“Let’s scrub out that tan” is a common refrain in beauty parlors in India, where girls grow up with constant reminders that only fair skin is beautiful.
From Sunday classified ads touting the marriageability of an “MBA graduate. 5-½ ft. English medium. Fair complexion” to elderly aunties advising young women to apply saffron paste to “maintain your skin whiter and smoother”, the signs are everywhere.
Even sentiments like, “She got lucky he married her despite her [dark] complexion” are still whispered around India in 2017.
Younger generations are now starting to push back. On July 7, 18-year-old Aranya Johar published her Brown Girl’s Guide to Beauty on Youtube. The video, a spoken-word poem containing lines like “Forget snow-white/say hello to chocolate brown/I’ll write my own fairy-tale” went viral, reaching 1.5 million viewers around the world in its first day alone.
Johar’s candid slam came just before Bollywood actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui used Twitter to indict the Indian film industry’s racist culture.
His post recalled the vehement pushback of actress Tannishtha Chatterjee, who was was bullied for her skin tone on live TV in 2016.
Though many Indians still feign ignorance about social discrimination based on skin color, the country’s obsession with whiteness can also be violent. In recent years, fear of black and brown skin has also spurred harassment and attacks on African students living in India.
Why do Indians so hate their own colour?
The bleaching syndrome
Indian history offers some answers.
Throughout medieval and modern history, the Indian subcontinent has been on the radar of various European settlers and traders, including, from the 15th to 17th centuries, the Portuguese, Dutch and French. The subcontinent was invaded and partly ruled by the Mughals in the 16th century, and colonised by the British from the 17th century onwards until independence in 1947. All these foreign “visitors” were of relatively fair complexion, and many claimed to be superior.
Being subject to a succession of white(ish) overlords has long associated light skin with power, status and desirability among Indians. Today, the contempt for brown skin is embraced by both the ruling class and lower castes, and reinforced daily by beauty magazine covers that feature almost exclusively Caucasian, often foreign, models.
It’s been the dark man’s burden in this majority-non-white nation to desire a westernised concept of beauty, and post-colonial activism has not been able to change this.
According to a study we conducted from 2013 to 2016, 70% of the 300 women and men we interviewed reported wanting a date or partner with someone who had light skin. This colourism is what pushes so many Indians to lighten their skin, creating a phenomenon termed “bleaching syndrome”.
Bleaching syndrome is not a superficial fashion, it’s a strategy of assimilating a superior identity that reflects a deep-set belief that fair skin is better, more powerful, prettier. And it’s not limited to India; skin bleaching is also common in the rest of Asia and in Africa.
A thriving bleaching market
An inventive and growing market of creams and salves has cropped up to fill this demand, which now pulls in over US$400 million dollars annually.
Some of the most widely-sold products include Fem, Lotus, Fair and Lovely and its gendered-equivalent Fair and Handsome. Most of these appealingly named creams are in fact a dangerous cocktail of steroids, hydroquinone, and tretinoin, the long-term use of which can lead to health concerns like permanent pigmentation, skin cancer, liver damage and mercury poisoning among other things.
Nonetheless, a 2014 marketing study found that almost 90% of Indian girls cite skin lightening as a “high need”. These young women are willing to overlook the after-effects of bleaching, and the advent of online sales allows them to use these products in the privacy of their own homes.
Initially focused on feminine beauty, the fairness creams market now also caters to Indian men. Products marketed to men promise to fight sweat, give them fairer underarms and attract women.
And Bollywood stars with huge followings, including Shahrukh Khan and John Abraham, regularly endorse and promote skin bleaches.
The brand Clean and Dry took bleaching to new levels in 2012, when it began heavily advertising for a new wash to lighten the vagina.
This time, women had had enough.
In 2013, the activist group Women of Worth launched their Dark is Beautiful campaign, which was endorsed by the Indian theatre actress Nandita Sen.
With other feminist groups, the women compelled the Advertising Standards Council of India to issue guidelines in 2014 stating that “ads should not reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin colour” or “portray people with darker skin [as]…inferior, or unsuccessful in any aspect of life particularly in relation to being attractive to the opposite sex”.
This guidance is in keeping with the Indian Constitution, which provides for equality for all (article 14) and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth (article 15).
Unfortunately, the law can do little to stop the subtler forms of racism and bigotry present in Indian society. And, to date, that vagina bleaching product is still on the market.
The “bleaching syndrome” goes far beyond skin colour, with Indian women also questioning their hair texture and colour, speech, marital choices and dress style, raising real concerns about female self-esteem.
As Aranya Johar rhymed on Youtube, “With the hope of being able someday to love another/let’s begin by being our own first lovers”.
Neha Mishra, Assistant Professor of Law, Reva University of Bangalore and Ronald Hall, Professor of Social Work, Michigan State University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
" Today, the contempt for brown skin is embraced by both the ruling class and lower castes ". That’s the tragically funny part of a very good article: white whitening democracy reaching also the lower castes…
Indian skin whitening cream industry is $Billions strong and growing.
India’s racial problems are intractable. You can change ideology, but not skin colour you are born with.
Of the 5 living civilizations – Hellenic West, Christian Russia, Islam, Sinics, and Indics, the last one is the mose racist as its religions is Caste System. Caste is "varna" in Sankrit, meaning skin colour. Lower castes are darker than upper caste Brahmins, who are from Aryan race. On this scale, Africans come below the lowest Hindu caste.
Oh, I can already hear the squeals of protests from our Indian friends – it is not so, not so!!!
All civilizations are racist to different degrees, but racism has become embedded in the Indics and keeps them from joining the civilized. First the Muslims tried to civilize India for 800 years, and then the English for 200, to little avail. With Modi, Caste India seems to be undoing the work done by foreigners in the last millennium.
The problem is typically Indian Hindu. Muslims in India and Pakistanis in particular have a lesser issue partly because of their faith. To be fair, dark skinned native India is not to blame for this curse that came with foreign invasion of lighter skinned Aryans 3,500 years ago who infused polytheism and racism into a native religion that was by and large monotheist and humane, and infested it with division of labour based on colour. The same superior Aryan theory infested failed Europeans who raised havoc for a generation, Swastika et al to devastate Europe with deadly results, India take note.
The Buddhist movement attempted to reform Hinduism but was evicted and took root in East Asia. That is why the Chinese are less racist than Indians.
Dark Indians should rejoice. The future belongs to them as their genes will prosper. I fear for the Whites.
I landed in a lily white Toronto 50 years ago. Today the natives (er, I mean the Caucasians) are few and far between, as two dire problems await them.
First, they are not having kids, already below replenishment, walking into the sunset.
Second, as the "visible" minority become the majority, the whites are running to the security of suburbs, creating their own native "reservations". The coloured, mixing freely, are creating a "New Canadian" of hybrid vigour, more resistant to desease, thus more Evolved.
Third, as we lose the Ozone Layer, fair skin will be fair game for the sun. Not immune to cancer, I keep telling my white friends that the blacks and other darker skins are their only chance to preserving their genes. But they do not listen.
Lament for a race. The Whites have had a good run. Pity they lost it all to racism, that is its own punishment. Too late now. Light skinned Indians beware.
Your post is unkind and hateful, unfit from one with a Muslim name.
Also, your stats are waaaay off. Around 30% of Indians are Muslims (govt says only 14%) who are largely mixed race, and have a bit of lighter skin element.
Then even among the Hindus, the highest caste (Brahmins) are light skinned of Aryan origin.
But it is true that Bollywood has a preferance for Muslim actors. Almost all the top feminine actors in 1950s and 1960s were Muslims. This changed when the cinema changed from an art to entertainment in form of dance and song that Muslim women mostly shun, but not Muslim men. So today, all top male actors are Muslim.
Also, in the past films, even made by Hindus e.g. Raj Kapoor, had a social reform element, Today, that function is fulfilled by Muslims like Aamir Khan.
"Why do Indians so hate their own colour?"
"Indian history offers some answers."
answers given by the article are pertinent but here are other reasons:
-Hindu literature describes grades humans from the best to the worst:
Best includes: Tall, straight nosed, angular features, long limbs, olive complexion, straight black hair, no body hair, no body odor, no bad breath, straight teeth, etc.
The worst includes: low brow, body hair, dark complexion, body odor, bad breath, crooked teath, blunt nose, short, etc.
-Hindu Gods are painted pinkish and much farer than the fairest human. this is done according to traditional dictates as to the colors used to paint the divine.
-Women’s figures are captured in Hinduism carvings and bronzes. More than any other civilization the "hour glass" figure is emphasized. (rounded bosoms, tiny waist line, large hips, full theighs, long limbs tapered fingers, arched eyebrows etc)
-Hindu literatare as in the Epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) describe females as light complexioned and "european" features (long before Europeans ever stepped into South Asia)
Because of the above India has a greater battle fighting bigotry against skin color than any other dark complexioned society. No other dark skinned society’s history and religion puts so much emphasis on light complexion as in India. This problem has been compounded by India’s massive film industry.
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