Critical Podium Dewanand India
Modern India's complex connection with complexion
Sacrificer MIKE MCPHATE
Sacrifice code wfor0361
Sacrifice date Monday, June 6, 2005
Modern India's complex connection with complexion By
Monday, June 6, 2005
Special to The Globe and Mail
NEW DELHI -- The young woman with pretty eyes and flawless
diction aspires to celebrity. But her skin is too brown. One day, her
sister hands her a tube of Fair & Lovely skin-lightening cream.
Flash forward. She's decked out in heels and a pink sari, her hair is
styled in willowy curls like a film star, and her dusky complexion is
pale, nearly as white as her smile. She lands her dream job as a cricket
commentator. Mom wipes a joyful tear.
The storyline of such television advertisements, packaged by turn in
themes of love and career, has helped to propel a blossoming market for
skin whiteners in South Asia. It exploits a deeply rooted but largely
unchallenged reality: to the Indian gaze, dark skin is ugly.
"Racism has become a part of the Indian psyche," Pavan Varma,
author of Being Indian, said in an e-mail. "The real irony is that
a brown nation looks down on the dark."
India, home to one-sixth of humanity and birthplace of four major
religions, is a country bursting with variety. Inhabitants speak more
than 1,500 native tongues, cook from at least 35 regional cuisines and
align with as many as 772 registered political parties. Comprised largely
of sunny tropics and deserts, most of its people have coffee-coloured
But the sirens of Indian cinema and fashion are with few exceptions tall,
slender and honey-hued. It's a colour worn by Aishwarya Rai, the green-eyed
former Miss World and paragon of Indian beauty, but possessed by a small
fraction of the general population.
Each Sunday, the fair ideal is put on display in the marriage ads that
run in Indian newspapers. Male suitors request slim bodies, expertise
in household work and skin tones from within the narrow band of "fair"
to "extremely fair."
At least 75 per cent of Indian women aspire to lighter skin, according
to Hindustan Lever Ltd., maker of Fair & Lovely products.
Studies of southern Asian women in the United States and Canada have found
that the darker their complexion the less pretty they feel.
"They believe they are like an onion -- that the inner part is much
more shiny bright," says Delhi dermatologist Rishi Parashar, who
often sees patients arrive with rashes after applying bleach to their
skin. "These people will never be happy."
Indian anthropologists say the preference is ancient, carved into the
culture by waves of light-skinned invaders, most recently the British,
who left natives with the stubborn notion that they were inferior. The
complex spans both city and village, where the majority reside, and afflicts
women and men.
Women have invented a variety of tone-battling techniques. In the sunny
summer months, they shield themselves with scarves, gloves and big-brimmed
hats. They soak their bodies in combinations of milk, honey, lemon, cucumber
and almond juice, eating the same during pregnancy with the hope of producing
With the rise of India's economy and birth of a 300-million-strong middle
class, an appetite has risen for more modern strategies.
Western companies such as Avon, Estée Lauder and Revlon have responded
with an armoury of new skin-lightening products, commonly containing bleaching
agents like hydroquinone and Kojic acid. In the past five years, the fairness-cream
market has grown by roughly two-thirds to more than $230-million (U.S.).
Ashok Venkatramani, a spokesman for Fair and Lovely, the leading brand,
said in a statement the company does not promote fairness. Women's desire
for lighter skin is equivalent to a desire for different hair colour,
The cricket commentator ad, and others like it, he said, "does not
condemn a woman who is not fair. It simply delivers the message that it
is possible to change one's outlook towards life."
Some observers are careful to distinguish India's colour preference from
the kind of racism practised elsewhere, such as apartheid-era South Africa,
which involved systematic repression of those with darker skin.
But there are parallels. Tone is not just a measure of beauty in India;
it is also a mark of caste. It's believed that caste occupations were
originally decided by skin colour, with dark-skinned people assigned to
the latrines and light-skinned people assigned to the Hindu clergy.
Thousands of years later, the colour-caste correlation is diluted, but
still loosely in place. Aggressive affirmative-action programs have bettered
the lives of many at the bottom but India is not nearly yet a land of
"Caste may not be the same as race. But discrimination has gone
on for thousands of years," says Uma Kant, a leading campaigner for
Dalits, the so-called untouchables who continue to face cruelty, especially
at the village level.
In recent years, some signs of resistance to the fair-skin ideal have
surfaced. The portrayal of white privilege in Fair & Lovely ads prompted
outcry from women's groups and intellectuals. Fashion bosses point to
the success of dark-skinned model Ujjwala Raut, and edgy new Indian films
have begun employing browner actors in leading roles.
Radhika Basu, a 24-year-old graduate student at the Indian Institute
of Management, says she feels little pressure to whiten up.
"Friends used to tease," Ms. Basu said of her mahogany-toned
"Grandmothers too." The taunts would hurt her feelings. But
no more, she said. With her education and "because of the kind of
person I am," she says she feels totally comfortable in her skin.
"I am single, and if I went in for arranged marriage, I may come
across people who would prefer a fair bride," she said. "But
then I'd hate to marry into such a family anyway."
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