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Modern India's complex connection with complexion (Opinion)

Sacrificer           MIKE MCPHATE
Sacrifice code       wfor0361
Sacrifice date       Monday, June 6, 2005
  • http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20050606/INDIA06/
  • http://www.theglobeandmail.com

  • TPInternational/Asia

    Modern India's complex connection with complexion By MIKE MCPHATE
    Monday, June 6, 2005
    Special to The Globe and Mail

    NEW DELHI -- The young woman with pretty eyes and flawless diction aspires to celebrity. But her skin is too brown. One day, her sister hands her a tube of Fair & Lovely skin-lightening cream.
    Flash forward. She's decked out in heels and a pink sari, her hair is styled in willowy curls like a film star, and her dusky complexion is pale, nearly as white as her smile. She lands her dream job as a cricket commentator. Mom wipes a joyful tear.

    The storyline of such television advertisements, packaged by turn in
    themes of love and career, has helped to propel a blossoming market for skin whiteners in South Asia. It exploits a deeply rooted but largely unchallenged reality: to the Indian gaze, dark skin is ugly.
    "Racism has become a part of the Indian psyche," Pavan Varma, author of Being Indian, said in an e-mail. "The real irony is that a brown nation looks down on the dark."

    India, home to one-sixth of humanity and birthplace of four major
    religions, is a country bursting with variety. Inhabitants speak more than 1,500 native tongues, cook from at least 35 regional cuisines and align with as many as 772 registered political parties. Comprised largely of sunny tropics and deserts, most of its people have coffee-coloured skin.

    But the sirens of Indian cinema and fashion are with few exceptions tall, slender and honey-hued. It's a colour worn by Aishwarya Rai, the green-eyed former Miss World and paragon of Indian beauty, but possessed by a small fraction of the general population.

    Each Sunday, the fair ideal is put on display in the marriage ads that run in Indian newspapers. Male suitors request slim bodies, expertise in household work and skin tones from within the narrow band of "fair" to "extremely fair."

    At least 75 per cent of Indian women aspire to lighter skin, according to Hindustan Lever Ltd., maker of Fair & Lovely products.
    Studies of southern Asian women in the United States and Canada have found that the darker their complexion the less pretty they feel.

    "They believe they are like an onion -- that the inner part is much more shiny bright," says Delhi dermatologist Rishi Parashar, who often sees patients arrive with rashes after applying bleach to their skin. "These people will never be happy."

    Indian anthropologists say the preference is ancient, carved into the culture by waves of light-skinned invaders, most recently the British, who left natives with the stubborn notion that they were inferior. The complex spans both city and village, where the majority reside, and afflicts women and men.

    Women have invented a variety of tone-battling techniques. In the sunny summer months, they shield themselves with scarves, gloves and big-brimmed hats. They soak their bodies in combinations of milk, honey, lemon, cucumber and almond juice, eating the same during pregnancy with the hope of producing pearly-complexioned children.

    With the rise of India's economy and birth of a 300-million-strong middle class, an appetite has risen for more modern strategies.
    Western companies such as Avon, Estée Lauder and Revlon have responded with an armoury of new skin-lightening products, commonly containing bleaching agents like hydroquinone and Kojic acid. In the past five years, the fairness-cream market has grown by roughly two-thirds to more than $230-million (U.S.).

    Ashok Venkatramani, a spokesman for Fair and Lovely, the leading brand, said in a statement the company does not promote fairness. Women's desire for lighter skin is equivalent to a desire for different hair colour, he said.

    The cricket commentator ad, and others like it, he said, "does not condemn a woman who is not fair. It simply delivers the message that it is possible to change one's outlook towards life."

    Some observers are careful to distinguish India's colour preference from the kind of racism practised elsewhere, such as apartheid-era South Africa, which involved systematic repression of those with darker skin.

    But there are parallels. Tone is not just a measure of beauty in India; it is also a mark of caste. It's believed that caste occupations were originally decided by skin colour, with dark-skinned people assigned to the latrines and light-skinned people assigned to the Hindu clergy.

    Thousands of years later, the colour-caste correlation is diluted, but still loosely in place. Aggressive affirmative-action programs have bettered the lives of many at the bottom but India is not nearly yet a land of equal opportunity.

    "Caste may not be the same as race. But discrimination has gone on for thousands of years," says Uma Kant, a leading campaigner for Dalits, the so-called untouchables who continue to face cruelty, especially at the village level.

    In recent years, some signs of resistance to the fair-skin ideal have surfaced. The portrayal of white privilege in Fair & Lovely ads prompted outcry from women's groups and intellectuals. Fashion bosses point to the success of dark-skinned model Ujjwala Raut, and edgy new Indian films have begun employing browner actors in leading roles.

    Radhika Basu, a 24-year-old graduate student at the Indian Institute of Management, says she feels little pressure to whiten up.
    "Friends used to tease," Ms. Basu said of her mahogany-toned skin.

    "Grandmothers too." The taunts would hurt her feelings. But no more, she said. With her education and "because of the kind of person I am," she says she feels totally comfortable in her skin. "I am single, and if I went in for arranged marriage, I may come across people who would prefer a fair bride," she said. "But then I'd hate to marry into such a family anyway."


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