Conversation between my aunt and me, at 14.
Aunt: Look at you. You look like a piece of charred karuvaadu (fish, dried to a crisp). At least wear sun-screen when you’re out playing b-ball in the sun with your thuggy friends.
Me: Who the hell cares? I like my skin this way. I’m not going to touch that icky sunscreen. Besides you know how crappy and rebellious my skin is. It loves to break out at any given opportunity, and I’m NOT going to give it that satisfaction.
Aunt: illai kanna (Tamil endearment, translates loosely to - no, dear), you used to be so fair and pretty. In the last three years, your skin has been exposed to the elements way too much and your skin color has become progressively darker. I don’t even recognize you anymore; you look like a dark boy (as if being dark was an insult).
Me: *stunned, hurt silence.*
Conversation between my aunt and me, at 20.
Aunt: What happened to you? Did you camp out in the sun all summer?
Me: Huh? Why? I worked all summer with high-school kids! That doesn’t qualify as camping out in the sun all summer. So where are you going with this?
Aunt: You’ve become so dark di; I suggest you stay at home for the most part. The heat in Madras is merciless. I don’t want you looking like a piece of burnt wood.
My aunt, who is usually a paragon of sense and anti-prejudice (most of the time, at least), always caves in to what I call the unfair and not-so-lovely syndrome (I know it’s a cheap play on words, but go with the flow, will ya?) which most Indians seem to be afflicted with. And they indulge in this curious form of racism so seamlessly, almost as if on autopilot. You will hear someone praise Bipasha Basu’s beauty and her flawless olive complexion and then berate their own daughter for wasting time on useless athletic activities which will only result in her getting a dark tan (the horror), in the same breath. Besides, she has to get married no? You can’t possibly fill out a matrimonial ad along the lines of very tanned, athletic, loves team sports and competitive swimming.
In a twisted little way, the words that make up the matrimonial ad become the girl’s life. She must not do this or that for fear of deviating from the values that make up the archetypal ideal Indian bride i.e. Fair, beautiful, cultured, educated and homely girl from a good (insert religion/caste/sub-caste here) family and so on.
I mean, isn’t asking to specify your skin tone for a matrimonial ad, the most blatant and conspicuous form of racism around? And god forbid if you’re actually dark skinned, you get slapped with a weak ‘wheatish’ tag because oh-wail-no-one-will-marry-you-now. Please tell me if you have seen anyone calling themselves ‘dark’ in their matrimonial profile. Even a person with obviously dark skin will call themselves ‘wheatish’ (I have no idea as to what this term means), because societal pressure and the unhealthy obsession for fair skin deems it so. I will also go out on a limb and say that it affects the psyche of the woman more than the psyche of a man. When an Indian woman looks for one or two likable qualities in a future mate she is labeled difficult and unreasonable. But a man can have no personality, no hair and have bad teeth, and still expect a woman who is ‘very fair, tall, cultured and beautiful’ and that is considered perfectly lucid and unobjectionable. But I digress.
How did this anomalous ‘light skinned = beautiful’ bigotry come into place? Is this an influence of the ill-fated colonial hangover? In all probability I guess that’s what it is. This over romanticized blond hair, blue/green eyes, and aquiline features as the quintessential beauty ideal has been burnt into most Indian’s brains. I mean, didn’t we all learn nursery rhymes like,
Chubby cheeks, dimple chin,
Rosy lips, teeth within,
Curly hair, very fair,
Eyes are blue, lovely too,
Teacher's pet, is that you?
Yes, Yes, Yes.
Considering the fact that most Indians aren’t blue-eyed or very fair, this rhyme is laughable at best, but what effect does it have on kids in school? Without going to the other extreme and acting all OMGenglishnurseryrhymesareaccursed! a la Madhya Pradesh, wouldn’t it be better if the archaic and schmaltzy nursery rhymes we learnt as kids were revamped? Or better still, how about introducing new nursery rhymes in english with Indian characters? Personally I found them banal and idiotic even in school and if things worked my way (heh) I would just do away with them altogether, but that’s just my opinion.
I have always seen, while growing up in India that the most popular girl in my grade would also have the fairest skin, irrespective of how she looks. I have nothing against fair skinned people, but judging a person’s looks based on skin color alone is utterly moronic and ignorant.
When I was in 8th grade, our seniors, the 9th graders held an unofficial (hyuk), highly cloak and dagger kind of ranking system for the girls (only ninth graders) based on physical appearance alone. And I personally knew most of the girls in their ranks, but what took me completely by surprise at least back then, was the girl who was given the title ‘prettiest of 9th grade’. She was um, fair skinned to the point of being extremely pale and wan looking, and that was it. She wasn’t pretty by any given means and I know that a ranking system made by pubescent 14-15 year old boys is a little skeevy but it makes an interesting point as to how this fairness obsession transcends age barriers in India.
Numerous times while growing up, I’ve had people asking my mother as to how she was going to find a groom for me in the future as I reveled in ‘un-lady like’ athletic activities and a direct side-effect of that was extremely tanned skin. They even went as far as “I will pray for her to shed her tan and become fair and pretty again. Why don’t you stop her from all these sports?” My mother always used to answer scathingly, making sure that the officious question was never asked again. So, more power to her for that. What makes matters worse is the fact that you can openly taunt and insult a person in India by calling them ‘dark’. I have never been at the receiving end of this insult but I have seen it happen a gazillion times at least. I have heard words like kaalu or karuppu thrown around as taunts albeit casually and that makes it all the more shocking.
In the same vein I'd also like to mention the odious fair and lovely ads. I can’t even pick an ad I abhor the most; almost all of them are alike in their hatefulness. Even if I HAD to pick, I would probably say that the most appalling advert is the one where the syrupy father is beyond depressed because he is tired of earning money for his family. To add to his woes, he has a dark skinned daughter who earns a paltry salary. In frustration, he famously exclaims If only I had a son. Enter fair and lovely, the answer to everyone’s problems. No points for guessing where this ad heads next. Can an advertisement BE more racist and openly sexist? I think not.
Does fair skin confer some sort of um…for lack of a better word, entitlement in
If that’s the case, then excuse me while I drown myself in a pool of Emami Naturally Fair Pearl Cream. (Wonder fairness system!)
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