I have often wondered why skin bleaching agents, which promise to turn our Indian skin a few shades fairer are so much in demand. Why is it that fair is lovely and dark is not? Are Naomi Campbell, Serena Williams, Halle Berry, Whitney Houston, Rekha, Kajal and Nandita Sen not lovely? How can the multinational and home grown cosmetic companies sell trash in tons to our ignorant consumers with the promise to turn them into fair stars and dazzling celebrities? Why are we Indians so obsessed with the colour of our skin?
Theaters and cinemas invariably have a fair complexion heroine, and if she is not she is metamorphosed into one. If anybody is dark, he/she is usually representing the evil. Is this not propagating a false notion that dark is evil and fair is noble? Articles written about a legend like Rekha invariably describe her as dusky-skinned. Is this fair? Are we not categorizing her according to something she was naturally born into and has no personal control over? If that is what happens to a celebrity and talented icon like Rekha, imagine what is happening to all the not so fair complexioned girls out there – in academics, in profession and in relationships! Is this not a veiled apartheid?
Advertizers are the worst culprit in this business. In all its advertisements it is a dark girl who is dejected and who dreams of becoming fair. The advertisers have the audacity of proclaiming “cure for dark skin” as if darkness is a disease! Such advertisements have always disempowered women because they have encouraged the notion that women have to be fair and pretty to get noticed, get good jobs and be eligible for marriage. And the matrimonial advertisements asking for fair-skinned brides confirms my belief about our skewed mind set.
Historically we were not the worshippers of the white complexion. While Parwati, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartik were all beautiful / handsome and fair complexioned, the epitome of male beauty in the Hindu tradition is Lord Krishna who is clearly dark skinned. His name means “The Dark One”. Lord Rama was also dark skinned and considered very handsome. The gorgeous Draupadi, described as extraordinarily beautiful who could not be surpassed by any other woman during her time in terms of beauty, is also depicted as being very dark.
The fondness for dark skin traveled from ancient to the medieval period as well. This fact is well documented by Marco Polo who mentions in his travelogue, The Travel (Translated by R Latham and published by Penguin in 1958) – “For I assure you that the darkest man is here the most highly esteemed and considered better than others who are not so dark. Let me add that in very truth these people portray and depict their gods and their idols black and their devils white as snow.”
Indian obsession with fair skin can be traced back to the caste system where dalits or 'untouchables' often had much darker skin to the higher castes. It worsened during the colonization period when the Portuguese, French, Dutch and British invaded India. Most of these people were racists with shallow perception about the dark skinned people and considered them ugly. As the oppressed Indians sought acceptability from the rulers the dark skin became a liability rather than an asset. British and European missionary schools did not teach them that lack of melanocytes made their rulers more susceptible to sun burns and skin cancers! The young Indians started admiring the fair skin colonizers and were taught to be ashamed of their “primitive” and superstition based culture and the colour of their skin. Interactions with the colonizers filled their hearts with inferiority complex about their own glorious civilization, languages, religion, eating-dressing habits and their body complexion too! So today's obsession about fairness is certainly indication of same century old enslaved mindset, which we Indians haven't yet got rid of despite 67 years of Independence.