Fairly Neurotic

Don't Take Calls from Darkies

India has a mass, collective neurosis when it comes to dark skin. You’d think a people who feature an immense jingoism and gorgeous swarthiness would celebrate their exquisite complexions. Bizarrely, the cult of fairness grips the Indian psyche. Beyond mere conceptions of beauty, it is an indicator of class and even moral worth in the popular imagination.

Parents aspire to bag the lightest skinned brides for their sons. As a consequence, any would-be bride listed in the shaadi advertisements of the newspaper classifieds or online matrimonial sites will describe her tinting within her biodata, along with her religion, caste, education, employment, and family background. The convention for describing skin color is a three step gradation: Fair, Wheatish, or Dark. My unscientific survey of the matrimonial sites seems to reveal a much higher reporting of “Fair” complexion, and a vastly lower reporting of “Dark” complexion, than one observes in the general population.

Perhaps the brides-to-be are contributing to India’s Rs. 1,400 crore ($356 million) in sales of skin bleaching creams. Men also indulge in this self-loathing makeover. According to 2004 market data, men make up approximately 25 percent of this market; and that percentage, like the market itself, is expanding.

The media, of course, only reinforces these absurd, pernicious personal aesthetics. Bollywood films feature light-skinned heroes vanquishing darker villains. This summer, South India’s biggest star, Rajnikanth, released the most expensive Indian film ever made, Sivaji. Like most Tamilians, Ranjniknath’s skin is a deep, dark brown. To make him appear fairer in the film, he subjected himself to skin grafts. Shah Rukh Khan, arguably the biggest movie star in the world, is the brand ambassador for Emami’s “Fair and Handsome” skin-whitening cream.

The television commercials for fairness creams and soaps invariably feature light-skinned models – men and women who already look downright Swedish compared to the general population – who become miraculously lighter in after using the products. The message in this imagery is unambiguous: even fair is not fair enough.

Dark skin is bad, says the media. Even the big multinational corporations doing business in India play on these bigotries. Take, for example, the Vodophone hoarding pictured above. This is from the new Vodophone ad campaign which touts the mobile phone provider’s caller screening feature. The imagery communicates: take the calls of good people and ignore the calls of bad people. Bad people, of course, are best represented by dark skin.

Activists have long tried to pass legislation prohibiting the sale of fairness products in India on grounds that they prey on female insecurities and are essentially disparaging to women. They have been far from successful; and the now-enormous use of fairness products by men further undermines the already mistaken reliance on the gender-based argument. The better argument for banning fairness products, it seems, is that they pose an unacceptable health risk to the general population – albeit a mental health threat – and cannot be used safely. These are not arguments which will ever prevail.

Fairness products will continue to dominate the Indian cosmetics industry until India wakes up, looks in the mirror, and likes what it sees.


5 Responses to “Fairly Neurotic”

  1. 1 millyonair 22 December 2007 at 10:47 am

    Oh, how absurd. It’s weird that in lots of cultures, people try to change their dominant features. You know, like white chicks toasting themselves in tanning beds, and black people straightening their (really cool) hair (I’d totally have an Afro if I could grown one). People seem to be obsessed with their exterior, and completely neglectful of their interior self. Or, like you indicated, they imagine their appearance to be a reflection of their “true self.” But maybe the altered exteriors of people who succumb to media pressure to look different, do, in fact, provide a glimpse into their interiors, only what is revealed is the opposite of that they would have us see. Instead of beauty and goodness, it displays insecurity and a dismally narrow definition of what beautiful is.

  2. 2 viju 23 December 2007 at 8:03 pm

    If popular movies are anything to go by South has been more receptive to darker skin as leads. The Sivaji fair scene is limited to one song and in the movie it doesn’t signify much. But I admit it was quite bizarre.
    I think most of it can be attributed to fairness creams represented by the horrendous and offensive ads of Fair and Lovely. It’s almost racism.
    And I am sure many celebrities who yap that Black is so cool, wouldn’t really long for it.

  3. 3 Zen 4 June 2008 at 11:46 pm

    Hi Mark,
    Sorry, am indulging in nit-picking here. But Rajnikanth isn’t actually Tamilian. He made it big in the Tamil film industry, but he is actually from Maharashtra.
    p.s. Liked your blog a lot.

  4. 4 gyanban 17 December 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Couldn’t agree with you more.Like most of India is obsessed with looking fair, most of the western world is obsessed with looking thin.Media influence remains the only constant in between. Commerce and human psychology are strange bedfellows or capitalism and fairness are inversely proportional !

    Good Post.

  5. 5 mbjesq 20 June 2010 at 9:14 pm

    My brilliant friend, Kuzhali Manikaval, frequently crafts “the definitive statement” on on subject or another; but, because she disguises her incisive critique in pure nuttiness, the world generally fails to take notice. Kuzhali gets the world better than the world gets Kuzhali, I fear.

    In any case, she’s done it again.

    Here’s the definitive statement on fairness and “duskiness” in the Indian psyche, in the form of a not-so-Socratic dialogue from her wonderful blog. Enjoy!

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