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Youth Column - Mirror Mirror On The Wall

Krithi Nathan

Mirror Mirror On the Wall, Who’s the Fairest One of Them All?

In our Indian culture, the perception of beauty has always been different from that in the rest of the world. We value a certain aspect of beauty more prominently than the other cultures: fairness. Why is that? Why does fairness play such a huge role in an Indian woman’s identity? Does her complexion have anything to do with her personality, talent, or achievements?  We would think this is quite a primitive thought but the disheartening fact is that even today, India believes in such an exclusive culture. While India is modernizing and making a mark on the global stage, both culturally and economically, fairness is still valued so highly in determining the worth122 of a woman. Why is it that the majority still succumbs to such parochial expectations?

It’s the 21st century. The world is on the verge of major breakthroughs in every aspect of society, be it education, arts, politics, and even science. Women today are more independent than they ever were before and the duties they serve have gone beyond the home. Women aspire to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, policewomen, pilots, and even wish to serve in the armed forces. They play an important part in every society and their success is crucial to the betterment of humanity. The modern roles of women embody their free spirits that want to be expressed but are burdened by the crushing effects of societal expectations on their self-esteem.

Fairness  continues to be that one feature most Indians look for in a woman. Even on Indian marriage websites today, men specify that they want a “fair” complexioned bride.  Indian culture has always been dominated by the idea that fairness makes every woman look beautiful and can cover up all her flaws. This idea has existed since the beginning of Indian civilization and originates from the practices of the Hindu caste system. The people of fairer class were treated with more respect compared to the people of darker class. Another major reason for India’s obsession for fair skin is the British colonization of India. The British treated Indians as second- class citizens in their own country and Indians were forced to bow down obediently to their white masters, framing the belief that they were phenotypically inferior. (IndianITBlog)

Another major reason for this fairness craze is the advertising of skin- lightening products. India is one of the few countries that sell creams for increasing complexion. Skin lightening products make up at least “61 % of the dermatological market in India.”(The Times of India). It’s amazing how much of an impact advertisements for fairness products have on the darker-complexioned population in India. We have all heard of Fair ‘n’ Lovely, Vivel, Pond’s, Emami, Garnier, and many other fairness cream brands which are making the big bucks in the Indian cosmetic market today. It’s absolutely ridiculous that even famous celebrities, like Shah Rukh Khan, get paid to endorse not only the brand but “fairness”. Whenever I watch TV in India, a fairness cream ad would pop up every 5 minutes out of nowhere!  A darker- skinned woman would complain to her “beautiful” friend that she isn’t being noticed by her crush in college. Her friend would reach into her pocket and throw a tube of Fair ‘n’ Lovely to her and immediately, she would attract attention from all the guys. Such irritating commercials cause duskier women to develop an inferiority complex based on the idea that they aren’t beautiful and don’t deserve attention from society. There are even ads which endorse men’s fairness creams with John Abraham riding a motorcycle surrounded by women. But that’s a whole another story.  

I had another interesting experience with the idea of beauty on my trip to India over the summer. I visited a family friend’s home and I noticed 3 tubes of Fair ‘n’ Lovely on her dressing table. She didn’t even have a dark complexion, and yet she used fairness cream everyday. I asked her what made her use such products. “Do you think tan skin isn’t beautiful?”,I asked. She replied, “ Yes, because only white is beautiful. Our culture likes if women are fair because everything looks nice on them.” It was so saddening to see how much of a negative impact societal expectations had on her perception of natural beauty. Instead of embracing her unique complexion, she was conforming to what society believed was beautiful.  

Breakthrough research by the World Health Organization(WHO) has found mercury in skin- lightening products which can have “adverse effects such as kidney damage, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression, and also peripheral neuropathy (Times of India). “ Apart from mercury, the creams also contain harmful ingredients such as hydroquinone and ammonia.”(The Times of India). “Hydroquinone leads to permanent disruption of melanocytes, which produces melanin causing some cells to become permanently inactive resulting in white patches,” says dermatologist Rathindra Nath Dutta in an interview with the Times of India.

It’s funny that in Western cultures, white people are obsessed with becoming duskier and “exotic” whereas their Eastern counterparts dream to become “fair and beautiful.” Here, we see bikini-clad women pouring tanning lotion on themselves and laying in the beach on a hot sunny day for more than 4 hours at a time, scorching their skin for a tan. In India, women stock up on all the fairness creams they can find and glob them on before going out so people can call them beautiful. During my high school prom, many girls went for the “healthier spray tan” which reduces the risk of getting melanoma. A girl even said to me, “You’re so lucky you don’t need to tan. You have a gorgeous skin.” It was refreshing to see someone actually appreciate my skin tone whereas if I lived in India, I would probably be forced to goop on all the powder I can find.

Even though there is so much emphasis on fairness, there are still many successful Indian women who are proud of the color of their skin and aren’t afraid to flaunt it. Deepika Padukone, Chitrangada Singh, Konkana Sen Sharma, B. Saroja Devi,  Bipasha Basu, Smita Patel, and Rani Mukherji are just a handful of bronze beauties who have travelled on the road to success. The famous “Dark is Beautiful” campaign launched by Kavitha Emmanuel in 2009 is against “the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin” and “celebrates the beauty and diversity of all skin tones.” (The Hindu) Our most recent Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri is not only a role model for all of the young Indian girls around the world, but is one of the few dusky women who have chosen to flaunt their attributes on a national stage. Her beautiful skin tone has made ripples in the American pageant world but the sad reality, is that if she was in a pageant in India, she probably wouldn’t win the crown simply because she wasn’t fair.

India still has a long way to go in terms of being more accepting of women of all skin tones. The charm and elegance of Indian women, which the whole world praises, is oppressed by Indian society’s traditional standards of beauty. It is upsetting to see that so many women , even in today’s modern era, risk their health in order to be fair. It will take India many years to realize that its true beauty lies in its women. Its dark-complexioned, dusky women.

Stay UNfair, Stay Beautiful~A quote by Nandita Das, supporter of the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign.(The Hindu)

(Krithi Nathan is a senior at Sharon High School in Sharon, MA. She is the reigning Miss India Teen New England 2012 and also holds the title Miss Photogenic. )

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