THE day my daughter said to me, “Mama, I want to be light,” was the day any lingering subconscious preferences I may have had towards lighter skin, went out the window.
At first I didn’t understand what she meant. Then she placed her arm on mine, showed me the difference in our skin colour.
“I want to be light brown, like you,” she clarified.
“But… you’re beautiful!” I replied, shocked. Had I said something that made her feel this way?
“No I’m not, because I’m not light! Can you get me Fair and Lovely? That will make me lighter. That’s what it said on the television.”
Ah, the commercial break. They were showing Fair and Lovely ads during My Friend Ganesha. Just who was their target audience? My 5-year-old daughter?
I clenched my teeth in rage, took a deep breath, counted to fifty, perhaps hundred, and continued, “Sweetheart, how I wish I was your colour. It’s so much more beautiful.”
“My colour? No mummy! Really?” Her eyes lit up. She was so impressionable.
I opened up a magazine and showed her how beautiful the dark-skinned models were were. I pulled out images of women lounging on the beach and explained the concept of tanning to her. I used every tool to build her self-esteem, and it worked. She was reassured, for the time being.
But I wasn’t.
Although my anger was directed towards the adverts, it is not hard to see that ads are but a reflection of society. Fairness creams are manufactured because there is a market for them. There is no market for bronzers in India. Had there been, we would have been flooded with ads showing us how, with one magic stroke of a bronzer, a young lady’s wishes are fulfilled.
The fewer people that buy into the spin, the fewer such ads we will see. After all, does anyone really believe they can achieve success, love, or whatever it is they want, by making their skin a few shades lighter? Didn’t Michael Jackson actually prove the opposite to be true? He achieved the maximum success when he was dark skinned. As his skin colour faded, so did his success. And if Obama could become POTUS without his best friend slipping him a tube of fairness cream, you can get that job on your own. Seriously. You got this.
“It’s unfair, this backlash against people who like fair skin,” said Sapna. “As if I should like tanned skin just because women out West like it. Why is it acceptable to like dark skin, but every has to lecture those that like fair skin?”
That’s a good point. There are however strong distinctions:
- Although some (mostly westerners) view tanned skin as lovely, those with pale skin do not suffer from self-esteem issues.
- Dating sites don’t list ‘being tanned’ as a requirement.
- Mothers don’t get stressed out if their girls are not tanned.
- Pregnant women don’t eat foods that purportedly help them deliver darker children.
In short, if there is a liking for darker skin in certain societies, those that have light skin are not ridiculed. This preference is not all-pervasive and as deep-rooted in the fabric of their society as the desire to be fair is in ours. And nowhere is this bias more pronounced than in matrimonial ads.
“Why do you want a fair girl?” I hear a radio talk-show host ask someone who had listed ‘fair’ as a requirement from prospective brides in his matrimonial ad. “Are you fair?”
“No. I am dark. That is why I want a fair bride. So our children will be fair.“
“Er, that’s not guaranteed, you know,” the host explains.
“At least there’s a chance. If I marry a dark girl, there is no way this curse of darkness will be lifted from my family.”
Curse of darkness. That, Sapna, is the difference.
It’s now up to us to to play our parts in ending this bias, so our girls grow up in a less prejudiced India.
- To those blessed with dark skin, don’t look for validation outside. If you don’t like it yourself, you reinforce the belief that lighter is better and will pass this on to friends, to daughters… and the cycle will continue.
- Stop telling your daughters not to wear certain colours because they make them look dark.
- Compliment other dark-skinned beauties on their colour. Dark skin glows! It is more supple. It looks healthy. It can withstand sun damage better than pale skin. It wrinkles later.
- Finally, throw away those fairness creams!
Perhaps some day skin colour, light or dark, will cease to matter.
(Throw away those fairness creams: Dark is beautiful, was published in the Deccan Herald on February 25, 2017)