Some opt for procedures such as vaginal lightening and bleaching of other body parts. Isn’t the obsession a bit strong? It’s there all the time, above all among the middle classes. You’re born with it, you grow up with it and to a large extent it shapes our world outlook.
As a writer, I travel extensively and from every trip I have a chance to take a day to catch a bit of sun. I love the mild burn and pride myself with my sun-kissed appearance. It’s so obvious that from the stares I receive over my tan, most of them would hand over their soul to enjoy a darker shade. Then there are some who prefer to reverse that from a dark to pure perfect white.
Dark skinned individuals achieve equally powerful positions like the pale faces as well. Miss America, won by Nina Davuluri, a relatively dark-skinned Indian-American, demonstrated public attitudes on the subcontinent.
Then you have Kerishnie Naicker, who’s dark shade secured her the title of Miss South Africa. A stark contrast of what would happen in India. Many would disagree with Naicker taking the title and state openly that she would not have won in India and this is true! When have you last seen a beauty queen that hailed from the Southern diaspora that was dark as night?
Lets talk about, Sorisha Naidoo, a former beauty queen who won the coveted title, Miss India SA before she moved a few shades lighter. I was present when ANC stuggle stalwart, Madam Winnie Madikizela Mandela, former wife of Madiba shared her endorsement of a product by Sorisha at the Johannesburg home of billionaire power couple.
Did color play a role in Sorisha’s case? I don’t think it did. When you look at her complexion from old photos that Google brings out. Some would share the opinion she took it too far as you watch her flaunt her milky white complexion on the local entertainment series, ‘Divas of Jozi’.
Naidoo was modelling for an FHM shoot and had a dislike of the dark colour of her knees and elbows. After using products discovered on the internet, she noticed that she had become lighter in complexion and thought it looked “cool”.
Naidoo stated in another interview that being light-skinned is prized in Indian culture, which is bolstered by Bollywood. She went on to state that, “If I didn’t do this, somebody else would… now I’ve dropped a few shades, I’m locked in. If I stopped, people would say I don’t have confidence in my own product.”
At one point, she burnt her skin using an inferior product, but persevered because the skin lightening cream awakened her interest in cosmetics and her range of Crystal Tomato.
Is skin colour a determining factor in how you progress the upper echelons of society? Apparently so.
Skin colour is also a big issue when it comes to marriage.
In South Africa, Indians make use of their presence at weddings to seek potential wives and husbands for their children, then there are those who make use of arranged marriages through elders of family.
In India, adverts placed by parents wanting to arrange a marriage for a son specify potential brides should be “very fair-skinned”. “It’s like at the market, you pick and choose, and just as everyone wants a nice red tomato, they also demand a fair-skinned daughter-in-law,” says Kavitha Emmanuel, co-founder of NGO Women of Worth and instigator of the Dark Is Beautiful campaign in 2009.
I particularly have had no preference in the color of my potential partner, I can attribute some to be the darkest shades to some being milk white. For me the case of love wasn’t one that required a skin color.
Shaadi.com, a leading Indian matrimonial website, cites fair skin as the key factor. The desire for whiter skin goes beyond the middle classes, but those who cannot afford branded, expensive products use a host of traditional remedies such as lemon juice, rose water, honey, egg yolk, cream or cumin. During pregnancy some women eat saffron, convinced it will lighten their baby’s complexion.
“When I was a teenager,” Malathy, 30, recalls, “my grandmother used to bathe me with a [chickpea] gram-flour mixture, an old Indian skin-whitening recipe. I would be punished if I stayed out in the sun for too long. Then, at the age of 18, I went to live in Canada, on a university exchange scheme, and there I realised that many people really liked my skin and its colour. I was amazed, but I came to understand that I had a real problem of self-esteem. So does half my country.”
Dr Aniva Shah treats skin complaints. “I don’t encourage whitening. The first thing is to teach people to accept their skin,” she says. But what if they persist? “I prescribe mild, risk-free treatment. Some products can be dangerous, burning the skin, causing allergies but above all, after a period of lightening, the original pigmentation returns, sometimes in patches.”
Preparations containing mercury derivatives can lead to kidney problems.
Hydroquinone, the drug that started the trend, has potentially serious side effects. Mumbai dermatologist Dr Satish Bhatia is familiar with the trend. “I see increasing numbers of men who also want to look fairer. This ranges from whitening the eye sockets to the whole face,” he says.
“But excessive use of creams and lotions irritates the skin and ends up achieving the opposite result. I repair the damage.”
The film industry contributes to the fascination with fair skin and most leading Bollywood stars are pale-complexioned. “When we’re shooting outdoors the actors stay in the sun as short a time as possible, then they run for the shelter of their parasol or trailer,” says Bollywood stylist Archana Walavalkar. “ And of course the lighting is full on to accentuate this trait.”
“Indians are racist; it’s a deep-rooted thing here,” Das says. “There are two factors driving this absurd mania,” says Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publisher.
She also believes in education. “This ‘aesthetic’ sensibility is just lack of respect for women as individuals. As long as women are treated as objects, they’ll have to swallow the fact that they can only succeed in life if they’re white and slim. I believe that real campaigns, real debate can help them change, even if it takes time,” Das asserts. Pria Warrick, a former Miss India, is convinced that India needs a high-profile role model “to rid darkies of their complexes and restore their pride in what they are”.
In 2014 the obsession with whiteness moved into new territory, with Clean and Dry intimate wash, designed to “brighten” the vagina. This prompted a widespread outcry by writers and intellectuals, who thought commerce was going too far. Shivangi Gupta, head of Midas Care, which markets Clean and Dry, is unrepentant.
“We are seeing considerable consumer demand and it would be irresponsible on our part not to supply a solution,” he says. The advert for the product shows a quiet family. The mother takes a shower and a diagram clearly indicating the area affected by whitening. Then she joins husband and children in their western-style lounge. Everyone smiles, revealing sparkling white teeth, the epitome of all-white Indian tranquility.
Where does the madness end, is it at the end of that dark tunnel where you see something brighter and fairer? Love yourself.