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Fairness: The Absolute Standard Of Beauty

Posted: August 29, 2012
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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.

Fairness craze in IndiaThe 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)

 

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9 Comments


  1. Rekha

    I am a dark skinned women married to an Anglo-Indian who is fair, almost like a foreigner. So is my MIL who gets mistaken for a foreigner quite often. My son is fair-skinned, much to the relief of his grandparents – both sets. So, I was actually wondering few days ago whether my son, as he grows up…will he be ashamed of his mother`s dark skin? Well, he may. And that would be because the attraction towards fair skin is imbibed in our minds from a young age…one cannot blame. He will be told in subtle and obvious manner that fair is good and dark is bad. Anyways, it is for him to realize when he grows up to cognizance, understand this complex society and the way it functions. He will realize the folly of following prejudices. I hope he thinks like his father. What triggered me to write this post, because I am sure, you must be thinking as to why I am worried about something that has not happened or may not happen. I will tell you why.
    We always seen that our six month son, likes small girls who smile and fuss with him and goof around him. We even tease him that he got his first kiss from a cute girl we met at his clinic. She was very fair. Today, my FIL took him to the basement of the apartment complex we live in and there were two cute, not-so-fair, young girls playing. They came over to him and tried to play with him. He did not respond as much he would…don’t know why, maybe he was just watching them play with their toys and also, he was hungry and sleepy, ready for his afternoon nap. FIL brings him back to our apartment, and narrates to me and MIL that he did not smile or do what he does normally. Phat!…came the reply from my MIL — “oh! he likes fair-skinned, young pretty girls”. FIL did not respond to it. It was like something sank in my heart. Can`t describe the feeling. It was not anger I felt, it was like my unfounded fears, found some ground.

  2. Much has been written about this, when will it all end is the question.!

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  4. Fairness has nothing to do with being beautiful. Many fair skinned men and women can also be unattractive and many fair skinned men and women can be attractive and same with dusky skin as well many of the dusky skin men and women can be attractive and hot and many can be unattractive. Its features and a good body and personality that makes a man or a woman admirable or attractive not skin tone. I have dusky skin and was made to feel that i wasn’t good enough as a child as i grew up in India i had developed an inferiority complex but when i moved to Australia I started to like the Indian brown skin because people here like brown skin and they have tanning salons here. You will actually be surprised to find out how many actresses in Bollywood are actually brown skinned. i hope bollywood stops painting their dusky skinned beauties lighter and gets audiences to accept them the way they are because they have beautiful features and a hot body….fair doesn’t make a woman look beautiful, if a woman lacks features and a good body then fairness can do nothing. All the fair and lovely adds are misleading and rubbish…. Even Bollywood stars endorse skin-whitening creams – the film industry is very much part of the problem.. if Ashwarya was painted dark, then she would still be considered drop dead gorgeous, and she would have still won the worlds most beautiful woman title..fairness is given importance only in India because they have been taught as children that beauty means being fair. So they grow up associating beauty and sophistication with being fair. I feel sorry for people who cannot come out of that old backward mentality. If I Painted Ashwarya darker and painted myself fairer people would still find ashwarya beautiful…as for me looking fairer wouldn’t enhance my beauty. So fairness is not beauty according to me. I prefer looking dusky, there is something beautiful about this skin tone.

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  7. Men biologically are apparently attracted to fairer skin. Not just among asian, indian and middl eastern populations. But also Europeans and Latinos. Tanning just became a luxury status thing since it ment you were rich enough to vacation in the tropics over the winter.
    Besides a guy trying to lighten his skin sounds pretty gay. Tall dark and handsome is not what im getting at. But black guys here get all the girls here with their style, muscle and vibe. Besides tanned skin on a man looks more masculine

    • Where are you getting your “scientific” information from? Also, your use of the word gay in a negative light tells the reader how ignorant you are.

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