Dark skin screams for fairness
Sharmistha Khobragade
The Indian government is proposing a ban on advertisements promoting fairness products. My first off-the-cuff reaction on this was positive. As a dark-skinned woman I’ve suffered from the negative attitude Indian society has towards the dark skin colour. One starts absorbing the negativity towards dark skin right from childhood. But to be fair, it’s not just the advertisements that are responsible.
The signals emanate from everywhere. You absorb the message from well-meaning mothers and grandmothers who bring you homemade concoctions, urging you to use them to brighten the skin complexion. The lyrics of popular Bollywood songs such as ‘dhoop main nikla na karo roop ki rani, gora rang kaala na pad jaaye’ (Don’t go out in the sun, beautiful one, what if you become dark?) sends subtle messages that being dark isn’t the most desirable state of affairs.
For whichever beauty treatment a dark girl enters a salon, the first thing she’ll be offered is a bleaching of her face. The make-up artists hired for wedding make-up will turn a deaf ear to the dark bride’s protests, and make her up to look like a ghost.
The pain of feeling unwanted just because of your skin colour, even though your features may be far more chiselled than those of your sought-after fair skinned friends, can be quite searing in the sensitive teenage years. I felt it all through my teenage years. It made me more painfully shy and awkward than my nature had predisposed me to be.
I used a skin lightening cream when I was a foolish kid, but as I grew older I realised how unfair this obsession with skin colour was. I grew to dislike fairness products and stopped buying anything that had a ‘fairness’ tag on it. Several multinational beauty companies have flooded the Indian market with products that pander to this obsession.
I believe the advertisements of fairness products showing a girl triumphing after using a fairness product are misleading. These are in poor taste and judgement and can cause psychological harm to dark-skinned girls. But banning such advertisements is not going to address the issue.
The products will still be there on the shelves. And so will all the cues in the society that signal a fair-skin preference.
Real change would come when women stop buying such products, when society will change and stops considering skin colour as important as other attributes of physical and mental well-being. The cultural change in society required for women to stop wanting fairness products needs to be quite profound. I think the way forward is to celebrate more dark-skinned women.
One Nandita Das alone can not be the torch-bearer of ‘dark is beautiful’ movement. We need to see more dark-skinned women being feted on covers of magazines, on silver screen and television, and for achievements like sports and STEM activities.
We need to shift the discourse from ‘light skin’ to ‘healthy skin’. Men also need to put their foot down, at the fairness products peddled to them, but also at the demeaning ‘fair bride wanted’ adverts placed by their families.
Everyone wants to look beautiful and be acknowledged as beautiful. Let’s broaden our definition of beauty to include all shades of skin colour. So the next time your salon lady offers to bleach your face, have the confidence to tell her that it is not a tan but your natural hair colour and you love it as it is. Banning advertising is a top-down approach that will resolve nothing. The real change will come when we’re comfortable in our skins that fairness products become redundant.