Recently, when I read about Interview’s editorial in their May 2010 issue, which, in my opinion, has rightly been called ‘racist’ by many, I remembered I still had this blog post to write. So here it is.
Last month (April 2010), Vogue India did a cover featuring five bronzed beauties with the title “The Dawn of Dusk.” It was an attempt to denounce the traditional beauty ideals prevalent in India. Although I haven’t been able to get my hands on Vogue India to read this article and see their treatment of this issue, I found the cover to be quite thought-provoking and wanted to share some of these thoughts with all of you.
Sure, it will be naive and ignorant to say that India doesn’t have a discrimination problem when it comes to skin color. We have our Fair and Lovely and other skin lightening cream ads, where they show girls who bag their dream job, a dream husband, and their whole world starts making sense, thanks to this magical cream they have been using (eye roll!). And these ads aren’t just discriminatory; they are a depressing depiction of the society we live in. Having lived in India for six years, I have witnessed such incidents many times. In my opinion, the ones who are really fair, do get more attention – they get all kinds of job offers, many of which they aren’t even qualified for (we all know what those filthy employers want!), they get modeling offers by the dozen and of course they will never have to worry about finding a husband (read: matrimonial ads)!
And it’s not just limited to women; men face discrimination too. My bf has a dark complexion and he has told me many stories where people have downright disrespected him just on the basis of his skin color. And who are these people? No, they aren’t just uneducated people, living in some remote village, who can’t tell right from wrong; many people who come from affluent families, have graduated from renowned colleges and who hold prominent positions in their respective companies are also guilty of such behavior. Don’t we all know someone like that? Yes, we clearly have a problem!
But you know where I start to disagree? It’s when people bring up sales of skin lightening creams in the country. Like this little fact I found on the Vogue UK website:
Fuelled by the appearance of light-skinned Bollywood stars and models, the demand for skin-whitening creams – from brands including L’Oreal and Unilever – grew 18 per cent last year and is set to increase by a predicted 25 per cent this year, the Times reports.
Such arguments are often followed by something like “In the West, people are obsessed with tanning, so why are we so preoccupied with being fair?” I object! I’m sure if we start counting the demand for tanning products in the West, it will be one alarming figure as well. People are risking skin cancer with all those countless hours spent under the sun or on tanning beds, all in the name of beauty. Why isn’t that an issue? What makes buying tanning products okay but not fairness creams? Isn’t it just one beauty ideal against another?
We often forget why Indians are obsessed with fair skin in the first place. Besides the whole post-colonial hangover argument, which may or may not be true, there is also the fact that people find rare physical features beautiful. This is why we find really tall, skinny, or women with high cheekbones, extremely beautiful. This is why the West finds darker skin tones appealing, whereas in the East, people associate fair skin with beauty. In a land where most people have a brownish complexion, a super fair Aishwarya Rai or a Kareena Kapoor is bound to stand out. It’s like my fascination toward blue/green eyes. We don’t get that a lot in our country, so if I see some Indian with light eyes, it instantly makes me go, “wow.”
Dissecting the above quote further, it’s interesting how Bollywood and the Indian fashion industry are constantly blamed for encouraging color discrimination. Now I don’t know what happens behind the scenes, but am I the only one who sees that the Lakme and Wills Lifestyle runways are now filled with a good mix of fair, as well as dark models? Clearly, things are changing and when I first noticed it, I was happy that it was the fashion industry, which influences youth and culture in a big way, who had decided to take the first step in changing the definition of beauty in India.
As for Bollywood, sure Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor are the highest paid actresses in India, but there was a point when Kajol and Rani Mukherjee were also the reigning queens of Bollywood. If being fair was the only prerequisite to making it in Bollywood, actresses like Diya Mirza would also have been successful! And before you say something about her atrocious acting, take a look at Katrina Kaif. Her acting skills aren’t much to talk about either (let’s hope Rajneeti is an exception!) but she’s still at the top. As ridiculous as it sounds, I think luck plays a major role. It’s about being at the right place at the right time. Go see Luck by Chance and you will know what I mean! Which reminds me Konkona Sen, who clearly isn’t fair, played opposite Farhan Akhtar in that movie; she also had a lead role in Wake Up Sid opposite Ranbir Kapoor. Bipasha Basu, Priyanka Chopra, Nandita Das and Rekha, among many others, have also had their share of success, despite having a darker complexion.
Anyway, coming back to the Vogue India cover, why should we only “celebrate the skin tone that the world (read: the West) covets?” As I’ve mentioned before, how is trading one notion of beauty with another, any better? Why can’t we just recognize beauty for what it is, beyond the color of one’s skin? Why can’t we celebrate the myriad of skin tones we have in our country or even all around the world?
And if that’s what Vogue India was aiming for, they miserably failed. The five models on the cover are all more or less the same color, which is too big of a coincidence to have happened. The editorial also says, “Every generation has its share of beauty myths. Perhaps it is time to bust this one. Time to say that as a magazine we love, and always have loved, the gorgeous color of Indian skin…dark, dusky, bronze, golden – whatever you call it, we love it.” But we all know that “dark, dusky, bronze, or whatever you call it” are only a minute part of what constitutes the Indian skin tone. Indians can be many shades lighter than those models on the cover, as well as many shades darker. There is no one particular Indian skin tone, but many, and all of them deserve to be appreciated. So, now the real question is, who wants to take up the challenge of depicting all of that on a magazine cover?
Write back with your thoughts!