Fifty Shades of Darkness
By Features Editor, Meghna Pant
In 2009, my Mom came to visit me in New York City. We were walking in Central Park when a man came up to her and said, “I had to tell you that you are absolutely beautiful.” My Mom glanced at me, to see if the man had spoken to her by accident. It was only when he kissed her hand gently and walked on ahead, that she finally allowed herself to blush.
To be told that she was beautiful was not a new thing for my mother; we told her she was all the time. But it was rare for strangers to do it. Why? Because she was born with dark skin. In India. Which meant she had to wait fifty-eight years to be told that she was beautiful by a stranger.
I, on the other hand, was born fair. This had apparently pleased everyone: my mother’s mother-in-law, her mother, her doctor, her nurse, the hospital cleaner, her relatives, her colleagues and the sabziwallah. This was despite their obvious disappointment that I’d been born a girl. Their remarks to my mother, who was now a gold medalist graduate and had entered the exalted ranks of civil services, were in the vein of, “Thank god, your daughter does not have your skin colour.”
Despite being fair, my skin was often times slathered with Fair & Lovely and chemical bleaches by concerned help and relatives, who’d worry that my fairness was a mystical delusion that would vanish as I grew older. My brother was dark, my mother was dark, what were the chances of me remaining fair?
This disturbing trend continued, as it did for most children born in the eighties, till around 1993 when Pamela Anderson with her tanned orangish skin caught the fancy of an entire nation. And when dusky-skinned Sushmita Sen in 1994 pushed the envelope by winning over the clear favourite peachy-white blue-eyed Aishwarya Rai, being dark was suddenly not as awful as before. And now we all, of course, love Nandita Das because she’s championing the cause of beauty in dark skin, and Deepika Padukone because she’s really come into her own.
Beauty is truly a relative term, not only in India but also around the world. I grew up in India being considered pretty only because – rather ridiculously – I was fair. In Switzerland, where I went to study, I was considered exotic because I was darker than the locals. In Singapore I was ugly because I was too dark. In the US I was considered cute but not beautiful because I was not dark enough. The Americans were the only ones who truly valued that ‘Dark Is Beautiful’.
We live in a nation that is most unhealthily obsessed with skin colour. Where fairness means beauty, making it the highest consumer of fairness creams and lotions.
Isn’t it time that the pot stopped calling the kettle black?