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How can Indian moms ensure that their daughters believe in themselves regardless of colour, and learn that ‘only fair is lovely’ is a lie?
By Sandhya Renukamba
I remember a day many years ago – a ‘boy’ and his family were coming to ‘see’ my eldest cousin. An elderly uncle decided that all the others were to stay inside until the guests had left. Since we were all fairer than her, the ‘boy’ might get into comparisons, and not agree to the marriage! I recall arguing with him, indignant on her behalf. My mother, being the youngest daughter-in-law, said nothing then, but did speak to me later, many times over the years whenever the fair-and-lovely monster reared its head, and helped me put things in as much perspective as was possible in an openly discriminatory society.
Things have become a lot worse since. A consumer culture and media onslaughts mean that lightening every nook and cranny of the female body is in vogue today.
The magnitude of the problem came home to me when my daughter began to be targeted on account of her skin colour. This smart and extremely well-read girl (even if I say so myself) was disconsolate for a completely absurd reason. Yes, this problem had reared its head often, but I had not seen it directly affecting her spirit until now. I had tackled the comments at my level, but it had clearly not been enough. As frivolous as this kind of discrimination is, it can leave wounds that go deep.
So what are Indian moms (and dads) to do?
As with every parenting conundrum, keeping communication channels open with your child is the most important thing. She should feel comfortable coming to you with her woes.
Watch how you talk to your child, the words you use. Don’t compare her unfavourably with lighter-skinned peers. Don’t ask her to slather on the sunblock because ‘it will keep you from getting dark in the sun’. If sunburn is your concern, speak about the pain of the burn.
Praise your child for her efforts at the things she does. Value her for who she is. Love her whole-heartedly and tell her in words how much you love her. Hug her a lot. Give her your undivided, positive attention, when she tells you something. Make her feel comfortable in her skin. Encourage positive friendships. Take the help of books – there are plenty of relevant ones out there. The self-esteem she gains will stand her in good stead when she needs to face the world and its ugly comments.
Teach her that as with any other bullying, the best way to deal with this is to I.G.N.O.R.E hurtful comments. Take it as a compliment, laugh it off, and see how that throws the person off track. Use wit to deflect the barb, or even give it back – sometimes it is worthwhile to be a little nasty. Involve empathetic teachers.
A new-born’s colour is the second thing noticed and commented upon after its gender. Even as toddlers, the message is sent to a dark skinned child, particularly a girl-child, that there is something intrinsically wrong with her. ‘Well-meaning’ relatives, friends and family ‘advise’ the parents on ‘solutions’ to lighten the skin, and comment upon the lack of ‘marital prospects’.
Deal firmly with such comments, especially if they have been made in front of the child.
Are you dark-skinned yourself? Do you have issues with your own skin tone? Be proud of who you are. You’ll send mixed messages to your child even if you say the right things.
Shalini Modi, a mother of 12-year-old twins, the son a special child, says she always tells her daughter, “The twinkle in your eyes, and being good to others makes you a better person, not how fair you are.” Namrata Vora, mother to two girls, believes in a balanced diet and plenty of exercise – both physical and mental – as indispensable to looking good, not the skin colour.
These could be books, movies, TV, commercials… avoiding these altogether is impractical, given that they are everywhere around us. Seize the opportunity, though, whenever possible to stress the message that you want to give your child.
Very young children, of course, cannot differentiate between right and wrong, so it is best to censor what they watch.
Children do want to look good, no matter what the ideal situation should be. Pallavi Kulkarni, a school teacher, says she has to deal with this regularly. “Sometimes,” she says, “it is more important to comfort a hurt child and tell her that she is pretty, rather than teach her how to deal with it. Teach your daughter to choose clothes that complement her skin tone, so that she knows she looks good.”
If your child is fair-skinned, watch what she hears and learns too. Lighter-skinned children are often made to feel special – this can be just as bad for them as individuals, and they could become one of those who are making the hurtful comments. Sangitha Karthik*, a special educator and mother to two lovely children, a biological daughter and an adopted son, says she has to battle people who comment on her son’s skin colour, while overlooking his qualities as a person. “My daughter has reverse pressure – son’s the one who is struggling with being targeted for having dark skin and she’s stuck feeling like fair skin isn’t such a great thing. We say things like dark skin is better suited for our weather, more melanin – making it a health/safety thing versus beauty.”
My sister-in-law has a daughter who is pink-fair, and has to actively stop people from making admiring comments. “I have to keep talking to her regularly to prevent it from going to her head,” she says.
There are committed people out there putting up a fight against the fair-and-lovely scourge. Indian moms (and dads) can use these campaigns to talk to a tween-plus daughter, as a counterpoint to the constant bombardment of negative stereotypes, and reinforce that dark too, is beautiful.
*Names changed on request.
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