Dark is beautiful

Indian film actress and campaign ambassador Nandita Das.

Indian film actress and campaign ambassador Nandita Das. Photo: The India Today Group

As a teen I remember going to the local spice shop and buying a small pink and white tube of skin cream. As I would apply the lotion, the bleach infused cream would sting my skin before drying into my face.

The cream was Fair and Lovely, a whitening product used to cater to the subcontinent’s obsession with fair skin. Unlike positive desi imports like samosas and chutney, the sinister preference for fair skin has been carried into the west by diaspora desi communities to devastating effect.  Whilst the preference is more pronounced among first generation migrants, the message to younger women is clear. Fairness is synonymous with beauty. To be beautiful one must be light-skinned.  Fair skinned girls were marriage material.

The new Dark is Beautiful campaign in India supported by Bollywood actress Nandita Das, aims  to challenge this view and stem the desi craze for whitening creams fed by the notion that success and beauty is synonymous with fairness.  In India the preference is not only skin-deep but involves systemic discrimination. Darker-skinned people face social taunts and ostracisation, find it harder to get jobs and attract a partner, with personal ads going into excruciating detail,  stressing ‘fair’ or ‘wheatish’  complexion credentials.

Whitening creams are regularly promoted by India’s celebrities, with men too facing the pressure to be fair. Fair and handsome has also been launched into the market, promoted by Bollywood heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan, who is shown advocating the cream to a  star struck fan who wants some of Khan’s glamour to rub off on him. The dejected fan tries the product and is transformed into a confident stud,  lighter-skinned and awash in female admirers.

For the young women I knew, the pressure fed our already existing adolescent insecurity. It was a quiet competition. I saw hidden tubes in bathrooms, evidence of the quest for societal affirmation the fair skinned seemed to get from the adults in our lives as well as from Bollywood films and satellite television, awash with fair-skinned starlets that represented the epitome of beauty and glamour.

It set the scene for a toxic and sometimes self-loathing relationship young desi women had with their bodies and faces. We weren’t reflected in the Aussie magazines like Dolly, Cleo or Cosmo and neither where we realistically reflected in the media from the homeland.  The fairness game had serious casualties, with risks of burns, rashes and permanent skin damage. I remember a young woman who came from a summer holiday in Pakistan bleached at least ten shades lighter, her already light skin, a strange chalky pallor.   

While I still catch myself getting worried about getting sunburned, I grew out of this phase as I developed a feminist consciousness, becoming aware of the dangerous beauty myths being sold in these tubes and by my society.

Interestingly, the Hindi and Urdu word for a fair desi person , “gora” or the feminine “gori” is the same for “white person”  though it’s used more as a adjective than a noun. To Anglo people the preference seems nonsensical, gradations of skin colour in the brown spectrum almost negligible. But African American women also complain of similar pressures and the preference for the lighter skinned in their community. It’s easy to see this stemming from the complex relationship minorities share with  dominant society which transmits messages of desirability.

It is up for debate whether the preference for fair skin in the subcontinent is a colonial hang-up or predates it, reaching back perhaps into a complex history of centuries of caste and class-based social hierarchies.

But just like the ‘Black is beautiful’ slogan popularised by 60’s black feminists became a rallying call, I hope the ‘Dark is beautiful’ or ‘Brown is beautiful’ call-out becomes just as celebratory for the young   men and women struggling to see the beauty in being brown.

Sarah Malik is a journalist, blogger and Monash university journalism lecturer. Follow her on  twitter.

27 comments

  • The obsession with palid skin is definitely tied up with the caste system but the British colonial period intensified it. Brahmins tend to be lighter skinned and because they spend more time indoors, as do all upper caste people, this is a quick and easy and subconscious way to "read" someone's social level. A similar thing exists in China but minus the nasty caste implications.

    Commenter
    Catch 22
    Date and time
    August 20, 2013, 8:57AM
    • It's also very common in the Philippines. I was amazed at the amount of skin-whitening products in the shops there and ads on TV. I would give anything to have darker skin ... funny isn't it?

      Commenter
      JJ
      Date and time
      August 20, 2013, 9:42AM
    • And in China and even in 'westernised' Asia like Hong Kong

      Commenter
      asdf
      Date and time
      August 20, 2013, 1:28PM
  • "To Anglo people the preference seems nonsensical, gradations of skin colour in the brown spectrum almost negligible"

    Not all Anglo's. I am white - blindingly so. My nickname through school, and even to this day as a 38 year old, is Casper. I see the different hues of white as I have always - desperately - wanted to get a tan and fit in with the other "whities". I lso have two absolutely stunning Indian friends. One is a lighter colour than the other. To me, I see no need to change them as they are both beautiful on this inside and out. Yet even now, the darker of the two is harrassed by her mother to bleach her skin or she'll never be able to find a husband or have a family. My friend puts on a brave face but the hurt she endures breaks my heart.

    I can agree with Sarah Malik completely. I know not being Indian means I have never personaly experienced it, but I've suffered from the reverse - wanting to be darker, and I see the pain this causes my friend and it makes me so sad that all Indian women are not taken on who they are and their own worth :(

    Commenter
    Dhammachick
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 20, 2013, 9:02AM
    • Dhammachick.
      I, too, am very pale, and as a child I would sunbake for hours, but I was only ever going to burn. Even now, the prevalent attitude in Australia is, ''you must not be pale''. Witness racing carnivals and school formals, where women equate fake tan with beauty.
      I've never, as an adult, bought into that. In any case, fake tan would look ludicrous on me due to my hair and eye colour.
      And it's just too much effort. At least some actors have begun to come through who are very pale, such as Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman and Tilda Swinton.

      Commenter
      Matilda
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 20, 2013, 4:05PM
    • @Matilda. Yep I only once let a girlfriend convince me to get a spray tan - it was hideous! I wore long linen pants and shirts for three weeks straight till it faded. I'm with you on the effort part too :) I wish there wasn't that much pressure on people to be other than who they are.

      Commenter
      Dhammachick
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 20, 2013, 5:30PM
  • Isn't the opposite sort of happening in Australia? It's always been considered sexy to have a tan and have that "sun kissed" look about you.

    In a country that prides itself on being outdoorsy and beachy, nothing is considered sexier than having a rocking olive tan at summertime. We consider a tan to be a signifier of virility and health. (Pale people are seen as spending too much time indoors and being inactive).

    My understanding is that in places like India and Vietnam, darker skin is considered unattractive because paler skin is considered a signifier of affluence (i.e. your skin is pale because you aren't outside working the fields, and therefore more attractive as a potential mate).

    I think this campaign is a good idea in theory but I doubt that it will do much to change entrenched attitudes that have existed for decades if not centuries.

    Commenter
    Adrian
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 20, 2013, 9:17AM
    • So how about if you have a tan and are obese - what category do you fall in then?

      Commenter
      Cimbom
      Location
      Real World
      Date and time
      August 20, 2013, 10:11AM
    • Then you'd be tanned and obese? I really don't get the point you're trying to make?

      There are plenty of plus sized people out there who go and get fake tans and/or go to solariums because they feel it makes them more attractive... so the point of my original post still stands.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 20, 2013, 11:37AM
    • Agree with you Adrian. Even in England back in the day it was seen as a good thing to have lighter skin, because if you had a tan it meant you worked outside with the rest of the working class.

      Commenter
      Budz
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 20, 2013, 4:06PM

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