By Harshmeet Singh
While the Parliament was busy discussing the critical insurance bill last week, JDU chief Sharad Yadav had this to say – “Your God is dark like Ravi Shankar Prasad, but your matrimonial ads insist on white-skinned brides. The women of the south are dusky but they are as beautiful as their bodies. We don’t see it here. They know (how to) dance.” For reasons only known to him, he further went on to include the case of BBC documentary in his speech and remarked about Leslee Udwin “For her, every door must have opened easily. She must have got permissions easily because she is white,”
As expected, his remarks didn’t go well with a number of people, including men and women, leading to sharp reactions from different quarters inside and outside the Parliament. While many have gone to the extreme of terming his remarks as appalling and racist in nature, it would be worth asking if pointing him out alone is justified in a country that is obsessed with fair skin.
India’s fixation with lighter skin
An ideal matrimonial advertisement template in India begins with ‘Seeking a fair, slim and educated girl’. If the innumerable TV ads of fairness creams on television are to be believed, a girl must become fair to get married, to get a promotion, to be a good speaker on stage and what not! And these ads don’t just stop here. They are quick to point out that it is your skin colour that is the leading cause of your failure in life! Not your talent, not your abilities, not your qualifications, but just your skin colour.
A market research revealed that the size of whitening cream market in India was over $600 million, implying that India’s yearly consumption of skin whitening products was over 250 tonnes! And if you are wondering why the girls fell for it, well, ask the boys too! These numbers also included the skin whitening agents used by the macho boys!
“Please make it a couple of shades brighter” is a common request made by girls before sending / uploading their photos. The fear of going unnoticed and unimpressive if found dusky plays majorly on the minds.
Who is to blame then?
The thriving business of skin whitening creams in India is a classic example to creating a demand out of nowhere and then making a product to satisfy it. From giving our blood to get rid of the ‘gori chamdi’, to becoming obsessed with ‘gori chamdi’, India has come a long way.
But putting the entire blame on girls for falling into this ‘trap’ would be extremely unfair. In India, marriages are a much bigger deal than many other countries. A topic of household discussions and debates, marriage is certainly the most pressurizing thing in the Indian community. So when Sharad Yadav’s daughter defended him by saying that “I feel there is nothing wrong in this. I think this has been wrongly propagated. I would also not have got the right kind of husband had I been dark-skinned,” she wasn’t entirely incorrect. In a country where arrange marriages still contribute a majority of marriages, it is the fairness of the girls that determines their future in most cases.
The colour bias in our society extends much beyond marriages. A number of professions including aviation and films are known to heavily favour light skinned candidates. In 2008, the Maharashtra Government came up with a plan to train 100 tribal girls as air hostesses and ensure that they get placed in well settled airlines. After spending about Rs 1 lakh on each candidate’s training, the Government had to scrap the plan after only 8 out of these 100 girls were recruited by Private Airlines, and that too as the ground staff.
Unless such obsession for fair skin is curbed among businesses and men, the current scenario doesn’t stand a chance of an overhaul.
An array of frontline Bollywood stars campaigning for these skin whitening products is a clear indication of the huge sums of money these product make from the Indian market. From glorifying fair skin to tagging dark skin as the sole reason behind your failure, these ads go to all limits to depress a perfectly normal girl possessing a perfectly normal skin colour. These ads can easily dent the confidence of youngsters who are trying hard to hone their skills and make it big. Contrarily, what these ads tell them is – “forget about working hard, just make your skin fairer!”
In 2012, Clean and Dry launched an ad campaign claiming that a vaginal wash using their product would ensure fairer private parts and, in turn, bring back the happiness in their life. The tagline of the ad was “Life for women will now be fresher, cleaner and more importantly fairer and more intimate.” The campaign drew sharp reactions from all around the country. Many women termed it as an insult and an attack on their privacy. The director of the ad, Alyque Padamsee defended the ad saying that “It is hard to deny that fairness creams often get social commentators and activists all worked up. Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer – so what’s the problem?”
The problem lied in projecting that the fault lies with the dark coloured women. Despite protests on this particular ad, the skin whitening products in India continue to sell like hot cakes, with their market expected to grow at close to 20% every year!
Dark is beautiful
The “Dark is Beautiful” campaign launched by ‘Women of Worth’ (WOW), has found support in the form of Nandita Das. Tired of listening to makeup artists who tell her that they would easily lighten her skin shade before she faces the camera, Nandita says “I want people to be comfortable in their own skin and realise that there is more to life than skin colour. Indians are very racist. It’s deeply ingrained. But there is so much pressure by peer groups, magazines, billboards and TV adverts that perpetuate this idea that fair is the ideal,”. WOW also hopes to rope in a number of celebrities behind these ads and convince them on withdrawing themselves so as to send a strong message to the youngsters.
In 2012, Shekhar Kapur, the noted Bollywood director, started a hashtag on twitter ‘adswedontbuy’ to launch a campaign against imprudent ads. These also included the ads made by skin whitening products. The discussion gained much traction and lakhs of people joined in within 24 hours.
There is no denying the fact that colour bias is deeply ingrained with our society. Making Sharad Yadav explain or apologize would hardly solve the issue, but loving yourself the way you are just might!