the Moon’s South Pole. At the risk of sounding cliched, the collective obsession over aspiring to be, or looking for a spouse/daughter-in-law with a chaand sa chehra (moon face) has, however, not abated. How else would you explain the scores of matrimonial ads even today that begin with that same old line, “Looking for a fair, slim, ….”
The fairness cream market in India is estimated to be worth nearly ₹5,000 crore. This includes only fairness creams and bleach. There is a whole range of treatments readily available to lighten one’s skin tone, including chemical peels, laser treatment, vampire facial, and glutathione injection which the primary character in the first MIH episode is shown to have taken for that "glow" on her wedding day. The need to be politically correct may have changed our vocabulary and replaced “fairness” with “glow” or “complexion improvement”, but the crux of the issue remains the same: your skin tone defines your beauty. And while we may squarely blame fairness cream brands and ads for this, it is often a reflection of who we are as a society and the deep conditioning in believing certain things.
So while my friend may have not mentioned the F word (fairness, in this case) in front of her daughter, her grandmother did. “There was no malice…she was telling someone how a little clearing up would be good for N,” the friend said about the incident. Her mother-in-law was concerned that the little girl may feel "overshadowed" by her fairer cousin in their joint family. Her concern however planted the first seed of self-doubt in the little girl’s mind.
India’s fascination with fair skin is age-old. Urvashi Butalia, author and manager of Kali for Women, the country’s first feminist publishing house, was quoted in an article titled India's disturbing obsession with fair skin in the website World Crunch, saying that “whiteness is linked to power” because those who reigned over India, from the Aryans to the British, were light-skinned. Caste dynamics are also at play here—fair-skinned people are perceived as being of upper caste, with better financial and social status. The Dark is Beautiful campaign—started in 2009 by an India-based non-profit called Women of Worth—goes on to add that British historians observed since upper castes were not involved in tedious labour and weren’t as exposed to the sun as the lower castes, they used to stay indoors and thus possessed lighter brown skin. The lower castes on the other hand had higher concentration of melanin in their skin cells due to continued exposure to the sun from working in agricultural fields and outdoors. Kathy Russel Cole, author of the book, The Colour Complex: The Politics of Skin Colour in a New Millenium corroborates this and elaborates how Western standards of beauty are influencing cultures across the world.
While reading about the subject on the internet, I came across a parenting blog in which a mother to a three-year-old girl admitted that she was relieved when her daughter was born fair-skinned. “I am dark-skinned. While growing up, I was subjected to so-called harmless jokes by cousins who took potshots at my skin colour. I would laugh along, trying to fit it. I have used many different fairness products, followed up on advises of aunts on home-based solutions, and then used make-up to hide my real skin. I didn’t want my daughter to face all that,” she wrote.
In another blog, a parent wanted to know how to improve her six-year-old’s complexion. Disheartening as it was to read this, there was a flicker of hope: most in the comments section advised the mother to instill in her daughter the belief that beauty does not have a singular definition; that her skin tone does not define who she is.
Colour discrimination does not affect women alone. Fair skin bias exists across gender, but is more prominent among women. According to a 2012 survey by a matrimonial website, 71 per cent of women would prefer a fair-skinned partner. And among fairness products, there are those like Fair and Handsome which project the same as such products usually do for women—being fair equates to being more attractive.
The MIH episode concludes hauntingly with a voice-over, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, Who’s the fairest of them all? When so early on you are made to believe that white is beautiful, no matter what anyone tells you, the magic of black and brown will always seem like a lie.” Yes, things are changing; yes, we have powerful campaigns like Dark is Beautiful with an anthem, India’s Got Colour, but we still have a long way to go.
Azera Parveen Rahman is a writer currently based in Bhuj, Gujarat.