SHIFTING VALUES ON FAIRNESS AND BEAUTY? By Shoma A. Chatterji WORD-COUNT: 1168 Indians suffer from a gigantic colour complex. This is as obvious as the billboards that line the streets from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari, the celluloid stars of Indian cinema, and the statuesque models that appear in advertisements placed in the print and electronic media. Fairness is said to be a colonial concept. Why then, does it also exist in Western fairy tales? The major cosmetic companies are global today and believe that women are universal, only their needs are different.
Are women responsible for their homogenization by cosmetic producing firms? To sum up – the globalization of culture marches on – internationally standardized canons of physical allure struts arm in arm with the objectification of women. One refuses however, to face the fact that Indian men have a complexion complex too, though this might not extend to the matrimonial market like it does for young ladies. Besides, they apply fairness creams on the sly surrendering to yet another gender stereotyping that insist that for men, the colour of the skin does not matter. In My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi narrates an incident.
As a young boy, embarrassed by the colour of his dark skin juxtaposed against the white-skinned Britons around him, he kept washing his face with soap over and over again till his skin cracked and began to bleed. Placed in perspective, it appears amusing. But it is a racist mindset we have not been able to rid ourselves of, more than five decades after the British left Indian shores. The ‘colour’ complex we suffer from may be gender-centric but is not culture-specific. The stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would look at her face every morning and keep asking the mirror who was the fairest of them all.
If the magic mirror had been a bit politically correct and not as truthful, it would have saved Snow White the sufferings she went through till Prince Charming kissed her back to life. Michael Jackson is reported to have undergone extremely painful surgery for pigmentation of his skin to acquire a fair skin, never mind the fact that it looks atrociously artificial. The central ministry of information and broadcasting last year came down with hammer and tongs on ads promoting the sale of complexion creams on Doordarshan.
The reason forwarded was that these ads are discriminatory on grounds of sex, marking out fairness in the woman as the ultimate quality both for marriage and for a successful career. While one of these offensive ads shows a father expressing his regret for having sired a dark-skinned daughter who cannot get a job cushy enough to support him, the other shows how a particular fairness cream can change the horoscope-defined destiny of another dark-skinned girl whose marriage is being negotiated by her parents.
The former girl applies a fairness cream and gets herself the job of an airhostess. The other girl reads all about fairness creams in ancient scriptures, picks a cream that is supposedly rooted in these scriptures and lo and behold, she meets her dream man on the streets one morning and the horoscope can go to hell! This ad sets out rightly to demolish one myth –astrology as the key to happiness – only to wrongly create another – a fair skin can get you your Prince Charming.
The irony of this lies in the fact that there are few who watch DD at all unless there is a cricket match going. It is sheer economics that drives the content of both soaps and commercials. The woman who decides what to watch also decides what to buy. “Women – either as home makers, mothers or as individuals – either themselves decide to purchase these products for their households (or for themselves) or significantly influence the purchase decisions of their family members.
They are, therefore, the core target audience of our advertising,” says a spokesman of consumer goods major Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL), the company that produces one of the largest selling fairness creams. It is also one of the largest advertisers on prime time on most satellite channels across the country. Irfan Khan of HLL has gone on record to state that his company has hit the market rightly with the largest selling fairness cream in the world “because we are only giving them what they want.
Basically, it is human nature to want something you do not have. Hence, the Indian, the Latin American and the African obsession with fairness. This is very similar to Europeans who are hung up on tanned skins and are hung up on tanning lotions and creams to get the desired effect. ” Can we really blame these fairness creams or their advertising agencies for capitalizing on the Indian mindset that has a rigid colour fixation handed down, indirectly, by the British rule in India? 300 years of being colonized has psychologically conditioned us to believe that we are inferior,” says casting director Emam Siddique, going on to add, “compared to our Indian girls, a Lisa Ray or a Laila Rouass will always be in demand. Just a thought – would Lisa Ray be as sought-after if her name was Arti Sriram? ” he asks. S. Thangadurai, Senior Regional Copy Editor for renowned periodical, points out: “In South Indian films, it is interesting to note that the heroes can be dark, but the heroines must almost always have to be very fair.
The Southern formula for beauty is very fair, slightly plump and not very tall. ” Well then, what about the dark-skinned beauties that bring home beauty titles and show off their skins in every other TV commercial? What about Shyla Lopez, who was the first “very dark” Miss India-World 1992? What about the dusky Nethra Raghuraman who bagged the Ponds face wash press and film campaign in 2000? What about Sheetal Malhar, the first “Femina Look of the Year” who became the new face of Maybelline and is now happily married to an Italian settled abroad? What about Madhu Sapre who did ditto?
What about Diana Hayden who became the L’Oreal girl because she “deserved” it? Fred Edwords, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, commenting about the extraordinarily tall finalists for the Miss India contest in 1999, said that in his opinion, the mandatory qualification for the contestants was “the height of Western cultural imperialism. ” He goes on to add: “The winner and various runners-up–who represent India in the Miss Universe, Miss World, and Miss Asia Pacific pageants — appear strikingly unrepresentative of their country. Suparna Trikha, a Delhi-based beautician says, “sixty per cent of the questions to my newspaper column are about getting fairer. A number of them are mothers of teenage daughters. The obsession with fairness has been further perpetuated because of the lack of dark actresses in Hindi films. Apart from Smita Patil, Nandita Das and Kajol, there aren’t any who have had a deep impact on the Indian consciousness. ” Isn’t it strange that our devotion to Goddess Kali, the blackest of them all, goes on unabated? ******************************** February 26, 2004