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

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - SUNDAY SPECIAL -

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.”

Binu Paul

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

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