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
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