Dark is beautiful
The Indian obsession with fair skin seems unfair considering eight out of ten Indians are dark in complexion. Our mythology is rich with...
The Indian obsession with fair skin seems unfair considering eight out of ten Indians are dark in complexion. Our mythology is rich with ‘dark’ Gods like Rama, Krishna and Kali. Yet, generations of Indians have been subjected to the fair and dark complexion discrimination. Fairy tales, media, ads, films and other imageries keep conveying the wrong message that fair is lovely and dark is not. Now, a new wave of activism is gathering momentum in India and questioning the skin tone bias. 66 years of Independence. 1.2 billion shades of beauty!
I found my own space with a group of people to who it did not seem to matter if I was black, brown or yellow. Journalism and its experiences, the exposure to hundreds of different experiences, people, situations on an everyday basis, helped me toughen up, look at life in a more positive way and shed the pessimism that had become second nature to me
- Sudha menon
I see no pressing need to comment on the skin colour. Please understand that this is in reference to a context, where there has been an overt preference for the fair skin for centuries, and therefore it is important that we go deeper into its impact on people’s well being
- Nandita Das
Manju Latha Kalanidhi
It all begins the moment you are born. Soon after the gender of the newborn is announced, the next question is – Is he/she fair? Then the comparisons begin on how the child is as fair as the mother, but not as fair as the father/sister/brother and so on. The defensive moms come up with instances how she or her husband were also of average complexion when young but soon blossomed into fair and lovely individuals. Not far away are matronly ladies who advice the new mommies to apply besan/turmeric/sandal paste to the newborn to ensure she/he grows up ‘white’. Whenever you meet a friend after years, the conversation invariably goes to how you have put on/lost weight and yes, if you’ve tanned a lot! Even the fairest seem to get stumped with this question.
Frankly, is this hoo-hah about fair skin necessary in India where eight out of ten people are, for the lack of a better word, ‘dark and dusky’ in their complexion? This is what is called ‘colorism’, a term coined by American author and activist Alice Walker in 1982. This has given rise to ‘pigmentocracy,’ a term recently adopted by social scientists to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin colour.
According to a survey by a fairness brand recently, skin whitening products are popular in Asia. It is not just a phenomenon restricted to India. Four out of ten women surveyed in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea used, a skin whitening cream, and more than 60 companies globally compete for Asia's estimated $18 billion market.
Interestingly, Indian mythology is full of stories of dark Gods and Goddesses. Krishna was of dark complexion. Lord Rama is known to be a neela megha shyama (as dark as the blue-black cloud). Goddess Kali is also dark and ferocious.
Previous generations lived with this discussion and discrimination over fair and dark skins. Most generations even resigned to their fate that only fair is lovely; and dark, or well euphemistically called ‘dusky,’ is something they have to work upon using turmeric and sandal pastes, fairness creams, high SPF lotions, gold facials, anti-tan packs. Now skin polishing, derma abrasions or chemical peels and what nots. Well anything to get your skin a few shades fairer!
But luckily, the battle against dark skin discrimination is gathering momentum. Newspapers, electronic and social media are suddenly buzzing with new ideas and new concepts on how to beat this useless stigma. There is no need to cringe at your skin complexion, they all seem to say. Your skin colour does not matter or have an impact on your marks, your intelligence, your job prospects (in most cases), your promotions or your happiness, they say in unison.
Perhaps the most vocal person on this matter has been Bollywood actress and social activist Nandita Das. While Nandita says she has no qualms being called ‘dark and dusky’ as she loves calling a spade a spade, she does, however, wonder why there is a need to describe her through the colour of her skin as she thinks there is more to her! “Or is it simply because it is rather rare for a female actor to be dark and therefore it becomes imperative to make a point about it,” she says.
Any person’s complexion is only one of its many features or characteristics and therefore to give it undue importance would be to do injustice to the person. That’s all. “While writing about me as an actor or my involvement in social issues, I see no pressing need to comment on the skin colour. Please understand that this is in reference to a context, where there has been an overt preference for the fair skin for centuries, and therefore it is important that we go deeper into its impact on people’s well being. I am lucky that my parents didn’t instill any kind of complex, but I have seen hundreds of young girls losing their confidence and developing low self esteem because of being dark.
Yes, the glorification of the fair skin has been there in our films for a long, long time. But it only reflects the bias of the society. In subtle and blatant ways, our language has things like, “uska rang saaf hai” for fairness as if the dark skin is dirty! Movies have songs like Gorey rang pe na itna gummankar, Hum kaale hain to kya hua dilwale hain. It is tough to combat a mindset that finds many manifestations in songs, stories, myths and fables.
Nandita says one cannot blame only stars such as John Abraham and Shah Rukh Khan who endorse fairness creams and perhaps subliminally promoting the wrong assumption that dark complexion leads to a hopeless sense of inadequacy and the corrective measure is to use the product they advertise for.
“I am not sitting on judgment and don’t want to reduce this deeper prejudice to any one brand or celebrity. We are all complicit in it. I can’t believe that any sensible and sensitive person doesn’t understand the repercussion such imageries and advertisements would have on young and vulnerable minds, but I guess the monies are big and people lose perspective. That is why it is important to have dialogue and debates around issues like this, in the public space,” she says talking about her pet cause.
It was originally Women of Worth, a organisation headed by Kavitha Emmanuel in Chennai, which started ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign in 2009 that draws attention to the unjust effects of skin colour bias and also celebrates the beauty and diversity of all skin tones.
The campaign challenges the belief that the value and beauty of people is determined by the fairness of their skin. This belief, shaped by societal attitudes and reinforced by media messages, is corroding the self-worth of countless people, young and old.
As a child, Nandita was subjected to discrimination several times, especially when she would walk into a cosmetic store and the sales persons thrusts anti-tan or fairness cream, or and later would be told by the make up man that she should not worry as he is an expert in making people fair. “I think each one of us needs to be comfortable in our skin, even if the world around us tells us we are not good enough. We are defined by what we do, how we think and respond to situations and not by birth identities like cast, religion, nationality or the colour of our skin. We have no hand in them, so why feel proud or ashamed about it.”
Dr Devdutt Pattanaik, author, speaker and mythologist in his 'Black Gods and White Gods’ says: Physics informs us that when light is thrown on a surface and all colours of the light spectrum are absorbed then what we see is the colour black. If instead all colours of the light spectrum are reflected back then what we see is white. Krishna, who is Ranganatha, lord of colours and drama, embraces all the colours of life, and who celebrates all the emotions of worldliness, is therefore black. Shiva, the ascetic, who reflects back all emotions and chooses to stay disengaged, is naturally white.
Business journalist - turned - author Sudha Menon who wrote successful books such as ‘Legacy - a collection of letters to their daughters from eminent Indian personalities’ and ‘Leading Ladies-Women Who Inspire India’ recalls how she herself suffered humiliation as a young girl for her dark complexion. “Every birthday, I would wait breathlessly for the new dress that each of us got on the special day of our lives. Amma would lovingly bring out a dress in the morning, so that I could wear it to school that day. My heart would break a little when I unwrapped the box and pulled out yet another dull colour that would become almost my second skin for the better part of the year. Times were tough for the family and we each got one new dress for Diwali and for our birthday. My wait for the next new dress was not too long since I am October-born and Diwali is always around that time but I would be disappointed then too because I got yet another drab coloured dress. The festival of lights was certainly not festive for me.” However, it did not take long for Sudha to understand that fair need not always be lovely and that dark is beautiful.
“Away from the judgements of the community around, I found my own space with a group of people to who it did not seem to matter if I was black, brown or yellow.
Journalism and its experiences, the exposure to hundreds of different experiences, people, situations on an everyday basis, helped me toughen up, look at life in a more positive way and shed the pessimism that had become second nature to me,” she adds. Today, the successful author, blogger and panel speaker gets compliments for her looks and that too when she wears bright pinks, oranges or blues, in complete defiance to what she was often told about when she was young. Interestingly, her photographs get splashed across newspaper and magazines for her intelligent writings, thankfully overlooking her complexion.
Dr Lakshmi Chelluri, faculty in department of sociology at the University of Hyderabad, believes that it took nearly one generation (perhaps the ones born in the 1960s and 70s) to break the myth that fairness is not everything in life. “There are perhaps a miniscule percentage of jobs where beauty/skin tone is paramount. One can always be an excellent doctor, engineering, journalist, lawyer, teacher, etc, regardless of their skin colour.”
She says that media and imageries need to change to give out the brand new message that inner beauty and confidence matters, not skin tone or your weight. “There is nothing wrong if a fairness cream says using the product makes your skin lighter/fairer. Maybe, that’s a fact. But the interpretation that you will meet your dream boy/girl, get a better job or promotion or get accepted in the society because you look fairer now is complete nonsense.”
Stay unfair, stay beautiful. That seems to be the top thought that is finding new ground and support. 66 years of Independence. 1.2 billion shades of beauty!