My skin is brown — the colour of walnut — except when I bleach, wax or apply an overdose of face powder, for it to appear several tones fairer. As a child, my school friends used to refer to me as the “black beauty”, in keeping with the discriminatory culture under which the colour of your skin was noticed, judged and commented upon, especially if you were a girl, and especially if you were dark. So not being a fair-skinned girl, as I was made to realise time and again, left me feeling woefully inadequate.
The prejudices of the schoolyard often don’t end there. So our cultural obsession with fairness — most starkly reflected in the worlds of advertisement and fashion — keeps coming back to haunt women who aren’t born with the right kind of pigmentation that allows them to be fair.
For a woman, to have fair skin in today’s India is seen as a privilege; and to be dark, by corollary, is considered, ridiculous as it may sound, a handicap.
Yet, going by how firmly entrenched colour-based prejudice is in our society, not being fair might actually be a handicap for many women. In the professional sphere, your skin colour can affect your job prospects. And in society, it directly affects personal lives.
Looking at the marriage industry is a good indicator of how far the rot might have spread. A few years ago, the web portal shaadi.com carried out a survey on “matrimonial attitudes” in India. The idea was to establish what qualities people look for in their prospective spouse. Around half the sample of men surveyed said that they wanted a fair-skinned bride.
Niti Deshmukh had an unfortunate brush with the matrimonial business recently, and the issue of her skin colour kept coming up, finally foundering her plans to marry entirely. Today, she says that she has decided not to go for an arranged marriage at all. “I am a well-educated girl, but my complexion is dark,” she says. “My parents faced many problems while fixing my match, and because of my skin colour I kept getting rejected. We tried all platforms, like matrimonial ads, websites, but nothing helped. This happens several times and I was left humiliated at the end of it. So I decided to not get married. If someone cannot accept me the way I am, I don’t want him in my life.”
“A darker skin colour is surely a handicap when it comes to mainstream films, but as my own interest hasn’t been in commercial films, I haven’t had to fight that battle much. Commercial industry is not for me, for many reasons and one of them is the stereotyping of most things. But if you see, all the actors who were somewhat darker in their first film, are now, all fair. The pressure must be enormous to fit in.”
— Nandita Das
In the professional world, particularly in showbiz and event management, this cultural bias of ours takes an unabashedly overt form. Adil Hasan, who works for an event management firm, tells us that models hired for business events, festivals and exhibitions still tend to be fair-skinned for the most part. “Yes,” he says, “big brands hiring models for events or advertisements prefer girls who are fair and tall. According to clients, fair-skinned women are more eye-catching and can attract a bigger audience at events.”
The fields of fashion and film are considered by many to have been the very source of our fixation with fairness. The perception, “fair is beautiful”, has been reinforced by some of our designers, fashion photographers and filmmakers to no end. So much so that some have now felt the need to mount a full-fledged campaign against the fairness industry. One such campaign is called, “Dark is Beautiful”, started by the Women Of Worth organisation, which aims to promote diversity of skin tones, while emphasising the ill-effects of skin-colour bias. Launched in 2009, “Dark is Beautiful” is currently lobbying against advertisements that discriminate on the basis of skin colour, and is supported by a number of popular figures, one of them being the actress Nandita Das.
“A darker skin colour is surely a handicap when it comes to mainstream films, but as my own interest hasn’t been in commercial films, I haven’t had to fight that battle much. Commercial industry is not for me, for many reasons and one of them is the stereotyping of most things. But if you see, all the actors who were somewhat darker in their first film, are now, all fair. The pressure must be enormous to fit in. I have always stood up against this stereotype. And if they wanted a fairer woman for the part, I always said that then they did the casting wrong!” Das tells Guardian 20.
She also says her experience has been better in this regard working abroad. “Well, I have done a few projects with international producers,” Das says, “and there has been no pressure to change my skin colour. In fact, their makeup artists love our kind of tan and tend to do minimal makeup. But always, without exception, I have stood my ground, as I really do feel comfortable in my skin.”
About being part of the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, Das says: “I think ‘Dark is Beautiful’ is trying to say that you must be comfortable in our skin, even if the world around tells you that you are not good enough if you are not fair. We are defined by what we do, how we think and respond to situations and not by identities like cast, religion, nationality or the colour of our skin. We have no hand in them, so why feel proud or ashamed about it. The campaign is trying to draw attention to the obsession with fairness and how it is destroying the self-esteem of millions of people, especially young girls.
We ask her if she could relate any particular incidents from her life when she was at the receiving end of colour-based prejudice.
“As a child,” Das says, “some far-off relative would ask me not to go out in the sun lest I became darker, or when I walked into a store that had cosmetics, salespersons would come to me with the best anti-tan or fairness cream, or I would be told by the make-up man that I need not worry as he was an expert in making people look fair. I have even had directors/camerapersons telling me that it would be good if I made my skin lighter as I was playing an educated upper-class woman! If I get told all this, despite most people knowing my stand on this issue, I wonder what the other dark women are subjected to!”
The Mumbai-based model Teena Singh has also faced discrimination in her professional field, due to not being a fair-skinned woman. “Recently I got a call from someone for an advertisement of a fairness product. They said that they had already cast a really fair girl for the lead and they want me to play a part of a waitress. In their mind a dark skin girl can only be a waitress.”
Supermodel Mughda Godse, echoing Teena, tells us that in advertising, your skin colour can directly determine the kind of assignments you get. “Being a dark child”, Godse says, “I definitely was not praised around all the fair-and-lovely people, but ironically this colour worked in my favour for my modeling career. But yes, I never got any major products to advertise, and even if I did they would go ahead and paint me white before the ad shoots. Since I carried this tag “dusky supermodel”, I even faced issues during the casting of some mainstream films in my acting career, as everyone wanted fair-skinned actresses. Thank god for an interesting change in cinema today, though. I maintain my dark skin tone even on the red carpet as well as on screen. The change is coming at a snail’s pace but no harm.”