Coloring the Women: India Edition
An article in ABC News Online a few weeks ago began: “To see the effects of racism based on skin color most clearly, one should go to the developing world. In richer countries people are increasingly comfortable, and successful, regardless of their natural skin color, but in many African countries like Senegal, trying to change one’s skin color is still seen as a way to get ahead.” One could easily critique a lot of the assumptions undergirding those statements, specifically whether the effects of racism are “most clearly” visible in the “developing world,” or if indeed there are few barriers to success in “richer countries.” However, it does cover a topic that gets little international attention: the phenomenon of “bleaching” the skin among darker skinned women, popular in many countries.
Both in India, where I grew up, and in Indonesia, where I lived for two years, “fairness” in women is prized by many. In India, the complexion-lightening industry is worth a staggering US$200 million, increasing at the rate of 15-20 per cent every year. If you look at some of the advertisements from the major companies, the general narrative is: a woman cannot find a husband or employment because she is dark complexioned, and after a few weeks of applying a particular fairness cream, Voilà!, she becomes fair…and snags a husband or the coveted dream job.
You don’t have to understand the (Indian) language dialog in the ads below to get a sense of the insidiousness of the message:
Back in 2003, HLL, one of the biggest manufacturers of cosmetic products in India, was forced after months of lobbying by the All India Democratic Women’s Association to take two highly offensive TV ads for Fair and Lovely off the air. Many have argued that these creams “perpetuate racial, caste and gender stereotypes and are either ineffective or harmful”; yet the market for these continues to thrive. The advertisements haven’t changed much since then; they continue to (re)enforce stereotypes and advance impossible claims. Last week, frustrated with these tall claims, the Indian Health Minister demanded “that manufacturers should produce scientific evidence to back advertising claims.” I think he is referring to whether the chemicals “work,” not whether the fairness can get one the prized husband or the job.
These fairness creams (re)inscribe through these ads, on a daily basis, how Indian women (and now men) should think about their skin color: that fair complexion is the panacea for all ills, and dark complexion: well, we hope you are ready to spend your life alone, living your life out in a really bad job. It’s not as if this kind of thinking is triggered by these ads; these perceptions run deep in our society, and hark back to colonial times. And it’s particularly tied to the “marriage market.” As one blogger notes, on shaadi.com, the world’s biggest matrimonial site, “One of the key pieces of information you must provide is your complexion, which can range from very fair to wheatish to dark.” And a brief glance at newspaper matrimonial classifieds reveals just how deeply ingrained this way of thinking is in our society.
These texts and images-the cream ads, the forms on Shaadi.com, the matrimonial ads in newspapers-not only reinforce stereotypes, they reflect the ones we “own” as a society. It’s not enough to walk away from them; we have to look within ourselves and ask how they are produced, and why.