Whiter vaginas to blue-eyed sperm donors: India’s fair-skin obsession runs deep
Cosmetic names can change but will society change its colours? A look at the dark side of the beauty biz
Even as a tiny tot, says actor Tannishtha Chatterjee, she was cast as a dacoit in school plays despite being the best singer in the class. “The role of the princess always went to the fair girl,” says Chatterjee, who continued to face colour bias in adulthood. “Someone, once asked me ‘your surname is Chatterjee, is your mom a Brahmin too?’ Basically meaning how come you are dark?”
The colour bias has its roots in the caste system. “We believe upper castes are fairer. As an actor I have heard makeup artists tell me many times ‘upmarket character, light makeup karde aapka?’” says Chatterjee.
Whether it’s on screen or in school, in the marriage market or the job market, the message is that fair isn’t just lovely, it also gets the job or the promotion, and snags the suitable boy. It’s not surprising that the market is flooded with remedies to make women — and now men too — whiter.
It took the Black Lives Matter movement for companies to recognise that their brand names were promoting colourism. This week, HUL announced it would drop the word ‘fair’ from its bestseller Fair & Lovely skin as a side-effect, even though it is banned in some countries and isn’t approved by the FDA. Glutathione IVs are often carried out in parlours and small clinics without proper pre-testing and due diligence. “People think it is magical and will work on the whole body, unlike lasers which are for a specific area,” points out Mumbai-based dermatologist Dr Apratim Goel. At her clinics, demand for skin lightening treatments has grown from 12% to 25-40% in the last five years.
For those who can’t afford expensive treatments, there are the neighbourhood parlours offering to take your “tan” off or there are options to DIY at home. A YouTube search throws up hundreds of videos peddling home remedies for “instant” fair skin. While some teach you to make a mask with toothpaste and Eno (yes, you read that right), others recommend you rustle up DIY face packs and masks using everything from bhindi to besan. There are even videos on herbal concoctions you can brew to get “fair skin”.
Dermatologist Apratim Goel says that some remedies can cause damage if used repeatedly. “For instance, Eno contains soda bicarb and citric acid, so it can make your skin very sensitive and dry.”
Sociologist Neha Mishra, assistant professor at Jindal Global Law School, says her research on the topic revealed that 84% of women were aware of the harmful effects of the products they were using but continued to use them. Mishra also found that there were also skin whitening creams for vaginas, underarms and nipples available in the market.
This constant desire to be fair or be with the fair colours some of the most important decisions of our life — who to marry, who to hire and even what kind of children we want. Dr Manish Banker, director of Nova IVF, says, that seeking fairskinned egg/sperm donors is a rising trend in couples who come for IVF. “They usually ask for donors with white skin and blue or brown eyes.”
Actor Nandita Das, who has been associated with the Dark is Beautiful campaign, says the biases go deep. “Our language reflects it too — things like, ‘uska rang saaf hai’ to describe fairness, as if dark skin is dirty. It is tough to combat a mindset that has become this entrenched in all spheres of society — art, history, mythology, pop culture.”
For some, like Kochi-based fashion stylist Priya Rose, the scars of colourism are more than skin-deep.
Rose says she’s dark skinned but her mother has never let her feel any less for it. “My mom is fair but she has always told me that I am prettier than her. Our relatives, on the other hand, never missed a chance to comment upon my colour. My cousins would tell me that because I am dark it will be difficult for me to find a match and my family will end up paying more dowry. All this impacted me mentally. Then a few years ago, my boyfriend broke up with me because he said his parents would never accept me because of my colour,” says Rose, who has made a video on the emotional turmoil faced by a dark skinned girl.
Activist Kavitha Emmanuel, who started the Dark is Beautiful campaign in 2009, says brands should do more than rename their products. “Tackling colourism should be a CSR initiative for all cosmetic brands, given how many negative messages and toxic beliefs have been endorsed by them.” She also points out how some brands bypassed advertising guidelines on fairness products by replacing words such as “whitening” with “brightening, lightening and glowing”. “They still carry pictures of men and women whose skin shade is changing,” she says.
Will mindsets change anytime soon? It’s hard to say but as Das points out “imageries play an important role in perpetuating prejudice. And this past month has awakened a conscience amongst people in the society, which we must retain and act upon.”
Chatterjee is hopeful that if brands stopping selling and advertising whitening products, and celebs stop endorsing them, it will create a more equitable society in future. “The next generation will grow up with a different colour politics. They won’t grow up aspiring to be fair.”
COLOUR DIVIDE: Kochi-based fashion stylist Priya Rose has done a video on the biases faced by dark-skinned girls. (Above) A poster from The Dark is Beautiful campaign which has supporters like actor and filmmaker Nandita Das