Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mirror Mirror on the wall....Who's the fairest...???

.....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.


  1. Sometimes it's so easy to lose context of things when they're out of our own realm of experience...I really, truly value having Western South Asian bloggers who are able to hold both sides in comparison!

  2. Awwww Sara...so sweet of you to say that (if you meant it towards me...:D), but you know I feel the same way about America. USA gave me so much in terms of a new way of understanding, and most of all it gave me a new set of eyes to look at my own country and all it's ways...I am forever grateful to Americans for that experience...:)

  3. Thanks for linking to my blog :)
    As you know I completely agree with the whole thing. The beauty craze is the same in France and Switzerland as it is in US, growing up my mom didn't tell me my magazines were crap, she used a more indirect approach asking me to read between the line, and find out that even the articles in magazines were not objective and were probably sponsored by the cosmetic industry...indeed brainwashing :) She chose the moment to talk about it, at the same time she raised the debate of objectiveness in women's magazines I was having a "information and media critics" cours in middle school that was part of the compulsory curriculum back then, one full term of learning what is the difference between objectivenss and subjectiveness and how these are used to manipulate us when we read an article or watch a documentary, warning us that we rarely get the whole story out of one piece of media work. Of course as a 15 yo it was considered cool to say that course was complete crap and that the teacher was an idiot, but the fact is that it is one of the most useful course I ever had to take, till date I still remember the content of it, and use it to form my own judgement on things.

  4. Thanks for link and for this viewpoint!

    Ugh...don't even get me started on American Women's obsession with looking 'good'.

    For years I struggled with that...when it was in to have straight hair, my hair was curly/frizzy. When it was in to wear glasses I was already wearing contacts. When it was in to wear tight fitting jeans, I was 15 pounds overweight. When hip huggers were in, I found that only boys jeans fit my nearly none existent waist (I have like maybe one inch between my rib cage and hip bones).

    And the weight issue has always been prevalent. Even in my Great Grandmother's time, it was 'unsightly' to be carrying a few extra pounds.

    I think so many things have contributed to this, media being a huge one and right up front. Magazines, movies, tv shows, newspapers, everyone having a say in what is attractive and posting pictures of women who fit that criteria and say such idiotic things like "Oh I don't exercise, I just eat healthy and go for walks." When in reality they have a personal trainer with them five days a week for two hours or more and a chef who prepares them structured meals (whether or not they actually eat it) and then rush off to the bathroom to throw up whatever they did eat.


    And the adverts for weight loss, the machinery, the absolute crap they sell to women!

    And then of course there is the American Culture of getting everything fast. Fast food, drive in's, ready made meals in the grocery food aisles.

    The Diets, the Fads, the secrets behind the stars great figures!


    The only one I ever bought into was the Body for Life series. I bought the book and the cook book and it was the best thing I ever did. It taught me that I can eat what I crave and how to be healthy about it. How to exercise with a can of green beans for a weight if I have to. Portion control. Healthy thinking. Healthy habits. He even provided a free site online for people to share stories, recipes and get advice. I lost a lot of weight doing that and over a healthy period of time. It helped me keep it off. I never got sick. My doctor even said my physical was the best if ever had been.

    But I got lucky and I was smart because I talked to my doctor about it first and asked her opinion. She researched it and told me it was healthy and safe for me. But not all women do that, they run out and buy all kinds of useless items to go with their new fad and then are astonished when it doesn't work or stops working or they get sick.

    And then they watch or read something that tells them that it's their fault.

    Thanks so much for this blog!!! A great topic!

  5. I love how you quoted Disney when in fact, in America most women strive to get a tan! It's so crazy and backwards. I can't explain the tan thing either but I can offer you some insight on why Americans are so obsessed with beauty. As children we are taught that we have to be beautiful and we have to do this and that so that ppl will like us. It's very demeaning. And unlike India, we are bombarded by TV shows and commercials (including Disney shows aimed at children) that tell us we have to be thin and we have to be...blah blah blah....in order to be happy and successful. It's really retarded.

    When I read these posts about fairness and see the commercials I can't help but think of the story of Radha and Krishna. Now, I'm absolutely no expert, but I remember the story saying how fair and lovely she was and how she was his favorite. Maybe women here just want to be thought of that way, much like women in America want to be someone's prized possession as well. I think that just shows that ppl miss the point of the story but that's life I guess.

    In the end, we all need to learn to love ourselves because all the money could be better spent on more important things. We would be healthier and happier in the long run if we were all just taught how beautiful and unique we are from the very beginning. We really don't need to be fair/tan or wear more make-up than Vegas showgirl.

  6. I second Sara it's great to hear a bit of perspective on this issue. I absolutely agree with you that the west is extremely looks obsessed. I guess it's easier to be fascinated by other people's obsessions than 'turn the gaze around' and examine your own. Thanks for an interesting post!

  7. Cyn and GR...welcome to the blog..:)) Thanks you both for your valuable comments and perspectives...

    @ white bhabhi: Yes I have noticed that American culture places high value on beauty, and yes, i know that people feel that in order for people to like them they have to look a certain way, which is why I called the culture 'looksist'. I think somewhere how you look has become so important, that it defines a person's self esteem or is a large part of it...sad.

    And about radha-krishna, you are right, radha was a fair maiden...there's even a famous bhajan ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9cNWMEjfC8) in which krishna asks his mom why radha is fair and he is dark?
    But not just radha, almost all the godesses of hinduism are described as fair and beautiful, except for godess kali ( who is a symbol of fear!!!! LOL)
    Hindu mythology is filled with such stereotypes, all the princesses and godesses were fair and beautiful, whereas the witches and demon women were dark (and thereby ugly, so this fair thing is certainly deep rooted, and not just a colonial hangover.
    In colloquial hindi 'gori' isn't just a word to describe a fair girl, it is mostly used to describe pretty girl. Tons of bollywood numbers start with the word gori, goriya, etc...they don't mean white girls, they are calling the girl pretty as being gori equals pretty..:))
    I don't expect to see a day in my lifetime, where women will be able to appreciate and accept their bodies for what they are, instead of what they think they should be...

    @ taswin : Yes, I agree people are always more interested more in what problems/issues/obsessions, etc other's have, rather than focussing on their own. Indians are the champions of this, they will talk about problems the world over, but will lightly brush aside problems that plague India, talk about ignoring the elephant in the room...LOL...

  8. I think that print media has put very unreal expectations of beauty on all sorts of women. In an age where we can completely alter images with a couple clicks, women are left feeling inadequate. We all know the examples of photo shopping models so much that their heads are wider than their waists but skin is photo shopped to allow us to believe that pores don't need to be possible. Couple that with a demand that models, including women of color, must have white features, many of us feel unpretty and in real need of whatever product they are hawking.

    I know this issue is complex and I can't even begin to understood the feeling of being too dark but, we as women are being sold into a body project from the day we hit puberty. If its not a diet, its a cream. If not a cream, its some injections here, some pulls there and some implants here. Its a constant struggle to realize we are being sold a fantasy.

  9. Hello Julia,
    Welcome to the blog, and thanks for interesting comments.....I completely agree with struggling to realize it's a fantasy...I still struggle sometimes (not a lot though)....

  10. Hi there! Nice blog you have here! Thanks for visiting mine. I am enjoying our debate there. I so agree with women being beauty obsessed. Its strange what a few magazine pictures can make us women do! It could be wearing horrendous heels which can kill as we walk, or go through the pain of waxing ourselves in the most uncomfortable places to look less unsightly. Unfortunately, its inherently in women to try to put their best foot forward, and its simply something that we can do away with. From the little girls who preen infront of their mom's mirrors to the 90 year old grannies who check their hair before taking a picture, girls simply have got to look good!

  11. Hey Richa, missed this reply earlier....welcome to my blog, so nice of you to drop by.. :-)
    Agree to every word in your comment..:-)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...