Guest blogger Smita Lal is a freelance writer and a theatre artist actively involved with the Asmita theatre group, a socially and politically involved theatre group active since the last twenty years. She is an actor with them. Originally from Delhi, she has studied Media and Global studies in the UK. She writes on myriad topics on lifestyles concerning different cultures besides doing full time theatre.
‘Groom required for a girl who is convent educated, very fair looking and slim’. That’s how a general ad for a matrimonial column would read. Our culture is fascinated and overly fixated with a fair complexion; maybe it’s an inherent trait embedded into our mind-sets through many cultural practices over the centuries. But somehow there is a marked difference between innately wanting to look glowing and healthy as opposed to obsessively going to any lengths to achieve unnatural results just because there is a certain ‘acceptable’ virtue attributed to it. It’s the consequence of a conditioned thinking, the product of new age consumerism.
Going back historically, our preoccupation with fairness as an ideal form of beauty can be attributed to the Aryan invasions of India which somehow with its feudal set ups and caste specifications came to establish the colour superiority syndrome. Besides, with so many foreign invasions afterwards, be it from Mongolians and Persians till the British, the fair colour of the skin has always been an inherent feature of the superior race strategy to throw the natives especially of the Dravidian race into a circle of inferiority. And which later on the British never shied away from using this as their ‘white man’s supremacy’ propaganda to establish their supremacy over newly colonised India.
The gora or the memsahib are fair because they live in the lap of luxury and do not toil or work hard like slaves, so that in retrospect, the colour of the skin became indirectly symbolic of your lifestyle, upbringing and background.
And this mental conditioning has been handed down over the ages. This is further illustrated if we have a look at the advertisements for Pears soap in the 1890s. One of its marketing tools was to emphasize ‘the white man’s burden’ and how to relieve the pressure through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. ‘PEARS soap is a potent in in brightening the dark corners of the earth. A first step towards lightening.’
This mental conditioning which is highly racist and imperialist thinking was twisted into a feel good factor by our modern age brand stalwarts from the fairness industry. Fairness creams have been in the market since 1978, the pioneer of which was the Fair and Lovely brand introduced by Hindustan Lever. By the year 2010 the market for fairness cream has risen to 2100 crores (source Nielsen Co. Data).
The majority of these fairness creams claim that there will be a very noticeable difference in the clarity of the skin because of the whitening ingredient within a week. This would make a girl eligible for the marriage market.
A recent warning issued by the WHO is that one of the common ingredients used by some of these fairness creams is mercury which can have many adverse effects on the body such as kidney damage, anxiety and depression or peripheral Neuropathy. Apart from mercury, it also consists of other harmful ingredients such as hydroquinone and ammonia.
Over the years, fairness products have thrived on marketing which is not only misleading but but promotes negative stereotypes. Naomi Wolf in her world famous book ‘The Beauty Myth’ criticizes the fashion and beauty industries as exploitive of women, but claims that the beauty myth extends into all areas of human functioning. She introduces the term iron maiden which refers to an intrinsically unattainable standard of beauty that is then used to punish women physically and psychologically.
Wolf further argues that “the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished by an ideology that is using attitudes, economic pressure, and even legal judgments regarding women’s appearance to undermine us psychologically and politically”
The fixation with fairness just doesn’t subside with the face; since it almost controls 61% of the beauty industry, multinational companies are hell bent on capitalising on this nation’s obsession with fairness – from fair armpits, knees, elbows to very recently, the vagina. A benchmark of sexual freedom or is it another enslaved thought process owing to nourished insecurities in women when it comes to be looking your best in all “fairness”?
And why should fairness be confined to one gender? The so called alpha male has also come to relate success in relationships and career to having a fair skin…as there are specially, scientifically designed creams for men.
A fair skin is a prerequisite in all domains of Indian society – even in a cultural potpourri like Bollywood where they rely on airbrushing and graphic software to go many shades lighter and further endorse the lightning culture. The crux of the matter is, with our changing attitudes and more relaxed gender roles and economic evolution among women how liberated are we? It’s not just the companies who promote or build upon their clientele with this absolute idea of beauty.
Pic credit: Emme Manonen (Used under a Creative Commons license)