When Beauty Is Only Skin Deep: Intensifying Social Inequalities Through Rangbedh or Colour Discrimination
By Shalu Nigam
25 November, 2014
Inequalities and discrimination based on skin colour or rangbedh is not a new phenomenon rather it is deeply ingrained in mindset across India and throughout the world. Historically, skin colour has been used as a parameter to accord treatment to the individuals either intentionally or inadvertently. And even today, those with fair skin are considered as superior and those with the darker hues are placed at the lower rung of the social hierarchy. This essay examines the colour based prejudices from gender lens, the manner in which this is promoted explicitly and implicitly by the media and the repressive social norms in the neo liberal economy and the impact it makes on daily lives of women in a modern world. The purpose of this piece is to assist in developing more nuanced understanding of intricate ways in which women are discriminated and marginalized based on their skin tone and the way these disparities are explicitly or implicitly stratifying the society. It attempted to explore the culturally defined and socially structured meaning of fairness and its impact on women. More specifically, in the Indian context where white and black dichotomy hardly persists as in West, and the stratification is based on variant of brown or the shades of skin tone is creating a divide and the manner in which these regressive practices are shaping the notion of beauty and femininity
Dark Skin Color Ruined A Marital Relationship: The Story of Namita
While conducting my research on women and violence, I met Namita[i], age 29 years in a local district court in Delhi. She has completed her graduation in Economics, and hails from a middle class family residing in upcoming township on borders of the capital and newly constructed Noida city. Her five years old marriage is in shambles and she has come to the court to seek justice[ii]. The reason is her dark skin color and other physical attributes that are not befitting the common norms that define and shape beauty of women. Her husband, a MBA employed is an executive with a Multinational company found somebody else in the office more attractive according to Namita. “He always had a kind of obsession with fair color and wanted to marry a heroine like Kareena or Aishwarya with a zero figure and a radiant glowing skin”, she claimed and “therefore he beats me whenever I confronts her”, she added. “He himself is an average looking person….though is slightly fairer than me and is also not tall, rather he has a stout body. However, during our marriage ceremonies, one of his aunt do commented that our match is not perfect as overall he looks good as compared to me”, she shared.
“It was an arranged marriage and we are both from Alwar, our families know each other and therefore our parents decided that we should get married. He doesn’t want them to make unhappy and therefore reluctantly agree to marry”, told Namita. “In fact, before meeting him and his family, my parents have tried to fix my match with others, but simply because of my colour I was rejected. This happened several times and I was felling humiliated”, she added. “My parents have given sufficient dowry and a car too” she added. “But his fixation for white skin has now spoiled the life of me and my baby. He left both of us for we both are dark in color”, she complained. “I tried various lotions, bleaches and creams besides trying desi (local) practices like applying besan turmeric and all since I was young, but none has worked”, she explained. “Also I developed patches over my skin and gained some weight after the caesarean operation and these are not going. I am trying several remedies and consulting both allopathic and ayurvedic practitioners”, she clarified.
She underwent several phases of counseling along with her husband as required by the procedures. According to her, during those sessions, her husband has not directly been raising issues relating to her looks but is using the phrase that “she is not `civilized’ and do not know how to behave in parties” which is infuriating for her as she has `received the graduation degree from a prestigious college’. She is now frustrated and thinking of putting her daughter in a crèche and look for a decent job. Going back to parent’s house is not an option for her as she feels that her brother and his wife will tease both her and her child and her life will again become like a living hell. She confided that she has appeared for several interviews however, because of the `gap’ in her resume she is being denied a suitable position at workplaces. However, she demands that “I need my respect and dignity”.
However, Namita knew she is not alone in her struggle against rangbedh or colour discrimination. She has faced this discrimination earlier in her life too where her parents and other family members have shown bias between her and her other two siblings. And she has been teased in her school and other public places too. During the conversation she also shared the experiences of her aunt Jyoti (mother’s sister) who was also abused by her husband and in laws because she had dark toned skin. However, according to Namita, her aunt Jyoti “never `dared to revolt’ because she lacked guts and in those days women were trained to tolerate silently. I could not bear everything silently. Times have changed. I know I can earn my living on my own so why should I bear? I have handled enough when I was young. Now I don’t want to give my child the similar challenges which I have faced” questioned Namita. Namita is not the only one who is facing the adverse effect of deep rooted colour based prejudices, there are many other women like her who have been facing the similar ordeal[iii].
`Am I a Curse for the Family?’ Arti’s saga of Pain and Resistance
Arti, is 25 years old and is working as a teacher in a private school. She has completed a vocational training course. Her husband works in a private shop and lives in Govindpuri. She has been married for past one and a half years. Her father owns a small shop in Chirag Delhi. They are five siblings, she being the second youngest but the only child who has darker skin tone than others. Her grandmother who stays with the parental family `hates’ her and calls her a ‘curse for the family’ as after three brothers when Arti was born her grandmother thought that a burden has been added to the family. “She always used to say who will marry you, you are a black evil and a burden on the family. The family has to save a lot for your dowry because of your dark wicked skin”, explained Arti. It was an arranged marriage fixed through a relative. “It is because of dowry that he agreed to marry me”, claimed Arti. Her husband’s family includes a widowed mother and his brother. After her marriage, her mother in law has been constantly nagging and taunting her for her dark colour and has been abusing her to get cash and a bike from her parents. Her father could not arrange these because her mother is suffering from cancer and a lot of money is being spend on her treatment. The violence continued for several months. She was not allowed to meet her parents on festivals or other ceremonies. Her husband also used to beat her on trivial issues saying that she `is an evil and her entry in the house in ominous’. Somehow, she got a job in a private school six months back with the help of her friend. She then persuaded her husband and mother in law who allow her because she could earn 12,000/- per month. Her husband used to take the salary, however she was relieved that at least she has the opportunity to go out of the house.
Two months back when her eldest brother marriage was arranged, her parents called for her. At that time, her husband and mother in law didn’t allow her to go. They again raised their demands for cash and bike. Since then furious violence started. Several interventions were made by her parents to resolve the issue. Even local community members were involved. She was allowed to stay at her husband’s house on the promise that after her brother’s marriage the demands made by her husband will be fulfilled. However, abuse and violence continued as usual and one day her husband poured kerosene on her. She shouted for help, somehow neighbours intervened and she was saved and taken to the hospital with 20% burns. Nobody from in laws family neither her husband came to visit her in the hospital. Her parents took her back with them to her natal home directly from the hospital. However, her grandmother continued to verbally abuse her. She now does not want to stay at her parent’s house. With the help of her colleagues at the school, she consulted a lawyer who suggested that she should file a criminal case with police, but her parents refused to do so as it will hinder the marriage of her brother as well as other siblings. She then consulted another lawyer who suggested her to file the case under the PWDV Act. She then filed an application before the local district court to seek for her right to residence under the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence (PWDV) Act. In the court, when her husband appeared before the counselor, he denied the fact that he poured kerosene over her and instead blamed her to be a lazy woman who since the time has got the job is refusing to do any household chores.
In these situations morphological differences are ascribed with social meanings. Women, in all above are being made to feel incomplete, deficient, marginalized and outcast because of their skin colour, facial features or body shape. The scars of such discrimination often remain invisible and hidden as in these cases other forms of violence also took place over and above colour based discrimination. The pain of such discrimination and violence is severe and yet it is difficult to articulate in a legal language as the situation is more experiential. The narratives reflect that skin color is a social construction and is seen as a significant issue because in the modern society, it is regarded it as a salient feature. The depiction like many others is a classic example of normalization and legitimization of the form of structural oppression and involves an array of cultural, institutional and interpersonal dynamics that routinely are used to add to the disadvantages of women while producing persistent, cumulative adverse outcomes.
Namita’s story gave a clear indication of the centrality of bodily practices relating it to the hue of epidermis to the maintenance of women’s identity. It shows that though fairness objectively refers to the level of pigmentation of the skin, yet it has been socially and culturally constructed to make a social impact on lives of those who have a dark tint. More specifically, the discrimination based on skin color, added to that of body shape or other physical parameters of beauty create a system of hierarchy and inequity in a sharply multi layered society already stratified and organized based on socio-religious order and rests on hierarchical caste lines. Skin colour creates a further divide. For an individual, these biases create a system of alienation and exclusion that prevent them to fulfill dreams and aspirations. This exclusive form of stratification contributes in creating social inequalities along with gender lines putting women in disadvantageous situation. In Arti’s situation, she has been excluded, isolated and alienated both within her natal as well as her marital family because of her skin colour.
Walker called this type of discrimination on the basis of colour as colourism[iv] as it is characterized by supremacy of light skin tone. Colourism is the dependence of social status on skin colour. Clubbed with the desire for a perfect body shape or other physical aspects, the obsession for lighter skin tone instills prejudices and invokes preferential treatment, privilege and power for those who fit in the dominant social norms. The concept of fairness is reflective of traditional notions of body as a source of political contention and shows the manner through which femininity is produced through a range of practices including altering normative skin colour. The darker shades are considered as `imperfect’ when measured through the norms and lens of ideologies of `perfectness’ as projected superfluously by the media or the social and cultural constructs. Further, aggressive marketing and mass media campaign shapes the concept of attractiveness and acceptability and project lighter tone as an ideal of beauty, femininity and success. Such distorted concepts of perfect skin shade are promoted and accepted widely without considering ramifications of such regressive ideology.
Driven by the pressure tactics, a large number of women are compelled to overwhelmingly construe the notion of having fair skin as normative and to associate fairness with the concept of acceptable and ideal perfectness. The unfathomable desire to alter one’s body image by deliberately corroding the epidermal layer is created because of distorted conception of beauty. It exemplifies manifestation of false consciousness and an intrinsic indistinct belief that one is better only when one acquires fair skin. Through the continuous usage of skin lightening products women routinely comply with biased social norms and expectations dictated by patriarchal sexist regime. In the process, fairness becomes a potent instrument of social control because it manipulates thoughts about ideal notion of skin colour. Women’s bodies become a battleground where society imposes conditions through social and cultural constructions of being `perfect’ concept of beauty or femininity.
Both Namita’s and Arti’s case highlight the manner in which the social context operates where women are treated as objects and hence less than human in daily lives. By combining cultural and traditional values with that of modernity, a woman’s body is commodified to make her a desirable product. It also depicts the way in which the norms dictated by the neo liberalism clubbed with patriarchal notions fuels the fantasy of everyday expectations and experiences of conjugality and determine the norms of ideal image of women as wives. And when the women fail to fit in this image of desired object in real life they are treated with violence.
The account of Namita’s life is also an illustration of powerlessness as well as agency of a woman – helplessness to resist commodification at the macro level and agency in seeking justice as an individual who is violated. Similarly, in Arti’s case, she has been treated violently by members of both marital as well as natal family, however, she finally choose to resist against the violence and stepped out to gain economic independence. These two cases highlight the situation of marginalization as well as reclamation[v]. The situation reflects that the major challenges to women’s empowerment are historic social and cultural conditions kindled by the culture of globalization where women are barely safe from violence and greed in a consumerist society that increasingly legitimizes blind consumption. Yet, it also exemplifies assertion and agency by women.
These incidents reflect that situation has been changing and educated and independent young women like Namita or Arti are not ready to bear humiliation or abuse silently like the women in previous generation did. Namita criticized her aunt as the one who belongs to `previous generation’ and perceives her to be weak because she endured sufferings. The story thus points out that equipped with a sense of independence that women in contemporary generation have acquired through education, they are negotiating the gender role and power relations within the bonds of matrimony[vi]. Arti like Namita, and many other young women in the city made it clear that she is not willing to tolerate abuses or humiliation within the marital relationship or within natal family like it has been accepted by the earlier generations of women and would prefer to walk out of a violent relationship. The views surrounding weakening of power relationship within marriage are mirrored through the available statistics too[vii]. Though no official data is being documented on the issue relating to divorce in India, it may be inferred from this and other similar cases that in situation of extreme vulnerability and complications arising out of social inequality the traditional marital contract may become weak within the changing social context. Nonetheless, the questions remains as to colour discrimination is making severe impact on women lives.
The History of Biases and Prejudices
Skin colour is determined by the amount of melanin present on the skin besides levels of exposure to the sun. However, the significance of skin tone in determining and shaping social relations has a long tragic trajectory in India and across the world. In West, a lot of writings are available on the matter where the skin colour has also been seen in its relation to the racial discrimination. However, in the Indian setting though colour based stereotypes exist in daily lives and have confirmation in caste and colonial histories yet these have hardly received any attention. For centuries, the notion of beauty is seen in relation to fair complexion. From folk tales to Bollywood movies, all equate fairness with beauty, femininity, superiority, power and high status in social hierarchy. Frequently, fair skin colour is associated with the self esteem, pride and a sense of belonging to the dominant group and blackness implies negativity and therefore exclusion. It symbolizes evil, inauspiciousness, pain, rejection ominous, limited options and ill-fate thus harbouring and maintaining a system of oppression and inferiority. Yet, not much of research has been done on skin color and its impact on daily lives of men and women in India.
However, in the ancient India, the dark colour of the skin was not considered as inferior as many of the mythological characters in the Ancient Indian texts were described as black, yet powerful. Amongst the Hindu Gods, Lord Krishna is considered as dark or shyam varna. Lord Shiva, and Lord Rama were also construed as having dark complexion. Kali, the Goddess who destroyed evil is depicted as dark. Yet, at the later stage, dark colour of the skin was construed differently in daily lives of common men and women. Theories have related colour discrimination with the advent of Aryans and introduction of varna[viii] system in India in which dark hue was equated to be evil and a marker of lower social status. This belief is legitimized by the Hindu scriptures scripted during later era which were based on dualism consisting of good and evil, fair and dark, purity and pollution, upper and lower castes besides sin and virtue.
The varna system consider the Dasyus or Dasas, the lowest rung of the hierarchy as dark skinned, ugly, poor, undesirable and racially inferior people. This caste based stratification system propagated by those in upper echelons links caste with skin colour upheld supremacy of the Aryan in the social hierarchy while tracing their lineage to the superior genetic pool and described them as noble or pure, as physically tall, have a light skin tone and sharp facial features while refuting Dalits or untouchables[ix]. For often, dark color is associated with the one who belongs to peasant class, a worker works hard in an open field for a living. A person from a higher class or caste is pure and worthy to enjoy the luxuries therefore do not expose self to the sun. This theory associated dark with primitiveness, impurity, pollution, shame and uncleanness.
Other theories trace the historical roots of white supremacy in invasion of Muslim emperors, Greece rulers, Portugal empires and other foreign powers including Europeans. Colonization separated native people from their individuality and customs as well as destroyed the physically and symbolically the rich cultural history and institutions of the indigenous population. Dehumanization, isolation, cultural dispossession and mass victimization all are the basic themes implemented to establish dominancy. They construe colonized subjects as ‘lazy’ and ‘unproductive,’ and local culture as uncivilized thereby justifying imposition of colonial rule, power and practices. Specifically, the colonial rule imposed its own set of legacy and the Imperial rulers fragmented the nation while reiterating the imagined hierarchies provided an ideological justification for supremacy of whites. The British masters recreated a dichotomous binary world compartmentalizing the society alienating one from the other on the basis of apartheid social construction. They believed whites were objectively the highest of the human races and blacks the lowest, justifying the latter’s subordinate status. This dichotomy between the dark-skinned and fair-skinned inevitably aggravated further divides, created tensions, gave rise to the feelings of inferiority and allow biases to permeate much deeper. Colonial subjugation and the distinctions made on the basis of difference on skin tone continue to reverberate today.
Frantz Fanon in his famous work, Black Skin, White Masks[x] applied psychoanalytical theories to explain the feelings of dependency, inferiority and inadequacy that black people experience in a white world. He thus propounded that black people could not fit into the norms established by whites. He argued that in a society dominated by whites, black children learn to associate “blackness” with “wrongness” because of divided self perception of the black subjects who lost their native cultural origin, and attempt to embrace the culture of the white. Black then tries to imitate the culture of the white colonizers. Such behavior is more readily observed in upwardly mobile and educated people who can afford to acquire education and can master of the language of the colonizer. He termed this idea as lactification which consists of the possibility of moderating one’s racial background, of lessening the degree of one’s blackness, and ‘becoming more white’. Adapting alien language, imitating the fashions or modes of dressing of the colonizer, adopting its eating style, mannerism, all of these contributed to a feeling of equality with the rulers and an apparent lessening of one’s blackness among the colonial inhabitants. The process therefore dislocated the psyches of millions of men and women, imposed an alien world on them and ‘skillfully infected them with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, debasement’. Fanon sees this desire as damaging and pathological. He claimed that the colonialism destroyed the local culture and perpetuated exploitation through creating an environment where colonizers are compelled to internalize inferiority besides imposing economic control. Through alienation and isolation from psychological and cultural originality blacks were estranged from their humanness from their own body, a sense of self and sense of belongingness all on the basis of the colour. Fanon, while tracing micro level psychological impacts of structural oppression argued that colonialism not only appropriated property or land but also severely affected culture and history and, more pertinently perhaps, the means and resources of identity, and hence powerfully and psychologically damaging the colonizers through colonizing their mind. Similarly, in the Indian situation, it may be said that colonization severely affected the economy, the indigenous culture as well as the psyche of the masses and continues to have its impact even decades after independence.
Global Obsession for Fair Skin
As mentioned earlier, not only in India but globally the phenomenon of colour discrimination has a long history. In West, plenty of research has been done about skin color and what it entails being a black or a white person. It is claimed that having white skin color implies that “one has access to obvious yet unspoken psychological and economic privileges associated with `whiteness’”[xi]. Classism further intensified the effects of colourism. Shome argued that the institutionalized and systemic nature of whiteness "is maintained and produced not by overt rhetorics of whiteness, but rather by its 'everydayness'"—“an unquestioned normativity that makes invisible the ways in which whites participate in, and derive protection from, a system whose rules and organizational relations work to their advantage"[xii]. However, when people think of racism, they usually think in terms of the harms inflicted upon Blacks without considering the benefits afforded Whites. Indeed, White is not commonly viewed as a racial identity. Rather, it has assumed a quality of invisibility. In recent years, scholars have been exploring whiteness as a racial identity and the privileges it carries[xiii]. Skin colour functions as an indicator of a person’s access to the benefits associated with a particular class.
Du Bois[xiv] in his work in 1935 titled Black Reconstruction in America argued that white supremacy is a global phenomenon affecting social conditions and spread across the world by means of colonialism. He introduced the concept of `skin color paradox’ and propounded the concept of psychological wages for white labor. In his thesis, he professed that skin color is connected to the attitude, preferences and outcomes in myriad ways. He argued that skin colour discrimination permeate just like racial prejudices and shapes one political beliefs and identities. In fact, phrases like “White is right” more accurately capture contemporary understandings of both the racial and the color hierarchy in the United States. However, to counter racism, colourism and structural oppression, a strong movement emerged in West in the 1960s and 70s which gave popular slogan like “Black is Beautiful” and term Black Power to encourage racial pride. Other affirming statements like “the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice,” “Say it Loud, I am Black, I am Proud”, have also been made to counter racial and skin colour discrimination. However, in spite of resistance bias continues to exist in everyday life[xv].
However, despite of protests against colour based discrimination, the stereotypes in favour of white perfect skin is rising and acquiring new meaning in day to day life. Looking good and beautiful is no longer a choice in today’s competitive world for millions of men women rather it has become a compulsion for many. It helps them to enhance their self esteem and aid in seeking approval from others. The socio-cultural conditioning clubbed with modernity place skin fairness on a higher altar of desirability, social approval, perfection and success. Though, pots of creams or tubes of gels cannot make people fair, yet these stereotypes are reiterated by companies to promote their fairness products who in neoliberal economy use the power of advertisements to create the culture of endless consumption while relating these products to consumers’ dreams, aspirations and hopes and severely affecting the lives of women like Namita and Arti.
Biases Permeates the Everyday Mindset
It is evident that the bias on the basis of colour has existed historically and encompasses the entire society in infused and diffused form day in and day out. In India, its ugly face is recently depicted when three African boys were brutally attacked by a mob in a metro station in Delhi[xvi]. The incident clearly reflects on racial overtones and lack of humanity or compassion on the part of the city which could not tolerate darker shades of skin. Even women from Uganda were mistreated by the then Law Minister of State in Delhi a few months back[xvii]. Several other incidents of violence against people from North East depicts irrational behavior prevails due to senseless biases and prejudices.[xviii]. Most of the people in North India are unconcerned about the death of Nido Tania[xix] and this apathy reflects the deep seated bias and prejudices in the society[xx]. Further, when Nina Davuluri from South Asia won beauty pageant in America many back home speculated that she could not have won the title had she been in India because she is not fair skinned[xxi]. All these indicate that colour consciousness permeates everyday in the manner in which one relates to people around him or her. In the streets of North India, people from the South of the country are disdainfully categorized as Madrasis, Black people from Africa are irreverently dismissed as habshis, and women from North east are often being targeted as chinkies, and are sexually harassed[xxii]. All these highlight that the discrimination is deeply rooted in social and cultural fabric of the society that are depicted through behavior and culturally transmitted expectations and assumptions.
It is not only in terms of treatment being meted out to others, but also the craving for whitening the skin indicates that a kind of identity crisis is affecting the population. This culture is perpetuated through everyday life as girls are not allowed to move out in sun or swim because that will tan the skin and reinforce the notion among children that fair is desirable. Similarly, many households follow practices and rituals during pregnancy and child birth like consuming certain types of food that may impact the skin colour and features of the child[xxiii]. Also, in many Indian households girls are instructed to put turmeric face packs that may help to reduce tan and with the advent of range of beauty products from herbal to ayurvedic, women are using newest available products to get glowing skin. In many middle class families, older women stress the usage of such products for unmarried young women in order to get the better marital match. Media and Bollywood valorize the idea of fair skin, promotes prejudicial norms and reify the hegemonic norm of beauty even pushing the limits of unattainable cultural beauty ideals.
Also, often, the choice of spouses is determined by the skin colour. Many matrimonial advertisements that appear in the local daily newspaper or matrimonial websites in their “grooms” or “brides wanted” sections clearly states that they prefer partners with fair skin colour even if the advertisements lately announce ‘caste no bar’ phrase specifically. Men prefer brides who are tall, fair and slim. Similarly brides’ families prefer fair skinned grooms for their daughters. Fairness is equated with feminine beauty, noble aristocracy, superiority, intelligence, refinement, prosperity and power while darkness is often associated with toughness, meanness, indigence, criminality, and masculinity. Frequently, those with darker skin face rejection and humiliation. Dark is equated with ugly, clumsy and uncivilized person.
Skin colour also plays a significant role while negotiating in marriages. Lighter the skin colour more the choices available in terms of selecting the marriage partner[xxiv]. It is often used to compensate for status inconsistencies in cross caste marriage and recompense for lack of dowry, employment or education. In arranged marriages, for women with darker hues, parents may have to pay more dowry to compensate for colour of the bride[xxv]. This growing preference for white skin is reflective of not merely choice or aesthetics, but seems to be breed out of self-doubt and identity besides the lingering confusions in the post-colonial era.
The dominant culture frequently equates beauty with the fair color and perfect flawless skin texture. Skin shade thus becomes a marker of beauty. Often, in employment, preference is given to a person with fairer skin, specifically in those sectors where client interaction is more, it is generally understood that fair skinned women will attract more clients. Regularly, fair toned women play lead roles in major Bollywood movies. Even those with darker hues are portrayed with layers of makeup to highlight the perfect looks. Lighter-skinned women also predominate in beauty pageants, music videos and commercial advertisements. Cultural hegemony and philosophical nihilism has entrenched so deeply that in certain occupations people are hired for their fair skin i.e. industries like aviation[xxvi], films, fashion where lead role are given to women who possess fair skin colour. The cultural meaning that assigns superior status to lighter skin tone thus plays a major role in negotiation of roles and goals. Fairness, thus, has a strong influence in defining identity, marital relations, employment, status and income of a person.
Evoking Skin Color Discrimination to Earn Profits: The Offensive Market Strategies
Currently, the situation in India is that the country is obsessed with fairness and this is evident through the quantified data available on consumption and the growing market of fairness products. In 2010 India's whitening cream market was worth $432m and keeps growing at 18% per year, according to ACNielsen[xxvii]. Tapping onto the desire of women to have a fair and glowing skin tone, the MNCs are boasting of creating artificial solutions without realizing the fact that such products undermine and subjugate women. India's whitening cream market swelled from $397 million in 2008 to $838 million currently, according to research by Euromonitor International[xxviii]. The annual sale of skin care products is worth Rs 9641 crores[xxix]. The market, which initially focused on women, is now pitching to men too with the evolving concept of metro-sexual men. Capitalizing on the need to look good, new products are being promoted in the market to alter the skin color thus exploiting the obsession to become fair. In fact, new products like whitening face cleansers, shower gels, fairness baby oil, armpit whiteners and even vaginal washes have been launched lately in the market. Further, the multinationals, in order to reach out to rural areas are packaging their products in small and low cost versions to expand its market to include consumers from lower middle classes. Whitening creams are filling onto the shelves in shops in small towns, cities and areas along with the reach of television and internet. The commercial advertising of fairness product in itself is Rs 3000 crores business in India[xxx]. Through using multiple channels of communication like print, electronic and digital media these corporations are able to not only multiply profits by showing the message repeatedly but also claim to cater to the material and emotive needs of people. However, what is actually does is that it evokes the need of an unnecessary good among consumers.
Storylines are being generated to create yearning for fairness and about how being dark skin could materially prevent people from achieving their dreams by affecting their employment and marital prospects. While considering the link between jobs, relationships and skin tones people invest in skin-whitening products in the hope to find easy solutions to complicated realities in lives. The psycho-social significance of fairness is being exploited by the brand builders in the skin fairness market to capture the vulnerability of the users. Often, in the disguise of choice what is used is coercion as a means to exploit and dominate. Kilbourne[xxxi] argues that the real intent of many advertisers is to create an addiction that keeps consumers coming back in hopes of finally realizing their dreams. She examines the cumulative impact of advertising on attitudes, values, and behavior designed to appeal to young men and women.
The values associated with hard work, success, merit, self confidence, self image, all is being distorted and replaced by the obsession of having a lighter tone skin as a solution to myriad complexities. The corporation giants culturally and socially construe notions of beauty, femininity and superior social status linking these to fair skin. Regressive constructs and ideologies are perpetuated while continuously devaluing and disgracing dark skinned men and women. Conspicuous advertisements using conjure of science fuel the colour based inequality while constantly reminding women of their ugliness in being dark and connecting fairness with modernity, upward mobility and cleanliness. These advertisements stimulate intolerance and a sense of deep self hatred among dark skinned women causing serious harm to their self esteem, make them feel undesirable, have lasting negative effect of youngsters.
The advertisers in skin colouring industry do not simply `manufacture consent’[xxxii] rather they reiterate white supremacy. Advertisements maneuver consumer behavior by creating a desire to use the product and in the process `educate consent’[xxxiii]. By appropriating beliefs, these corporations try to manipulate values and inculcate culture of consumption though the use of media. The plot is to reiterate the theory that beauty equates with fair, glowing and flawless skin and that lightening the dark skin is possible, preferable and achievable through the regular consumption of the product. Through repeatedly showing the concrete images of power, success, happiness, pleasure and confidence advertisers show the users as to how exactly fairness creams can help them achieve their dreams. Neoliberalism thus legitimizes the ideology of consumption and portrays this as development or empowerment[xxxiv]. The economic view ignores the nuances and complexities of human behavior and relations.
Fairness: A Dark Unsafe Parameter of Beauty and Femininity
Corporate giants exploit the obsession among women to ‘brighten, whiten, lighten and illuminate their brown-toned skins’ without considering the ill-effects of the products. Products are frequently launched without testing it for safety and health hazards. Most of these contain toxic chemicals. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment, at least 44 per cent of the fairness creams marketed in India contain high levels of mercury, a toxic metal that can affect the nervous, digestive and immune systems as well as lungs, skin, liver and eyes[xxxv]. Mercury can cause increased pigmentation and itchy rashes. High doses of mercury are lethal. Other creams have been found to contain dangerous chemicals, such as topical steroids and hydroquinone that may cause intense irritation, acne, rashes, scarring itching, discoloration and uneven bleaching of the skin. Under the Drugs and Cosmetics Acts and Rules, the use of mercury is banned in cosmetic products in India. Dermatologists have also warned that excessive reducing of melanin may increase the risk of skin cancers.
Besides, the concept of skin lightening is psychologically harmful as it adversely affects the positive self-development and create an identity crisis situation for an individual. It deliberately or subtly promote the belief that empowerment comes only through external superfluous parameters or by resembling or imitating others thus creating a vicious circle of disempowerment. Fanon calls this psychological warfare the “alienation of the existential self”. Socially, the concept of skin whitening reinforce patriarchy, abuse and sexism through unreal portrayal and objectification of women’s bodies thus lowering their self image through as shown by Kilbourne in her documentary titled ‘Killing us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women’ released in 1979
Resisting Against Fair Skin Campaign
Skin whitening is a public health crisis fuelled by corporations to make huge profits. According to the Center for Advocacy and Research, these companies use "unfair trade practices" and "social stigma to sell their products”[xxxvi]. Many of the advertisements created to sell the fairness products are offensive and commodify or degrade women. The All India Women’s Democratic Association (AIDWA) filed a complaint in the year 2002 with Hindustan Liver Limited about these false, demeaning and discriminatory advertisements on which the company did not respond. AIDWA then appealed to the National Human Rights Commission alleging that these advertisements were offensive because firstly, these were racist against dark-skinned women, secondly they promote son preference, and thirdly, they were insulting to women. It was also lamented that the company demonstrated poor ethical practices by exploiting the use of existing cultural norms in India to promote their products. The Human Rights commission passed AIDWA’s complaints to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The Ministry agreed that the advertisements by the companies also violated the Cable and Television Network Act of 1995 and urged them to discontinue and withdraw discriminatory advertisements that depict women in negative framework.
Women’s organizations also lobbied with the Advertising Council of India (ASCI) to come up with guidelines against advertisements that discriminate against dark skin. In its guidelines issued recently released on advertising for skin lightening and Fairness Improvement Products[xxxvii] the ASCI specifically banned the advertisements that perpetuate the notion that dark skin in inferior and undesirable or reinforce any negative stereotype based on skin colour. The new rules proposed that advertisements should not show darker skinned people as unhappy, depressed, or disadvantaged in any way by skin tone, and should not associate skin colour with any particular socio-economic class or community[xxxviii]. However, ASCI in itself is a toothless powerless body which can issue a code of conduct and can receive complaints against unfair trade practices, yet in actual it has no powers to take action against the defaulters and advertisements continue to appear regularly, repeatedly over all the television channels, magazines, newspapers, billboards, internet and other technologies affecting the psyche and mind of common people coercing them to believe that beauty lies in fairness and implicitly contribute to violence against women like Arti and Namita.
When Eleanor Roosevelt cited this well-known phrase “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”, a few years back she may not be aware of the fact that the multinational companies in order to reap profits through selling skin lightening products will affect the likelihood of self-acceptance, devalue the natural beauty, harm the self esteem and hurt the self image of women in subtle manner while playing such derogatory and repressive advertisements which promotes negative image of women hood. Women consent to hegemonic disempowerment subtly which is obtained using pressure tactics deployed by these huge corporations which push them into powerless consumption and fail to realize that life exists beyond skin colour. Often, education, class or other factors fail to overcome social or emotional constraints that caged even informed minds reiterating deep-rooted psychological bias while pushing for ingrained repulsion of self and imitating that is alien.
Need is for systematic changes against conscious or unconscious bias. Re-edification that valorizes diversity to dislodge white as a dominant ideology may help. This may be done by streamlining the messages which focus on strength and characteristics of a person rather than those emphasizing superfluous parameters. Several campaigns like Dark is Beautiful by Women of Worth and Brown is Proud too were launched in India to challenge the climate of discrimination and to celebrate different skin shades that exists across the country. Solutions have been suggested in legal domain too, however, law can be progressive or oppressive[xxxix].
However, when women’s body is used as a site of oppression it has also been used as a key to transformations and as a mechanism to protest. Embodied resistance is a potent form of protest against all kinds of social norms and in certain situation women like Namita or Arti are depicting their agency and resistance against hegemonic discourses at micro level. In this neoliberal context, imperative is to create an alternate to counter repression through collective protest through struggles and praxis where value emerges in context of empowerment, positive self development and constructive self image as being done by Jan Natya Manch and similar such organizations and exemplified through creation of an alternate paradigm of empowerment that is not based on consumption rather it is empowerment in true sense.
“I am a woman
A woman from whose life’s blood
The carcass of the blood sucker bloat
And from the loss of whose blood
The profit of capitalist increases
A woman for whom in your shameless vocabulary…
…There is no word
Which can describe her significance
your vocabulary only speaks of women
whose hands are unsoiled,
whose body is supple
whose skin is soft with delicate complexions,
And hair fragrant.
But I am a woman
Whose hands have been wounded
hands that have lost sensation to knives
and a body broken with your endless, shameless, and backbreaking work
with skin like the desert
and hair that stinks of factory fumes”
- From the play Aurat by Jan Natya Manch
The author is an activist and a researcher and is working on Women, Law and Governance issues in India. She may be contacted at email@example.com
[i] Names changed to protect the identity
[ii] She is filing a case for maintenance and her right to residence under the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act PWDVA 2005. Under this law a woman can claim for her civil rights.
[iii] Nigam Shalu (forthcoming) In Search of Justice: A Socio-Legal Analysis of PWDVA, CWDS, ICSSR
[iv] Colorism is a term coined by Alice Walker in 1983 in Search for Our Mother’s garden: Womanist Prose, USA Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
[v] Nigam Shalu (2014) From the Margins: Revisiting the Concept of Marginalized Women, Countercurrents dated September 3, http://www.countercurrents.org/nigam030914.htm
[vi] Nigam Shalu (2005) Understanding Justice from the Perspective of Women’s Litigants in India, CWDS Occasional Paper http://www.cwds.ac.in/ocpaper/understandingjustice.pdf
[vii] India Today (2011) On the Rise: Divorces under 25 Dated December 29 http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/on-the-rise-divorces-under-25/1/166369.html Reddy H (2013) Made in Heaven Broken on Whim, The Hindustan Times dated March 21 http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/gurgaon/made-in-heaven-broken-on-whims/article1-1030149.aspx Also Dummett Mark (2011) Not so happily ever after as Indian Divorce rate double up, BBC New Dated January 1 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12094360
[viii] Varna in Sanskrit implies colour
[ix] Ayyar V and L Khandare (2012) Mapping Color and Caste Discrimination in Indian Society, in The Melanin Millennium: Skin Color as 21st Century International Discourse, Edited by RE Hall Netherland Springer pp 71-95
[x] Fanon Frantz (1967) Black Skin White Masks: The Experience of a Black Man in a White World, Original publication date 1952, translated in 1967 by Charles L Makrmann Grover Press US
[xi] McIntosh Peggy (1988) White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondence Through Work in Women Studies, Working paper No. 189 Wellesley College Centre for Research on Women Wellesley
[xii] Shome, R. (2000). Outing whiteness, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 15, 366-372.
[xiii] López Ian F. Haney, (1996) White By Law: The Legal Construction Of Race 197-202
[xiv] Du Bois W E B (1935) Black Reconstruction in America, republished 1995 edition, NY Free Press
[xv] The Times of India (2014) Protest in US after policeman fires 17 shots killing Black teen in St Louis, dated October 9, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/Protests-in-US-after-policeman-fires-17-shots-killing-black-teen-in-St-Louis/articleshow/44750033.cms
[xvi] The Times of India (2014) Mob Hounded 3 African Youths as cop Watched, dated September 30 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Mob-hounded-3-African-youths-as-cops-watched/articleshow/43840914.cms
[xvii] The Hindu (2014) Kejriwal meets Delhi Lt Governor Amid Bharti Controversy, Dated January 23 http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/kejriwal-meets-delhi-lt-governor-amid-bharti-controversy/article5608889.ece
[xviii] Joshi Mallica (2014) Women from NE bear the brunt of racial slur, The Hindustan Time, February 9 http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/women-from-n-e-bear-the-brunt-of-racial-slur/article1-1182099.aspx
[xix] The Hindustan Times (2014) how many More Nido Tanias? Dated February 5 http://www.hindustantimes.com/comment/how-many-more-nido-tanias/article1-1180885.aspx
[xx] Dasgupta D (2009) Our True Colours, The Outlook, dated June 29, http://www.outlookindia.com/article/Our-True-Colours/250314 Also Jilangamba Yengkhom (2012) Let’s stop pretending there is no racism in India, The Hindu dated June 12 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article3466554.ece
[xxi] Chaudhary Lakshmi (2013) Miss America Nina Davuluri: To Indian to ever be Miss India, The First Post dated September 13 http://www.firstpost.com/living/miss-america-nina-davuluri-too-indian-to-ever-be-miss-india-1111477.html
[xxii] Thapar Karan (2014) The Ugly Indian: How Racist we are to our People, The Hindustan Times dated February 9 http://www.hindustantimes.com/comment/karanthapar/the-sad-but-inescapable-truth-is-we-are-guilty-of-racism/article1-1182080.aspx Also, Das B (2014) India’s Northeast speaks out against Racism, Aljazeera dated Feb 19 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/02/voices-from-india-northeast-201421811314600858.html
[xxiii] Vaid Jyotsna (2009) Fair Enough? Color and Commodification of Self in Indian Matrimonials, in Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters? Edited by Evelyn Glenn Stanford University Press US p 148-165
[xxvi] Sonawane Rakshit (2008) Tribal Girls Trained as Air Hostesses: Govt plan Crashland, The Indian Express Mumbai February 8 http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/tribal-girls-trained-as-air-hostesses-govt-plan-crashlands/270916/1
[xxvii] AC Nielsen (2011) Fairness Cream Market in India, dated October 3 http://www.marketresearch.com/Netscribes-India-Pvt-Ltd-v3676/Fairness-Cream-India-6586592/#abs
[xxviii] Euromonitor International (2014) Skin Care in India, http://www.euromonitor.com/skin-care-in-india/report
[xxix] Bansal S (2014) Fairplay guidelines for fairness products, The Live Mint dated August 20 http://www.livemint.com/Consumer/x3i7kzOpcsYmnLjfQkvm8I/Fairplay-guidelines-for-fairness-products.html
[xxx] Bhatt S (2014) Journey of Fairness Creams Advertising in India, The Economic Times Dated Feb 26
[xxxi] Kilbourne Jean (1999) Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising Free Press, US
[xxxii] Herman ES and Noam Chomsky (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, USA Pantheon Books Random House
[xxxiii] Gramsci A (1971) Selections from Prisons Notebook, NY International Publishers
[xxxiv] Mohan Dia (2006) Mirrors of Value? Advertising and Political Theater in hegemonic Construction of Women in India, International Young Scholar Seminar’s Papers on ESS http://www.esocialsciences.com/articles/displayArticles.asp?Article_ID=466
[xxxv] The Hindu (2014) The Dark Side of Fairness Industry, The Hindu dated January 17 http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/industry-and-economy/the-dark-side-of-fairness-industry/article5587051.ece
[xxxvi] Leistikow Nicole(2003) “Indian Women Criticize ‘Fair and Lovely’ Ideal” April 28, http://womensenews.org/story/the-world/030428/indian-women-criticize-fair-and-lovely-ideal#.VDOsETgcRjo
[xxxviii] Bhatt Shephali and Ravi Balakrishnan, New guidelines for fairness advertisements: Don't show bias on basis of skin colour, say ASCI The Economic Times, dated June 11, 2014, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-06-11/news/50508833_1_advertising-standards-council-new-guidelines-asci
[xxxix] Tellis Ashley (2012) Racism is in your face not under the skin, The Hindu dated June 16 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/racism-is-in-your-face-not-under-your-skin/article3497933.ece
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