.....Of them all.
Strangely enough this dialogue where fairness is used as a word interchangeable for beauty is not from any bollywood movie of India. The fairness fixation of Indians is a well-known phenomenon, and much has been said and discussed on the topic. My reason for making a post on it, is mainly triggered by a few posts I recently read on blogs by western women, who couldn't fathom this obsession of Indians.
The first post was this, followed by another post here . My reply on the first post essentially triggered the second blogger to blog about the topic. I had poured my heart out over the topic on the two blogs, so I felt that maybe I too should blog about the topic in my blog to present my point of view about this confusing and puzzling obsession.
I am aware that this is a big craze in my country, I grew up there, I did notice it ofcourse when I was growing up, it wasn't as big a craze and business as it is today, because this was partly pre-liberalization India, which was not yet identified as a big 'market' by corporations. But notice it I did, around me, in little instances growing up. I was never caught up in the craze of lightening myself, mainly because of my mother who told me that those products could cause cancer or some other horrific skin problems ( dunno if it's true or not as I've never known any case of cancer from using too much face lightening skin cream), and that I'm beautiful the way I am (I'm wheatish ) , but I did have a few friends who tried it for a while before realizing that it didn't work, and gave up. I have never yet seen any young girl who was obsessed with making herself fair, yes, I do know some girls who wish they were a few shades lighter, and also some others who were happy that they are quite fair, but that was about it.
Many people (especially western women) seem curious why this is such an obsession in India. I remember Oprah even asked this question to Aishwarya Rai when she first interviewed her (which btw, I think aishwarya did a dismal job of explaining both this issue and the arranged marriage issue, ughhh but moving on) , so this issue garners a lot of attention. Very recently there was another controversy about Aishwarya and fairness , when her cover shot for Elle appeared lighter than her original color, but this isn't something that's happened for the first time with Elle, remember Gabourey Sidibe whose cover shot not only appeared lighter than her real color, but was also cropped so as to not have a full body shot, and instead just have a head shot (almost), unlike the skinny models. So, this issue does surface every now and then due to the fashion industry (oh! what would we do without them !!)
To get to the root of the Indian obsession with light skin is nearly impossible for me, it still confuses and perplexes me even to this day, why is it that in a country where majority of the women have a healthy shade of brown, are fair women considered more beautiful ? There are many theories, that it's the after effect of the colonial mentality of having to bow down to the white man prior to independence, or the fact that the upper caste (& class) of India usually have lighter skins (partly due to genetics & partly due to living a privileged lifestyle i.e out of the sun), so being fair is seen like a social status symbol of sorts . Maybe it's a combination of those factors. Whatever the reason, the fairness mania is surely not going away any time soon.
In recent years, corporations seem to be pouring big money into popularizing the product (fairness creams) across demographics, whenever I visit India, I see an increased number of fairness cream ads on tv , way more than what I saw growing up, also I observe a new strategy they seem to be working on, which is linking fairness to completely unrelated issues like getting a job, or getting a promotion and such. Now, this is not exactly a true depiction of the ground realities, people are not rejected for a job based on skin color alone, but i suppose this is a clever ploy by the marketing people of these big corporations, to position their product in the 'essentials' category, rather than 'cosmetics'. The people from smaller towns and cities are unlikely to spend money on a cosmetic product, unless ofcourse, the feel it's essential, and this is precisely the aim of the ad's , to make people think that the cream has supernatural powers, and it can land you that dream job, or get you that promotion, etc. In reality, in urban India, one is more likely to come across an english-non english speaking bias, than anything else, i.e the one's with fluent english speaking skills will get picked easily, but one is made to think that maybe it's the dusky complexion that's the cause by these advertizing campaigns.
Where this color issue might come into play in reality is the arranged marriage scenario. I dunno what to make of that, because I have mixed feelings, on this matter. On one hand I find it incredibly shallow, and unbelievably superficial for someone to place a high importance on skin color, but on the other hand, I also feel that to each their own in this matter, this is a very personal matter for people, and they have to spend the rest of their lives together, and everyone has their own set of qualities they look for in a spouse, some look for education, some want financial security, some look for meshing of the minds, so likewise some may want a fair spouse, who's to say that one's better than the other ?? I dunno if it is ?? If you think about all preferences are a discrimination against someone, isn't it ?? So, I dunno what's the right answer in this matter. I too like most Indian women, would love to see this particular preference go away from matrimonial columns, but honestly I can't say that they are entirely wrong in having the preference .
To me this whole issue is complicated. I feel that every society in human history has had their own set of physical features/attributes that they value, that are considered a symbol of beauty. What those attributes are may vary from culture to culture but the pattern of holding women to a benchmark, or a standard of beauty remains unchanged across different cultures. Infact, after living in the US for such a long time, I find it an extremely superficial, and looksist (is that even a word???) culture. Women are constantly running after achieving some impossible target of beauty. In comparison I find India's fairness obsession fairly benign to be honest, it's not something most girls will try to kill themselves trying to run after, yes they may want a better color, but most won't go to drastic levels to achieve it. Contrast that to what I see women doing in America, is simply scary....women having eating disorders, or putting themselves at extreme health risks trying to lose weight, even having life threatening surgeries like gastric bypass, to achieve quick weight loss, or being addicted to tanning, to the point of getting skin cancers, or going to extreme lengths to perfect their body, by getting dangerous cosmetic surgeries, like breast augmentation, tummy tucks, liposuction, etc, etc. The list is endless. I find american women in a perpetual quest of perfecting their body, I have even seen several different shows which revolve purely around how some women have completely transformed themselves after drastic cosmetic procedures ( extreme makeover, the swan, etc), and I have yet to see a show in India, where women go to get fairer . America is obsessed by worshiping beauty and striving to achieve it, I see already gorgeous women, going to crazy lengths, trying to perfect tiny flaws. So I do think that every culture, teaches women to hold themselves to a standard (impossible in most cases).
Now, the big question whether marketing and commercialization is responsible for the beauty craze over the world , or whether culture dictates what the media propagates in terms of standards of beauty is like the chicken and egg situation . One can't say for sure, which causes which, but the fact remains that beauty was valued since time immemorial, much before there ever was such a thing as the media machine . Nefertiti, Cleopatra, or even most Indian godesses (lakshmi, sita etc who are considered a symbol of beauty ) are not the product of any media campaign. However, I believe that media does have a major role to play in creating a kind of self-doubt or lowering women's self confidence by furthering the cultural standards of beauty, or even hyping them up unnecessarily. If corporations wouldn't pour millions or dollars into pushing needless products on women, then the mania would not reach unreal and ridiculous levels. Magazines in issue after issue telling (brainwashing) women the beauty regimen they should follow, spreading the gospel of beauty. If we completely take out the media aspect of brainwashing women, even then it's unlikely that aspiration of beauty and holding women to a standard will completely go away, but it could make a significant difference in way it affects a woman's self-confidence and self-esteem. Without constant in your face recognition of those beauty standards, they become easy to ignore and forget.
Hoping that societies and cultures can rid themselves of all stereotypes, and of all benchmarks of beauty is foolhardy. The fact is that women aspire to be beautiful, they place value on being labeled as such, and till such a time that being beautiful (as per their own culture) remains a priority for women, media will continue to exploit this very inherent need, and the women in-turn will allow themselves to be victimized by the media madness and the cultural norms.