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Coloring the Women: India Edition

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 20, 2009 8 Comments

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.

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8 Responses to “Coloring the Women: India Edition”

  1. daveski on: 22 February 2009 at 12:36 am

    I saw an ad once that made my jaw drop to the floor, when I was riding a train near Osaka in Japan, something that echoes what Ryuko Kubota and others talk about in how race (and whiteness in particular) is linked to the learning of conversational English in some advertising there:

    From Race depicted

    This is only one section cropped from a larger advertisement. The large red words on top read “How close to native can you get in 3 months?”, and the text in each of the three circles surrounding the woman’s face describe what the English learner will be able to do with English after one, two, and three months of study: order from a menu, go shopping, ask for directions in the streets (of some cosmopolitan English-speaking European country, it seems) when you’ve got lost shopping and dining out…

  2. Youki on: 22 February 2009 at 12:57 am

    wow it’s interesting how those ads work — the gaze of the other is internalized as a representation of the self. It’s like Vygotsky, Ricoeur, and Foucault get drunk in a bar and decide to play a prank on humanity.

  3. daveski on: 22 February 2009 at 9:18 am

    Huh? Can you give mini-primers on Vygotsky, Ricoeur, and Foucault? 🙂

  4. Usree Bhattacharya on: 22 February 2009 at 10:38 am

    Dave, that’s been one of the most haunting pictures I have ever seen; you showed it to me about a year ago, I think, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. That should be in a book.

    Youki: I am with Dave, primer!

  5. Youki on: 7 April 2012 at 1:47 pm

    wow this post was 3 years ago? How time flies. I was working on the primer, but it quickly turned into a post, but the post never reached critical mass (kinda feels like it doesn’t really have a point). Here’s my primer, and I’m breaking it up into 3 separate comments.

    Vygotsky: a large aspect of how we understand the world comes from the relationship between what he termed “spontaneous” and “scientific” concepts. So a child seeing a ball drop and hit the ground has a direct, experience-rooted involvement in the activity, but may not have a scientific understanding of why gravity happens. The student is able to observe gravity at a local level, but it’s not until gravity is explained that the student can understand the role that mass plays in gravitational force. Similarly, conceptions of race and beauty tend to stem not just from direct experience, but also from idealized images in the media and society. For example, in Dave’s image, the relationship between hair/eye color and English proficiency is not one that is directly experienced (a Japanese person’s eyes won’t turn blue after taking a few English classes). The article suggests that someone won’t just speak English, but also appear English. In Usree’s examples, a contrast is made between dark and fair skin, with the suggestion that people with fair skin live better lives. In both cases, people are being exposed to cultural norms that may differ from their own lived experiences. Skin color is a relative conception of beauty (fair skin may be idealized in some cultures, while a suntan in others), but the examples above show that beauty is not a concept that originates solely from the individual; rather, cultural norms play a large role in determining not only what’s beautiful, but also the effects of beauty (living a better life). The same way a child will internalize the concept of gravity, we internalize conceptions of what is beautiful and the consequences of beauty.

  6. Youki on: 7 April 2012 at 1:53 pm

    Ricoeur: In Oneself as Another, Ricoeur makes the argument that identity is a dialectical relationship between sameness and selfhood; that is, the materiality which constitutes our identity — what we look like, the molecules that make up who we are, the idea that the physical “Youki” that is writing this is the same “Youki” that you took classes with — is different from the selfhood which constitutes our identity — my identity as a blogger, student, writer, or thinker. It’s the difference between what I am vs. who I am. An example that comes to mind is the distinction between sex and gender: sex is a biological characteristic of a person, while gender refers to the culturally constructed sexual identity of a person. With regards to Usree’s post, if you apply the Ricoeur lens, you see that beauty is not just a physical characteristic, but a cultural one as well. According the the advertisements, someone with fair skin doesn’t just have those physical qualities, but will also live a better life. Ricoeur’s argument is that identity is not just about what we look like, but also how others perceive us and how we perceive how others perceive us, and Usree’s post is an excellent example of that.

  7. Youki on: 7 April 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Foucault: sexual identity is linked to power, and Foucault explores that relationship with the concept of biopower. In Usree’s and Dave’s examples, the advertisements aren’t just expressing beauty, they are establishing normative views of beauty and more importantly, the relationship between beauty and the self. It’s not that fairer skin leads to better lives, it’s that making your skin more fair will make you happier (at least, for the target audience of the advertisements). In a way, it’s a form of regulating beauty: beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder, it’s not a subjective observation. Instead, there’s a hierarchy to beauty, and fair skin is at the top. The advertisement makes the argument that the path to being more beautiful lies in altering one’s body (via the facial cream). It’s a form of control, a way of managing behavior, establishing power over people’s bodies, and maintaining discipline (in the form of a negative perception of self) over individuals.

    So when I see advertisements like the one Usree linked, I see Vygotsky, Ricoeur, and Foucault in a bar, getting drunk, saying, “alright, if we can make a perfect example of the things we’ve been writing about — how people learn through socialization and internalization, how people perceive themselves in relation to others, and how identity is controlled by society — what would be the perfect example?” And then they say in unison, “Beauty advertisements!”

    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    Umm, Youks, two words: FIT POST!!!!!!!

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