We are all influenced by our experiences. Growing up, a number of women have made remarks that have irked or upset me. One colleague once remarked, “The managers like me more because I am fair and I look like a foreigner.” Another lady gave me life advice that still remains an indelible memory: “You should apply haldi [turmeric] to your skin. If you don’t become fair, who will marry you?” Another comment was even more incredulous: “I was dark when I was born, but my parents bathed me in brandy to make me fair. Your parents should have tried it too.”
Indian Cinema’s Own Brand of Sexism
Fair-skinned women have often made disparaging remarks to me. They have displayed a sense of entitlement because of their fairness. Today, I don’t blame these women for behaving in such a manner. I pity them now because they have been conditioned by a racist society to believe that light skin is the secret to success. Millions of Indian women and girls have faced racism in their own country for being “dark-skinned.” Yet few take a stand against such racist thinking. Indian society has unconsciously accepted that fair women are superior to dark women.
A Very Indian Racism
Racism begins at a young age for Indian girls. It starts with trying to “improve” our skin tone with homemade recipes. Over the years, this racist abuse becomes systemic. Girls grow up with remarks from friends and family extolling fairness. They see ads on television for creams that prize fair skin and offer to take darker women facing discrimination to the fairer promised land.
Those women who “fail” to make their skin tone lighter “struggle” to find suitable men to marry as advertisements for arranged marriages still ask for fair-skinned women. If fair skin is the ticket to instant success, then India definitely ranks near or at the top.
My skin tone is brown, the most common one among Indian women. As a result, I have suffered from discrimination and struggled with confidence issues.
I also belong to a middle-class family, where my father and mother struggled to make ends meet. In a private school, I was one of the “poorer” kids. As a young girl, I did not have the resources to make myself look good. As I grew older, I did not have the “right” skin color to break into the popular girl gang. I spent years struggling to love myself. I critically evaluated every part of my body, hating myself. In fact, I became my biggest critic, failing to cope with body image issues.
In college, I became friends with another woman, who had darker skin. Living with her made me realize how fractured my society was when it came to skin color. My friend was rejected by a man she loved because she wasn’t “good-looking” in the conventional sense of the term. Fair and Lovely, a cream to make skin lighter, was constantly shown in advertisements. They compounded our pain. The ads showed women looking bad or tired when they were dark-skinned, and more confident and beautiful when they were light-skinned. Our popular culture continues to propagate fair skin as the landmark for success for women.
Racism Must End
Today, I have decided to speak out against the racist Indian fixation for fair skin. I do so for the countless girls of my country. I don’t want them to grow up feeling less worthy just because they cannot fit into our society’s description of a “beautiful woman.”
Last week, the Hindi film industry, more popularly known as Bollywood, released a song: “Beyonse Sharma Jayegi.” At first sight, the song sounds harmless. A closer examination reveals Indian racism at its worst. The catchphrase would outrage or anger any person who believes in equality and justice: “tujhe dekh ke goriya, Beyonse sharma jayegi” (after seeing you, fair woman, Beyonce will feel ashamed”).
In one stroke, Bollywood demeaned Beyonce, a black American star who has fought racism for years. It demonstrated the deep racism of an industry that prides itself on promoting stereotypical standards of beauty. The most important of those standards is fair skin.
Bollywood epitomizes centuries of Indian patriarchal and racist thinking. It is now the top purveyor of such thinking in the country. The time has come to speak up against this toxic thought. If we keep quiet, then thousands of girls damned for not being fair enough will lose their ability to speak up.
Producers, directors and actors in Bollywood have long compromised on their integrity for years to make money. By catering to entrenched patriarchal thinking, Bollywood creates monstrous songs demeaning women’s bodies, minds and skin color. The popular “item” songs literally refer to a pretty woman as an item, demeaning and degrading womanhood.
Sadly, many women justify such songs. Actor Kareena Kapoor Khan complimented Ananya Panday, the fair woman in the “Beyonse Sharma Jayegi” video, for “looking hot.” Kapoor might subconsciously be justifying her own past actions. For years, she has held aloft the torch of patriarchy. Kapoor has done numerous item songs, including one in which she was referred to as a type of chicken who could be devoured alongside alcohol. Famously light-skinned, Kapoor has professionally benefited from the Indian fixation with fairness.
Dark-skinned actors have not been so lucky. Bollywood has pushed them to take up roles in “art cinema,” while success in the film industry is largely the preserve of fair-skinned women. Actor Sonam Kapoor summed up this attitude in a comment on national television. She declared that she would not watch a film unless it had “good looking people.” Good looking in Kapoor speak means fair-skinned, an article of faith in Bollywood. Hardly anyone calls out this toxic Bollywood belief because it reflects a gospel truth in Indian society.
Bollywood’s False Beauty Myths
Bollywood has shamelessly upheld false standards of feminine beauty. The talk of respect for women is just talk. In an earlier article on Fair Observer, I wrote about sexism in Bollywood. While writing that article, I found that the age difference between male and female co-stars in Bollywood has increased from two to three years to over 25 in just a decade. Women have to be young, slim and, of course, fair-skinned.
Bollywood producers, directors and actors are not alone in peddling toxic beauty myths. India’s fashion magazines invariably edit photos of actors to make them look flawlessly perfect and fairer.
When it comes to systemic racism in Indian culture, Bollywood takes the cake. In much of India, people rely solely on Bollywood for entertainment. Bollywood films help create a society less accepting of women who do not fit the mold. Women are pushed to adhere to certain standards of beauty and demeaned when they don’t fit in. To be dark is a sin that you can never wash off until you die.
Such is the reach of Bollywood that it could be a force for positive change. Why not produce songs that say every woman is beautiful? Why not produce films that portray women who are defined by what they do with their lives, not by their looks? Why not create catchy anthems to promote education of women?
Fashion magazines could help too. Vogue India could feature a female social activist on its cover. Its editors must ask themselves a simple question: Why does Vogue India always have to feature a heavily edited, “socially accepted” beautiful woman?
The answer probably lies in extreme commercialization. The state of India’s media and entertainment industry can be summarized in just one sentence: jo dikhta hai, wahi bikta hai (only that sells well that looks good). Fashion magazines are unwilling to feature the image of a dark-skinned woman toiling in a field because that image won’t sell. Similarly, Bollywood is unwilling to change itself to avoid losing money. Racism sells. Cash is king. The show goes on.
Before we assume Bollywood racism to be immutable, we must remember the industry was not always like this. Once upon a time, it showcased women like Asha Parekh and Rani Mukerji. They set body and skin color standards that represent millions of Indian women. Over the years, Bollywood has degenerated and now sets ridiculous specifications for women’s skin tones and waist sizes.
Our women and black women like Beyoncé deserve better. The millions of Indian women who feel neglected because of their skin color must remember that a revolution must begin. We should take down every person who demeans us and judges us on our skin color.
At a time when mass protests are demanding an end to discrimination against black people, it is time for Indians to stand up as well. We must look ourselves in the mirror and confront our centuries-old misogyny, sexism and racism.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.