« Back to articlePrint this article

Unfair and unlovely: We still fear 'getting dark'

November 30, 2010 11:55 IST

Be comfortable in your own skin, says Aarti Iyer. Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

It's summer, and most want nothing more than to laze by the pool or on the beach, catching a coveted tan. Co-workers will return from tropical vacations with that telltale sun-kissed glow, while friends will reconvene at school in September, their tans evidence of afternoons at water parks and music festivals.

For many Indian Americans, however, the summer is not a time to enjoy the sun, but to hide from it. Vacations to the beach without spending much time on the beach; frequent but fruitless sunscreen applications; unhappy assessments of tan lines in the mirror -- all driven by a fear of 'getting dark'.

It's one of those idiosyncrasies that have always amused me. My Caucasian friends would spend money on bottles of suntan lotion and trips to tanning salons, while my Indian ones would spend it on fairness creams and ridiculously wide-brimmed hats. It seemed like a classic case of wanting what you didn't have.

Recently, this little idiosyncrasy has widened into a full-blown controversy bearing far more insidious implications. At the center of the conflict is Vaseline, which created a Facebook application promoting its new line of skin-lightening creams for men. The application allows users to upload their pictures and digitally lighten their complexions, mimicking the cream's supposed effect. Many comments on the product's page criticise the application, claiming it perpetuates the racist idea that 'fairer' equals 'better'.

Vaseline's divisive advertising campaign has given the Indian community the opportunity to examine its beliefs on skin colour, and it is high time the community did so -- but the blame cannot be placed entirely on the makers of skin-lightening creams. These creams are only profitable because people continue to buy them; they are only the symptom of a much larger problem that both begins and ends with us.

First, let's look at these products' most vocal supporters -- their spokespeople. One of the most powerful men in India, Shah Rukh Khan, endorses Fair and Handsome, a skin-lightening cream for men. Katrina Kaif, one of the most successful actresses in Bollywood, endorses Olay Natural White (never mind that her naturally white skin was probably the result of having a white British mother). Other actresses endorsing these creams include Sonam Kapoor, Preity Zinta and Deepika Padukone. For better or worse, celebrities are looked up to as role models -- that is, after all, the logic of paying them to endorse products -- and celebrities must be responsible with that power. Whatever skin colour biases and prejudices that unfortunately exist in India and among Indian Americans are only exacerbated by these pervasive print and television ads, linking the beauty and success of these actors and actresses with their skin colour.

Worse still are the commercials that tell of the grave consequences of living with dark skin -- you might be overlooked for that job promotion or date, might be refused for marriage alliances, might have your partner leave you for someone with fairer skin. These commercials prey on insecurity and perpetuate the very situations they describe. If you assert people will only date the lighter-skinned, don't be surprised when they claim preference for exactly that.

And, indeed, it appears they do. A recent poll of users of the matrimonial site found that skin tone was the most important feature in a potential partner in three north Indian states. A quick glance at any newspaper matrimonial page will demonstrate that when it comes to describing oneself for future spouses, skin colour is just as important a marker as age and occupation. Words like 'fair', 'wheatish,' and 'dusky' have become the defining characteristics of the status and worth of a person, when in actuality they are only words to describe the skin that covers him.

It was Martin Luther King Jr who, in his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech, aspired for a world where people were 'not judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.' King was speaking during a time of serious, government-sanctioned discrimination and segregation in America. India, too, experienced racial discrimination under British rule, the divisions between light-skinned and dark-skinned Indians aggravated for political gain and control.

In contrast, then, the conflict over skin-lightening creams both here and in India seems minor. There are no separate schools or seats for those with darker skin as there were in the '50s; the government does not prevent people of certain complexions from holding office. The use and support of fairness creams is not nearly on the same level as that kind of institutional racism.

I have to ask, however, whether self-imposed racism is any better. The bitter truth is that anything in our pop culture, anything that makes money, is the direct result of our own actions and beliefs. Fairness creams exist because too many men and women see the colour of their skin and wish it could be lighter. Light-skinned actors and actresses Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif can reach and influence large audiences because we made them popular, watching their movies and implicitly rejecting dark-skinned actors and actresses. Commercials depicting dark-skinned men and women losing jobs and significant others because of their skin tone will continue to be made as long as they exploit a real insecurity and compel us to buy their products. Words like 'fair' and 'wheatish' will continue to show up in matrimonial ads as long as we make them a priority.

The fix for these societal issues is not quick, nor is it easy. It is not even unique to the Indian community. A recent study on colourism in the workplace showed that a light-skinned black man with only a bachelor's degree was often preferred to a more qualified darker-skinned black man with an MBA and managerial experience. A L'Oreal ad featuring singer Beyonce gained notoriety for apparently lightening her skin, as did a Complex magazine cover featuring part-Armenian Kim Kardashian. The Caucasian friends who frequent tanning beds are under pressure from the opposite side, told by bronzed celebrities and models that their pale skin is 'pasty' and unattractive.

The best way to combat these prejudices it to simply be aware of them. Lightning models' skin tones through Photoshop-like software seems like a standard industry procedure, but we can change that by bringing attention to it, not taking it for granted, and voicing our opposition. We can be conscious of the decisions we make regarding others' skin colours, moving skin tone down on the future-spouse priority scale, at least behind characteristics like intelligence, kindness and sense of humour.

And, finally, we can stop imposing society's standards on ourselves -- stop buying fairness creams, stop comparing ourselves to fair silver screen men and women, and stop avoiding the sun.

Aarti is a student of Columbia University

What are your thoughts on the fair-vs-dusky debate? Do you think our celebrities are making a mistake endorsing fairness products? Share your comments on the messageboard below.


Aarti Iyer