India continues to be plagued by a deep-rooted fascination for a lighter skin tone, evident by a flourishing industry enabling just that. Is there light at the end of this dark tunnel?
“Since the age of nine, I have been slapping my face with fairness creams/Every face wash was a slap in the face because I was a skin tone which was… ugly/I had a voice and opinion but they muted my sound/Probably because I was told, boys only like girls who are fair and lovely.”
Back in 2017, these lines were spewed by 17-year-old Aranya Johar from Mumbai in an outburst of smothered frustration. She became an instant sensation for her poem, A Brown Girl’s Guide to Beauty, which laments how women who do not conform to the traditional standards of beauty have to be eclipsed under layers of fairness cream to whiten up a few shades and blend seamlessly with society.
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Fast forward to the present. In Delhi, Deepika Singh (name changed), a 28-year-old journalist, was jolted out of her belief of apparent, outward progress when a male colleague took a jibe at her for using ‘too much’ face powder, in an intentional slight on her dark skin tone. “I took offence because I couldn’t accept the fact that even in this day and age people can make fun of someone’s skin tone,” she says.
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Singh’s story is not hers alone. The India Fairness Cream & Bleach Market Overview, 2018-2023, states that the women’s fairness cream category is expected to reach market revenue of more than Rs 5,000 crore by 2023. From willingness to try out new products, influence of media and entertainment to facing pressure from society to appear fairer, the reasons are aplenty for women to try out fairness creams. And it’s not just women, it seems brands like Emami have even taken men under their shadow, coming out with the male equivalent of Fair and Lovely — Fair and Handsome.
‘Colour-sickness’, however, seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. Recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in the news for the wrong reason during an election campaign. As a 29-year-old teacher, Trudeau appeared in blackface at an Arabian Nights fundraiser at his school. When he was young, he even performed in blackface at high school talent shows. Severe backlash and criticism prompted Trudeau to apologise in a tweet.
Back home, fairness as an obsession even in the 21st century can be tied down to a deep sense of subservience to colonial rulers, and arsing from it an uncanny fetish to be like them — idealising their ways of life, their characteristic style and even their physical attributes.
Revisiting our colonial past, flipping through the pages of our history books, we find that most of our masters, from the British to the,Mughals, have either been white or fair-skinned while the slaves have mostly been darker skinned. Besides, one cannot shut her eyes to the association between casteism and colourism. We have been conditioned to believe that the upper-caste, the Brahmins, are always light-skinned and touchable while the lower caste like the Dalits are dark-skinned and thus untouchable.
In a Facebook post, Indian actress Tannishtha Chatterjee shared how someone couldn’t understand how her skin was dark despite being a Brahmin, thus correlating caste with class and skin tone, and taking us back to history where fair skins only guaranteed an entry to the upper caste.
The same post had Chatterjee talking about how when she attended a popular comedy show, Comedy Night Bachao, the hosts roasted her on her skin tone. Chatterjee stormed out of the programme and later posted on Facebook, “In a country where… people don’t get jobs because of their complexion, where every matrimonial advert demands a fair bride or groom, in a country where dark skin is marginalised, making fun of it is not a roast.”
Even actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui couldn’t help taking to Twitter to rant on the Indian film industry’s racist culture. “Thank U 4 making me realise dat I cannot b paired along wid d fair & handsome bcz I m dark & not good looking, but I never focus on that,” he had tweeted.
Recently, actress Bhumi Pednekar shared a photo of herself from her upcoming film Bala, which has gone viral. The desi Twitterati have called attention to the actor’s skin tone in the film, looking visibly darker than usual — the point being if film-makers actually want to bring change in society’s mindset, they would cast an actor with a dusky complexion instead of choosing a fair actor and making them two-three shades darker with make up.
This has set off an online discussion about how Bala is supporting “brownface”. Brownface is probably a word stemming from “blackface”, which was a theatrical practice back in the 19th and 20 centuries when fair skinned performers were given a “blackish” make-up to play African-American characters. It was called out for being offensive and later eliminated for good. Bollywood’s desire to cast fair-skinned people, especially women, is not new. The 1978 film, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, had a song whose lyrics go like Radha kyon gori, mein kyon kala?, which shows the industry’s discomfort with dark skin. This discomfort has been ingrained in our minds since childhood.
In an article, Modern Mythmaking, author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik reflects on how, “we were introduced to the politics of colour very early on in our lives, in the most surprising of places: in children’s comic books.” The comical depictions of Indra, Brahma and Durga have them in pink skin tones while the demons, Asuras and Rakshasas, are painted brown. And Vishnu, Ram and Krishna are blue. The article further states that “somehow, an unnaturally blue Krishna was preferred over a naturally dark Krishna. Because blue is the colour of the sky, of ether, of divinity.”
Some of the prominent actresses succumb to Bollywood’s traditional idea of beauty. Tall, slim and fair actresses like Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and Kangana Ranaut are some of the highest-paid actresses in the industry today as compared to actors like Nandita Das, Sayani Gupta, Radhika Apte, Konkona Sen Sharma and Tannishtha Chatterjee. In an interview, Das has been quoted as saying, “I have worked from the fringes in the industry and despite my best efforts, I was offered roles were I played either a Dalit character or a village girl. But whenever it came to playing any urbane character, it always meant adding more layers of make-up.”
And, probably that’s the reason actresses like Freida Pinto never got cast in mainstream Bollywood films till Slumdog Millionaire happened.
Ironically, it can be a burden if you are too fair. “Even ‘fair’ has its limits. You can’t be too fair, otherwise you look ghostly, or a porcelain doll or someone who lacks nutrition. The idea that’s predominant is that you can’t be too ‘fair skinned’ or you can’t be too ‘dark skinned’. You have to hover exactly in the definition of where the beauty standard is. If you go off the mark, you are at a disadvantage. And probably that’s why Kalki Koechlin, who is too fair by Indian standards, has seldom been cast as a traditional Bollywood heroine,” says art critic and author of A Handbook For My Lover, Rosalyn D’Mello.
There was a time when models like Naomi Campbell were the most in demand. But if you look at an Indian fashion magazine, you will find the cover page flaunting a Caucasian model or a whitish model after some photoshopping. This gives rise to the question if all fashion photographers add filters or manipulate the image to make the model look fairer?
Anuj Sinha (name changed on request), a Delhi-based photojournalist, says, “I never use a filter to make my subject fair. If there is an issue of light, I raise the exposure and brightness to give a glow. In fashion photography, I just remove spots from the face, I never touch the texture of a woman’s skin to make it whiter.”
Even the aviation industry is heavily obsessed with fair skin. In 2004, when Air India decided to hire 400 new flight attendants, for which 32,000 applied, those with pimples or scars on their faces were shown the door. Two years ago, Air India fired 10 women flight attendants for being “too fat to fly”. One of them, who had worked for 27 years with the airline, commented, “This is not a modelling job; we are not walking a catwalk.”
No fairer sex
Indian society usually judges women by their looks but there are times when even men are not spared. IT professional from Pune Pushkar Raj (name changed), who went to an all-boys school in Bhopal, remembers how his seniors and classmates used to be rude and aggressive. They added ‘kaala’ as a prefix or suffix to suit the occasion of their bullying. “It was a very sensitive thing for me initially, getting bullied because of skin colour, especially because at that age we weren’t allowed to voice our thoughts. Even now, sometimes I get called ‘kaala’ by my friends but I know they are saying it out of affection and not bias,” he recalls.
Siliguri-based Nibedita Dey, in her mid-50s, recalls the scene when she came to her in-laws’ house after marriage. The moment her husband’s grandmother saw her, she said, “e bou toh kalo re!”/ (the daughter-in-law is black!) And everyone laughed. Dey also has to face questions about the parentage of her daughter, who has taken after her father’s fair complexion. Dey often finds herself answering, “I am dark but my husband is fair…”
Like Dey, YouTuber Poulami Nag also faced questions regarding her skin tone during matrimonial deliberations. “Even in your ‘progressive’ friend circles, one of the reasons why a certain boy may not like you is because you are ‘dusky’ and then it goes on and on,” says Nag.
For Rosalyn D’Mello, married to a Caucasian man, her partner’s skin-tone never played a role while dating. “I was judged so harshly because of my skin tone, I made it a point not to judge others on such superficial terms,” she says.
D’Mello has been called all sorts of derogatory names by random strangers on the street, mostly men. “It made me feel inferior, and with the derision also coming from family and loved ones, it grossly impacted my self-esteem. It made me feel like I was not a lovable person because I was so unattractive. I felt like I had to over-compensate for my appearance by amplifying other aspects of my personality,” she shares. If skin colour bias has affected modern women in urban areas, you can’t help but wonder how it has affected those in the lower strata of society. Malka Silelan, a maid in Delhi, doesn’t want her elder daughter Barsha to get married to a man darker than her. “Jab ek sath chal rahe ho, toh accha lagna chahiye (While walking together, the two should look good).” But her younger daughter, 18-year-old Tulsi Vyad, doesn’t mind if she or her elder sister find a darker guy as long as he is good and genuine and has a decent job.
Uttirna Gnanadipta, a 23-year-old freelancer based in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, remembers going to her village and finding small sachets of Fair and Lovely in most households, even the ones which did not have a proper toilet!
Photojournalist Sinha also recalls overhearing “Ladka ka toh roop nehi gun dekha jata hai, roop toh ladki ka dekha jata hai. (You don’t judge a man by his looks, you judge his qualities. Looks matter only in the case of a woman.) in his village in Bihar.
A lucrative business
Ajita Bagai, principal consultant, dermatology, lasers and aesthetic medicines, Max Multi Speciality Centre, Saket in Delhi, says there are two to three groups of patients concerned about skin lightening. One group actually has hyper pigmentation due to medical reasons like melasma (hormonal and genetic), phototoxic melanosis (sun-related), pigmented contact dermatitis (pigmentation due to allergy to products, herbal ayurvedic hair dyes oils plants etc). The reason for this pigmentation could also be autoimmune diseases and systemic diseases. This group needs medical attention.
The other group feels they are just generally dark and want to be fair. Some have uneven skin tone or have under-eye pigmentation and some darkening around the mouth. Even these patients, if one investigates, may have vitamin deficiencies or hormonal disturbances and sometimes it is plain genetic.
However, skin treatments, only if undergone for an extended period, increase problems. According to Bagai, while skin treatments help heal acne and flaws, a skin-whitening cream can remove dark spots and help improve the skin texture. However, excessive use of skin-whitening creams can lead to permanent de-pigmentation on certain areas of the skin, resulting in bad texture. Hydroquinone, one of the major skin-lightening and fairness treatments, if pursued for a “long time can result in the permanent hyper-pigmentation called ochronosis — the bluish black discolouration of certain tissues. Ochronosis goes very deep into the skin and the treatment of such issue is quite critical. Ultimately, the major consequences are itching, burning and swelling of skin,” claims RK Joshi, senior consultant, dermatology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital.
While Apollo has six to eight patients visiting a dermatologist every day for skin lightening treatment, which is around 20-25% of the total patients, both Apollo and Max claim that it is mostly women who opt for such treatments compared to men.
The treatment is expensive to say the least. While the topical treatment at Apollo costs between Rs 2,000 and Rs 10,000 per sitting, the cost for peeling treatment is around Rs 5000 per session. Laser treatment costs Rs 8000- Rs 10,000 per session.
Thankfully, a few brands have come forward to do their bit in fighting this age-old bias. India’s first vegan cosmetic brand Plum’s blog on five reasons why the cosmetic brand says no to fairness creams clearly mentions that the biochemistry of skin is very complex, and not fully understood. The blog says the brand dislikes “messing with biochemistry to appear artificially whiter”. Plum believes that skin is pigmented for a reason, and keeping pigmentation artificially suppressed is not doing your skin any favour.
Banjara’s Herbal Beauty Care came up with a campaign called #BINTHETUBE, where they encouraged people to raise their voice against the social evil of colour-bias. People were invited to participate in the campaign wherein a video was shot with people throwing fairness cream tubes in the dustbin, looked at the camera and saying, “I am proud of my gorgeous colour.”
In October, Unesco hosted the launch of the “India’s Got Colour” campaign in New Delhi. The campaign started with a two-minute music video, produced by Nandita Das Initiatives, that speaks of the need to embrace all skin tones, celebrating the diversity that exists in India. The video brings together celebrities such as Swara Bhasker, Radhika Apte, Ali Fazal, Divya Dutta, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Tillotama Shome and Vikrant Massey, among others.
Advocacy campaign Dark is Beautiful has been waging a war against colourism for the past 10 years. The campaign kicked off in 2009 by Women of Worth (a non-profit organisation in India). The NGO organises events and workshops to spread its message. Dark is Beautiful advocacy campaign drove the Advertising Standards Council of India to issue guidelines in 2014, communicating that “ads should not reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin colour” or “portray people with darker skin (as)… inferior, or unsuccessful in any aspect of life particularly in relation to being attractive to the opposite sex”.
Despite all this, unfortunately, one cannot do much to stop the subtle forms of racism and bigotry still throbbing in the nooks and corners of society. Nag, who talks about social and economic issues in her videos, says trolls often use her skin colour to insult her. “I had someone comment that although he hates me, he wouldn’t rape me because I am dark. Instead he would get me fucked by dogs!” she adds.
“Also, there was someone who said I speak rubbish because I have an inferiority complex because of my complexion.” Not surprisingly, vagina bleaching products are still in the market.