By Kouser Fathima
I had been noticing that my eight-year-old was spending more time in front of the mirror for the last couple of days. After having spent few days in the swimming pool, she got tanned and was repeatedly reminded about it by few. As a result, an eight-year-old had become conscious about her skin colour and had started spending more time in front of the mirror trying to find ways to become ‘fair’ again. I had to go the extra mile to convince her that she was still pretty and loved; that one could still be beautiful, even if one were not fair. Though she returned to her playful ways and forgot about it, I don’t think she understood the second half of my sentence: that one could be beautiful without having a ‘fair’ complexion.
It shows how we are not only stuck up with the notion that ‘fair is beautiful’ but we keep reiterating this fact time and again. And how loud and clear we are about it. Every television channel including the kids’ channels has fairness product advertisements shown at regular intervals. These ads propagate the idea that to lead a happy and successful life, you have to look beautiful. And beauty is synonyms with fairness. To be noticed in the college, to impress a guy, to attend a wedding or to get married, you only have to use a fairness cream to look beautiful. Even before a job interview, a fairness cream seems to enhance one’s ability, what the qualification couldn’t.
Fair & Lovely ad about cracking the civil services exam
Recently on Anupam Kher’s talk show, ‘Kuchh Bhi Ho Sakta Hai’, the noted Bollywood actor, Priyanka Chopra, was talking about how she was treated differently in the West because of her skin colour. She shared details of how she grew up with very few friends; how lonely and difficult it was for her. At every step, she was reminded about her skin color and had to put on extra efforts to get accepted and be a part of the group. It was certainly an emotional and touching interview. Ironically, after becoming a beauty queen and a prominent actor, the same woman started endorsing a fairness product.
But why blame her alone? As a society, we have been obsessed with our skin colour since ages. Literature is replete with instances of heroines who are beautiful because they are ‘fair’. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the eldest Jane, who is described as ‘fair, beautiful, and pretty’, is visited by a line of suitors. Elizabeth is described as smart, witty, and proud. In Elizabeth’s case, the emphasis is more on her mental sharpness than on her beauty. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, ‘Juliet is the sun…The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars’. The description of the female protagonist is stereotypical: fair, beautiful, and shinning like a moon. Even the great authors such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen are guilty of subscribing to this stereotype. Poems and sonnets extolling the virtues of the fair, beautiful lady have been written for ages. I don’t remember reading many stories, where the woman protagonist is anything but fair. Cleopatra’s beauty bath with donkey milk and Nefertiti’s beauty regime are well known and often emulated. If otherwise, a woman should posses other talents to compensate for her ‘not so fair’ looks.
Laila, from the legend of Laila-Majnu, written by Amir Khusrau, was one of the few who was described as brown-skinned but with time even her description changed: beautiful became synonymous with fairness. However, the word, ‘Layla’, in Arabic means night or dark and hence she was named so after her dusky/dark complexion. Keeping with this tradition, an Indian watercolor painting of the lovers in Bodelian library depicts Layla as dark skinned.
Layla visits Majnun in the wilderness; Indian watercolour held by the Bodleian Library. Source: Here
Later the story was adapted by the Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi, who wove Persian characters and changed Layla’s complexion to fair.
Azerbaijani folk art based on the Layla and Majnun by Nizami Ganjavi. Source: Here
Things have not changed much with time. We have reached Mars but are still stuck with our obsession with fair skin. A visit to any beauty parlour would surprise no one to see girls and ladies of all ages wanting fairness treatment, which becomes an obsession for life. This desire to look fair has resulted in a billion dollar industry. Both print and TV media are flooded with ads of fairness products, endorsed by some of the biggest stars. For example, Priyanka Chopa for Garnier, Sonam Kapoor for L’Oreal Fairness cream, Shahrukh Khan for Fair & Handsome, John Abraham for Emami Fairness Cream. Such endorsements by stars, who are hero-worshipped and blindly followed by many, are bound to contribute to the problematic interdependence of beauty and fairness. A society which is already biased against its female population, this obsession with fair skin is detrimental, to repeat the obvious.
To add to the mess, we have fairness products for men now, which put men under pressure to not just look good but be ‘fair’, similar to their women counterparts. Many companies have launched exclusive fairness products for men. To be noticed or make an impression in an interview, even a guy has to look fair. In a sense, we have some sort of equality when it comes to notions of beauty, even though equally problematic.
Shahrukh Khan’s ‘Fair & Handsome’ ad
But how and when will this obsession end? Or will it ever end? It will be difficult to change people’s notions of beauty and an onslaught by the beauty industry has further reinforced the concept of fairness. The corporate consumerist reach is only making things difficult. The society needs to redefine beauty without any bias and the celebrities who have a great influence on us need to be more responsible with their endorsements. Change may not come overnight but change is not impossible either. In this regard, Nandita Das is exemplary in endorsing the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, which counters our typical obsession with fairness.
Waiting for a day when beauty is just not “fair & lovely”.
Nandita Das talks about ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign
Dr. Kouser Fathima is a Bangalore-based dentist who writes on issues concerning women, especially Muslim women. Twitter: @drkf_18
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