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Mirror Mirror on the Wall, I am the Fairest of Them All

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The "Snow White syndrome" in India where most Indian men still have a perception rooted in their minds that ‘being fair’ equals ‘being beautiful’. This prejudice and discrimination irks me no end. What is with this prejudice against the dark skin in India when we are on the receiving end of racism? I think the British rule made the Indians fascinated with white skin and we have not got over that yet. It is a colonial hangover. After all, the idea of beauty can be very culture specific and it is what you don’t have that you covet.
From a sociology stand point, men are attracted to what is exotic and genetically different from themselves and the norms of society. This also ties in biologically as this gives a genetic diversity to the offspring by paring with someone who posses vastly different genes. Also, historically speaking, fair skin in countries where there is a higher populace of darker skin represents wealth. The girl's family is wealthy enough that she does not have to go outside for manual labour, keeping her skin light and fair.
A poll conducted by online matrimonial site showed that skin colour is one of the most important criteria when choosing a partner. All dark or wheatish colored girls are made to think as if they are some misfits and have to apply all sorts of creams or soaps to become fair to get married or an audition or guy or whatever. In arranged marriage being fair is a must criterion for the girl, no matter how the guy looks. The qualifications and the nature of the girl are hidden or compromised upon after seeing her shining beauty. In fact I suspect even in an affair the girl may use such creams to keep her guy happy lest he leaves her for some more “greener pastures”.
India has the world's second most lucrative marriage industry and demand for fair-complexioned brides and grooms to grace these occasions is as high as ever. Not surprisingly, the makers of beauty products have been quick to take notice. The market for “fairness” creams is said to be worth more than $500 million a year, according to market research group Nielson, and growing. Plastic surgeons are also seeing a surge in business. The obsession with fair skin is particularly obvious in Bollywood and the country's reality TV shows where being fair, lovely and handsome means instant stardom. Because of the twisted society we live in, everyone wants to be "white". People forget that dusky skin, sported by the much worshipped on-screen beauties like Lara Dutta, Bipasha Basu, Sameera Reddy, Kajol and others, also have an aura of exoticness.
Growing up, considered ugly because of my dark complexion, snub nose and weird because of my temperament (asking too many questions, having an opinion and unquantifiable dreams etc), I tried to fit in. Since childhood I’ve listened to many comments, which has made me very annoyed with people who advocate fair colour. My relatives used to find it weird that how I am dark skinned when my parents are fair. My grandmum was always anxious about how will I get a husband. Freedom of thought and expression, challenging the status quo or the inherent ability to choose were not part of the discourse. On the other hand, my mother always insisted that economic freedom was important. Individuality isolated you and community meant caste and patriarchy.However, as I grew older and being the topper of the class most of the time in school, these discussions subdued as they thought that my economic freedom will see me through.
During my school and college days I have seen my friends using these fairness creams and other beauty products. I used to wonder, for what and for whom? Someone who will judge you and accept/reject you by your looks? Does being fair give confidence? Helps you win laurels? I don’t think so. I admit being fair does give an edge due to all the pre-existing prejudices and morons who judge by a person’s looks but if you have it in you no one can stop you for getting what you want.
My boyfriend (now my husband), generally averse to consumerism, always liked the way I am, as I never used any beauty products and he thought it suited me too. I could not have it any other way. Most of my girl friends used to think of me boring. I like being boring too, if that is the term. I believe in neat appearances; to be pleasing to the self and to others but not enslaved to ideas of beauty. I like my wavy hair and dark skin. However it took some time to arrive at this comfort zone. This was accelerated by the fact that I studied Physics and it was the common believe among the students that we are a boring lot, who are only seen with books and discussing boring stuff. Most of my close friends are boys and they all liked the way I was, not wearing any masks. The first lipstick that I bought was during my marriage.
In India, you can insult a person by calling her dark. I've heard these absurd insults several times. For example, an acquaintance was trying to insult another woman by saying, “She's really dark. You know, really dark. She hides it with her creams and she keeps herself light but she is actually really dark. Good one!You got her good!”
I've asked many of my mates to tell me which Hollywood actors and actresses they consider most attractive. Instead of choosing thespians with brown complexions similar to most South Asians' complexions (e.g. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Salma Hayek, et al.), they invariably choose light-skinned actors like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Tom Cruise.
Thus, I feel that even today where India has progressed a lot still dark skinned women have to create their own paradigms and parameters of female liberation. It is a constant, continuous battle with the self, your native culture and with the community. Then there are men and the media. I strongly believe that being a woman does not have to be fair skinned, it does not have to be anti-world or anti-men neither it is about burning your bra or not threading your upper lip. It is about self-esteem and resisting against the patriarchy. It is about truth, love and empowering your children. It works on a spectrum that gives us the freedom to choose and be who you are.
If things continue to go on this way and we let the media influence our choices on what's considered beautiful or ugly we will have a one race world. Everyone will be white and that would be boring.

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Sharmila, love to read your write ups, and do agree to a degree with the prejudice you talk about...but again I have little out of the box experience...unfortunately I fall in the category of "fair" mom's genes being predominant I guess...with a comfortable looking face which do get few compliments, I felt through out my life I had to fight against my looks...people (mostly men) often judge me as "the brainless beauty"...they invariably make and assumption that one who has the looks does not posses any gray matter...fitting in for me was a bit of struggle I did not have the classic Bengali looks...and when I came back to live in India, that too in a joint family at the age of 13...I was a total misfit...with my own views and ideas, looks was just an other nail in my coffin...guess life is always different from the different angles we live in..:)


Anumita Chatterjee Roy Moon's picture

Hi Sharmila, I like your write up very much as they deal with some of the things we all think about yet many times do not really voice them. I do agree to your thoughts on the prejudice of the Indian community on the basis of the lighter color. But again I myself have had a very different and weird experience, even though (in my case unfortunately) I fall in the group of the seemingly "fair". My color and looks, most of the time ran against me. The first impression I made (mostly on the other gender)was ...oh she has the looks but bet you nothing inside that head. My spunk and curiosity did not help the cause. Growing up for me, after relocating to India into a joint family in the out skirts of the city, that to at the age of 13 was a nightmare in its own merit. My looks just added fuel to the fire. Guess we all have our own beauty stories in different angles. I still think many men dismisses me for my looks equating me as a "brainless bimbo".

Anumita Chatterjee Roy (Moon)

concept of beauty

The concept of 'beauty' has eluded philosophers right from the classical Greek period to modern time. However, none seem to have found the answer to the question 'what is beauty' or 'what qualities make an object beautiful'! (Please note, here I am deviating from the theme of your blog, i.e., physical beauty and considering beauty in its eternal sense). The general ambiguity that surrounds the idea of beauty can be expressed by one of Plato’s narratives where Socrates concludes ‘It is by Beauty that Beautiful things are beautiful’! What Plato tried to establish here was probably the transcendental qualities of beauty, something similar to virtue or truth, where the inherent good qualities of an object make it beautiful and not just its outer looks.

The terrain of aesthetic understanding remains a highly contested domain even within modern era with number of contradicting theories trying to explore the fundamental relationship between human minds and their appreciation of beautiful things. Here, i would like to bring to the notice two broad philosophical understandings under which most of the aesthetic theories fall. First is the theory that 'beauty lies within the object itself', i.e., beauty is an inherent quality of the object, just as Plato predicted. And this remained the theme of all philosophical discussion pertaining to beauty until the period of 'enlightenment'. However, with scientific discoveries and psychological understandings, the philosophy of beauty took a very different outlook. Philosophers started to believe that 'beauty lies in the eye of the beholder'! Kant, Santayana, Dewey and many other philosophers have probed along this line of thoughts and tried to establish the connection between human psychology and perception of beauty.

Aesthetic theorists of modern era are trying to establish the theory that both object and subject count in understanding beauty. For an beautiful object should have certain beautiful qualities like well proportion and measure and if it is a person, he/ she should have a beautiful mind. But at the same time, the psychology of the observer should also be considered. A person's psyche not only consists of his ideas but also certain historical 'vision' which comes to him through his association with a particular culture. and most of the members of a particular culture will have similar psyches. The idea of Indian society's affinity towards fair skin can be seen as an instance of 'collective unconsciousness' where the entire society is attracted to this particular complexion without really knowing why. And it takes enormous self reflection to come out of this unconsciousness.

I am trying to workout a psychology based model to see how people judge a particular scenery as beautiful. These concepts of 'image' or 'preconceived vision' that a society hold have profound impact on how people 'visualise'.

I think I have confused you even more.. Sorry for that :(

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