A good friend recently rued how her five-year-old daughter was too “dark and kaali” and is there a way she could make her daughter a “bit lighter” I sighed the Indian obsession for light skin will not die anytime soon.
Freida Pinto has often discussed the light skin obsession rampant in Indian society, but despite that she blatantly promotes L’Oreal products.
“I once thought that my complexion was a ‘curse’”
these words were uttered on the international front by Freida Pinto to Oprah Winfrey in an interview. Freida, might have taken up the cause of the dusky maidens, but she forgot all about it when L’Oreal came up with its big commercial endorsement. But then that is for another discussion all together. For now let’s focus on the obsession or fawning of Indians over fair or lighter skin.
Nobody could argue that Indians are fond of lighter skin, a look at marriage advertisements would prove this theory. However, how deep is this “fair and lovely” or “snow white syndrome”? It is much deep-rooted than what one thinks, especially if like my friend above one thinks there is something wrong with a five-year-old because she has more melanin in her skin. When children are young, they often develop their sense of being is developed by their mother’s impression so if the mother thinks her child is dark-skinned and hence not beautiful then in all probability that child is going to grow up thinking that there is something wrong with them.
You might argue that the mother is only preparing the child for the world out there? Recently a friend who happens to be African American but speaks Hindi, recalled how she went to get her eyebrows done at an Indian Salon in Jackson Heights, New York, only to hear the beautician call her “Kaali” in front of the entire salon.
The feeling that light is beautiful and dark is not, is very deep-rooted in our psyche. I remember a time when Kareena Kapoor called Bipasha Basu a “kaali bili” or black cat and the media applauded Kareena’s sense of humor. We as a society have normalized the “light is good” and “black is not” and we no longer get offended by such comments but laugh at them and consider them to be normal. Recently at a salon in Jackson Heights, a Black girl heard one of the attendants calling her a “Kaliya,” when confronted the attendant rather than being apologetic walked off with a smirk. When Anchal Joseph appeared on the seventh cycle of America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks asked her why she was wearing green contact lenses and overdone her foundation? Anchal answered “This is what is considered is beautiful!”
What happens when the child grows up and faces the world? This is what happened to Freida. As a model trying to make her mark in India, Freida has said that she lost out on a lot of jobs simply because she isn’t fair enough. “In India there is a prevalent notion that light skin is more attractive than dark, and as someone who has what Indians call a dusky complexion, I thought that it was true. When you doubt one thing about yourself, you start thinking there’s also something wrong with your hair, your body, your clothes, your accent – everything,” Ironically, a lot of the brands that may have turned her away would do anything to get her on board today.
Models Carol Gracias and Deepanita Sharma have also accused the Indian glamour industry of being color biased. “It isn’t just the fashion industry, Indians are obsessed with white skin. We will take another 100-years to get over it. A lot of designers these days prefer to have foreign models because they are fair. Its understandable if these were supermodels but that isn’t the case, they just want fairer skin on the Indian ramps.” Whereas Carol, who was one of the finalists of Bigg Boss (Season 1), says “You never see a dark-skinned girl on TV ads and that’s where the lucrative work is. Everyone uses fair-skinned girls; people use skin-lighteners like Fair And Lovely. I don’t…If I did maybe I’d have been fair and lovely by now.”
The business world in India calls it the Snow White Syndrome; the sales of whitening creams in India outnumber that of sodas, soft drinks and even tea. And promoting these brands are none other than our top actors and youth icons. Katrina Kaif, sells Olay’s Natural White while Deepika Padukone sells Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness range, Sonam Kapoor and Aishwarya sell L’Oreal’s whitening products. And the fairness obsession isn’t limited to women, now the pressure is on the men too with John Abraham, Shah Rukh Khan and Shahid Kapoor telling you to buy the men’s fairness creams. Vaseline even has a facebook application that lets you whiten your skin tone.
Tara Sharma (left) in an advertisement for Fair and Lovely and Shah Rukh Khan (right) unabashedly promote fairness products. Yes, these days fair skin is desired not only among women but also in men.
These products – priced between 50 cents and $150 a tube promise to make you fair in as less as four weeks. However, they fail to educate you about the harmful side effects of any of these creams, some of which may contain harmful steroids.
And the social ramifications of this snow white syndrome is more dangerous. When moms push their daughters to use these products they forget that they are indirectly telling their children that there is something wrong with them if they are of a darker shade. When a child grows up listening to this not only from the world, but also from its parents the child is going to think that there is something wrong with them.
As children we are told that we’re built in God’s own image. Sadly if this image is a bit dark then it isn’t good enough. Before blaming the media for propagating that white is good and black isn’t, we ourselves need to believe in it. We need to learn and respect people and look beyond their color and maybe start loving and accepting our children as they are.