Friday, February 14, 2003

fair is lovely?

Some dark attitudes linger from the past

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal in February 2003).

Hmm, "Pink Glow, no, Pearly Glow, no. Aha! This one for you, for dark, erm, dusky skin. Yes, yes dusky skin," said the woman behind the counter at my neighborhood chemist, smiling apologetically for her supposed faux pas. I was buying face powder to sop off my face the oily afterglow of an hour out in desert-like New Delhi, where this year the monsoons had failed, but the humidity hadn't. I frankly didn't expect to find something for my dark, erm dusky skin. All I'd ever seen in India were compact powders of a diseased pink color. But I was back in India after almost ten years in New York, and after all the Indian women whod been crowned Ms. World and Ms. Universe, I thought, Maybe things have changed.

When the saleswoman handed me the face powder, I was cautiously optimistic. It still had a bit of pink in it, but was close enough to my color. At least I didn't look like the Indian actresses of yore; pink face with dark brown neck below.

But I soon found that, even though there were now cosmetics designed specially for Indian skin, in other ways, ideas about beauty hadn't changed at all. One day when I was flipping channels, my remote control digit stalled on a curious advertisement. An elderly gentleman was grumbling to his wife that he had to work even in his dotage, because his daughter, no, his dark daughter would never find a job and be able to support the family. If only you had had a son, he tells his wife, conveniently absolving his part in the procreation. The ad cut to the dark daughter, who'd overheard the conversation, looking stricken. Naturally, she rushed for advice to a fair friend, who advised her to use Fair & Lovely cream. She rubbed on the solvent, her pigmentation changed from dark to light. And voila, hey presto, suddenly transformed from dark daughter to fair daughter, she got a job, as a stewardess no less. Papa was proud.

Fair & Lovely. That rang a bell. In the 1980s, when I was a teenager, I was an ace ping-pong player. At a competition at the club in the small town I grew up in that included boys and girls my age as well as adults, I won prizes in five categories. A boy my age matched my record; we had partnered in the mixed doubles matches. He won what any teenager covets: comic books, a Monopoly set, and some cool puzzle books. I won five tubes of a cream called Fair & Lovely. I remember being bewildered and giving them away to the domestic help.

Back then, few middle-class Indian women worked, and for those who had jobs working was more something they did to pass time while they waited to get married. And fair skinned women stood a better chance of landing a good husband. India was still unused to the idea of women in positions of power. Most of the films, even the independent films, showed women as secretaries or detergent-selling saleswomen. It's different now. Women have high-ranking and high-paying positions in extremely competitive fields, both in India and abroad. But Fair & Lovely remains.

Many still seem to believe that for a woman, being fair is more important than anything else. A recent newspaper advertisement seeking an arranged marriage drove the point home. Seeking alliance for Punjabi girl, very fair, really beautiful, the ad ran, and then, as if an afterthought, MBA working at MNC, drawing six-digit monthly salary. Another ad, for a girl less white-looking, reserved its comment on her complexion for last: Seeking alliance for Gujarati girl, very slim, beautiful, homely, convent-educated, fluent in English, wheatish complexion. It's no wonder the fairness products market in India is worth US$150 million, and estimated to be growing at 10-15 percent a year.

I comforted myself with the assurance that at least my sophisticated friends were immune to color prejudice. But at a party an old friend from my New York days hosted, even that illusion was shattered. When the latest catwalk-walker my rakish buddy was dating came in, my supposedly liberal, foreign-educated friend remarked viciously: Can you believe Sunil is dating that woman? I mean, shes a model and all but doesnt she look kinda tribal ? So dark and junglee! As I've been doing a lot lately, I called it an early night.