A Gender Specific Fetish

"Fair, convent-educated, beautiful bride wanted"-screams the matrimonial section of a reputed newspaper or a magazine. The minds of the masses have been interpellated with the bombardments of such 'ideological apparatuses' for eons and most people in India hardly notice anything grievously abnormal with statements like these. Not to mention the scores of inputs coming from a certain quarter who want to help the "fair sex" get fairer through home remedies and special face packs which give the politely termed "dusky" girls a chance to illuminate their skins miraculously in a few days. After all, let's face it- this kind of colorism, a fetish for the fair skin has existed in India for a long time, but what is significant is the fact that it is mainly gender sensitive. This craving to have lighter skinned brides and categorizing the "other" as the 'dusky lot' is directed only towards women in India, with the underlying idea that the future of such "olive skinned" or dusky women is at stake, especially in the marriage market.

In the nineties, a certain popular fairness skin cream came out with their all enticing advertisement depicting a dark woman being neglected by a potential suitor in the college campus. The solution was clear and fortunately readily available to the rejected girl! She used "Fair and Lovely" and voila- her complexion turned fair in no time and more importantly it caught the attention of the special guy who fell in love with her instantly. For a long time these kind of advertisements seeped into the psyche of the society that sees something amiss in darker women and thus they are neatly compartmentalized into groups- 'dark,' 'dusky,' 'wheatish,' 'olive skinned' and so on, to exactly discern the woman's skin color. Incidentally in 1994, when the entire nation burst into joy and admiration over the achievements of Ms. Sen for winning the Miss Universe Beauty pageant, the clap-traps of the skin category were still very much present. Almost every magazine, newspaper article reporting on her never missed mentioning the 'important' fact that the "dusky beauty from India" had won the crown. Certainly, this didn't have any effect on people's inherent notions of "fair" being "lovely"; rather it triggered off a huge cosmetic boom in the country for the young women to be more glamorous and pretty and jump into the bandwagon of beauty contests.

Recently, the reputed "Fair and Lovely" fairness cream went a step further, for which they got some flak from the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). In 2001 they ran an offensive ad claiming that darker skinned women are incapable of getting jobs in the corporate world. I was shocked during one of my trips to my hometown, to see the advertisement flashing several times on one of the mainstream television channels throughout the day without respite. A 'dusky' girl goes for an interview to be an air-hostess for a reputed airline. She is obviously rejected because of her darker complexion. She returns home forlorn and sad and faces her father who wishes he had a son who would have taken care of the parents in their old age; instead all they have is a dark daughter who is only capable of causing misery to the family.

Although protests were made sometime later against this commercial, I still can't reconcile to the fact that it was incessantly shown to the masses, validating not only the idea of color fixation but also the fact that a girl child is worthless and unwelcome in the 21st century. And the aforementioned fairness cream is certainly not the only product of its kind being marketed in India. There are various others which conjure similar normative truths and claim to their authenticity in changing skin tones, some even with the richness of ancient 'ayurvedic' formulae.

Underneath the entire propaganda lurks the phallocentric idea that appearance is the only tool that a woman has to navigate the job market, thereby denying her even a miniscule portion of subjectivity. Thus the race/color question intricately merges with sexism which compels women to be beautiful, fair and lovely- the only means of survival left for her in the society.

So one may ask, why I am reiterating an old issue when the advertisement in contention was finally taken off air. It is precisely because the ideological apparatus that supports this skin tone mythos continues to loom large as reality in the minds of innumerable people, despite controversies over such ads and the uproar that accompanies it. I am not even broaching the issue of stereotypical constructions of beauty here which is another matter by itself, instead I am more concerned about the implications of being 'fair and lovely' for women in India and the limitations it presents to valid constructions of female subjectivity.

- Amrita Ghosh Editor, Cerebration







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