I remember becoming aware of colour prejudice when I reached teenage. That’s generally when girls take note of their looks. I did not take part in sports because that meant being out in the sun, and that meant darker skin. In class eighth, I learnt swimming and was good at it and diving too, but I soon saw my skin darken due to the chlorine in the pool and I kept out of water and sports forever.

I also remember a painful incident when for a school play in my fifth class, I and my classmates were to enact people from around the world, and I was chosen to represent Africa. Even though a layer of black colour was put on me, I knew I had been chosen for my skin tone. And I also remember my mother being furious for this bias. I kept myself out of auditioning for roles in school plays. I kept away from anything that could bring my skin tone to focus.

I also learnt very early in life that I cannot be called ‘beautiful,’ just ‘charming’ because of my complexion. Fair girls, even if they did not have sharp features, qualities or accomplishment to show will be called beautiful. They will be put in the front rows in school plays and dance performances. Will be chosen by guys as their girlfriends and spouse without a doubt.

Also Read: Nandita Das Reacts To Renaming Of Fairness Creams Says “A Big Step Forward”

Even today, when I go to a beauty parlour or skin clinic for a hair-cut or a treatment, I am generally asked “Ma’am why don’t you go in for a de-tan procedure, your skin will become a shade lighter.” Well, I am happy to refuse, I am happy in my skin.

So, yes bias for skin complexion starts at home, school and later society. My life did have silver linings though, when I passed out from college after post-graduation our juniors gave us a farewell party and I was chosen ‘Miss Eve’ by my juniors that year. ‘Miss Eve’ was the girl who looked the prettiest that evening. Yes, skin tone didn’t matter then.

When I was in my mid-twenties it was time for me to settle down and my parents started looking for a prospective partner and finally zeroed in on one. When he came to meet me for the first time I was sure he will say a big ‘NO’ as he was fair-skinned. But surprisingly we said ‘yes’ to each other and have been happy ever since. But, I did ask him later “Didn’t you get a fair girl, what made you choose me?” Since he comes from a state where fair is beautiful. He simply said, “Your qualities mattered more to me than your complexion.” How many guys looking for prospective brides say that? If you go through matrimonial sites, ‘fair-complexioned’ bride seems like a pre-requisite even today.

Now that I have a daughter, who has a complexion like her father, I hear comments like she looks exactly like her father. I hope it’s because of her qualities rather than her complexion.

Not fair but still lovely

Yesterday was a big day for those fighting against colour prejudice in India. Hindustan Unilever has said it will drop the word ‘fair’ from its ‘Fair & Lovely’ range of products, which have long been criticised for promoting negative stereotypes against people with darker skin. Read more about it here.

Just two days earlier I had read that Indian marriage website, Shaadi.com, has removed a skin tone filter following pressure from users.

Also Read: Bleached girls: India and its love for light skin

Ask me, a wheatish complexioned woman what having that skin tone means in India. It’s like being born on a back foot from the time of your birth. So, these two announcements coming close together is a welcome change. Though a lot more is yet to be achieved, these are but just baby steps I feel. Never-the-less they are steps.

It’s surprising how in a country which is predominantly dark-skinned is obsessed with fair skin.

I kept wondering what has brought about this sudden awareness when skin bias has been around in Indian society for centuries. I cannot but refer to the #BlackLivesMatter campaign happening worldwide in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by the local police. When this campaign from the USA became a worldwide phenomenon and reached India, and gained local support, people were called out for their hypocrisy. They were asked where were they when people of a certain religious community, Dalit communities, women were targeted? Where were they when people with dark complexion were ridiculed in their own backyard?

Fair complexion and India

It’s surprising how in a country which is predominantly dark-skinned is obsessed with fair skin. This colour prejudice is explained by saying that we have not been able to get out of our
colonial mind-set when our masters the British were white-skinned and we the servers were dark-skinned. So, white-skin was superior and dark-skin inferior.

Don’t people believe that pregnant women can improve their foetus’s complexion by drinking saffron-laced milk and eating oranges, fennel seeds and coconut pieces? The elder women in families are known for telling young girls in the family to apply ubtans and various concoctions to lighten the skin.

Also Read: You Can Drop The Fair, But Can You Stop The Obsession With Being “Lovely”?

In Bollywood, which sets standards for what we consider beautiful rarely do we find a female actress who is dark-skinned. Yes, we do have exceptions like Priyanka Chopra, Sushmita
Sen, Bipasha Basu, Konkana Sen Sharma and Nandita Das, but the ones who achieve super stardom are the fair ones, acting talent notwithstanding.

Change is here

Being an optimist I would like to believe that the process of accepting our natural skin complexion has begun and we are being supported by the very companies or organisations that pedalled the stereotype that ‘dark’ is undesirable.

Photo by Clinton Naik on Unsplash

The views expressed are the author’s own.

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