- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

NEW DELHI

THE PHARMACY CLERK PULLS A BOX OF SKIN-LIGHTENING CREAM FROM A GLASS CABINET, PLACES IT ON THE COUNTER AND SAYS IT’S OBVIOUS WHY HE SELLS SO MUCH OF IT.WOMEN WANT TO BE BEAUTIFUL, SAYS VISHNU KAYAT, AND THE KEY TO THAT IS INSIDE THE BOX, WHICH HAS A SERIES OF DRAWINGS SHOWING A WOMAN GROWING PALE TO THE POINT OF NEAR-INVISIBILITY.

“WHEN A WOMAN IS MORE FAIR, SHE IS MORE BEAUTIFUL,” MR. KAYAT SAYS.

SEEMINGLY, MUCH OF INDIA AGREES.

IN THIS COUNTRY OF MORE THAN 1 BILLION PEOPLE, IMAGES OF FAIR-SKINNED WOMEN ARE EVERYWHERE. LIGHT-SKINNED WOMEN DOMINATE BILLBOARDS, MAGAZINE ADS AND FASHION-SHOW RUNWAYS.

IN INDIA’S MOVIE INDUSTRY, THE WORLD’S LARGEST, SCRIPTS OFTEN FOLLOW A STRICT SKIN-TO-CHARACTER CORRELATION, WITH LIGHT-SKINNED ACTRESSES IN THE MAJOR ROLES AND DARK-SKINNED ACTRESSES RELEGATED TO SUPPORTING CHARACTERS.

MARRIAGE ADS, WHICH CONSUME A LARGE PART OF MANY SUNDAY NEWSPAPERS, ARE FILLED WITH REQUESTS FOR FAIR-SKINNED BRIDES. OR, FOR THE PARTICULARLY CHOOSY, “VERY FAIR.”

SALES OF SKIN LIGHTENERS BRING IN MORE THAN $100 MILLION A YEAR.

NOT ALL INDIANS ARE COMFORTABLE WITH THIS CELEBRATION OF FAIR SKIN, HOWEVER, AND THE DEBATE OVER SOCIAL DIVISIONS BASED ON SKIN TONE — DIVISIONS THAT HAVE LONG BEEN DECRIED BY FEMINIST GROUPS AND INTELLECTUALS — HAS SPILLED INTO NEWSPAPER EDITORIALS, ADVERTISING AND POLITICS.

IN A COUNTRY OFTEN TANGLED IN ITS CULTURAL CONTRADICTIONS, WHERE ANCIENT TRADITIONS JOSTLE AGAINST MTV VIDEOS AND MADISON AVENUE AD CAMPAIGNS, IT’S AN OFTEN-VEXING DEBATE, TIED TO QUESTIONS OF CASTE, COLONIALISM AND THE GLOBAL MEDIA INVASION.

THE RESULT? THE PAST FEW YEARS HAVE SEEN BOTH AN INCREASE IN THE USE OF WHITE WOMEN AS ADVERTISING MODELS, AND AN INCREASE IN ACCEPTANCE OF DARK SKIN.

OFTEN, IT SEEMS NO ONE IS QUITE SURE WHAT THEY THINK.

“A FACE CREAM THAT PROMOTES FAIR COMPLEXION AMONG WOMEN UNDOUBTEDLY REDUCES THEIR WORTH TO THE COLOUR OF THEIR SKIN,” THE TIMES OF INDIA WROTE IN A RECENT EDITORIAL. “YET, IS THIS NOT A REFLECTION OF THE PREMIUM SOCIETY PLACES ON FAIR-SKINNED WOMEN?”

SKIN TONE IS AN ISSUE ACROSS MUCH OF THE WORLD, AND SKIN LIGHTENERS CAN BE PURCHASED FROM TOKYO TO SMALL TOWNS IN CENTRAL AFRICA. BUT IN INDIA, THEY ARE AN OBSESSION.

“I DON’T THINK PEOPLE WHO ARE DARK ARE NOT GOOD-LOOKING,” SAID SUNETRA SURVE, A 52-YEAR-OLD BOMBAY HOUSEKEEPER WHO USES SKIN LIGHTENERS. “SOME PEOPLE WITH DARK COMPLEXIONS CAN ALSO BE ATTRACTIVE, BUT WHEN A PERSON IS FAIR, SHE LOOKS VERY GOOD. AND IF A DARK PERSON WERE A LITTLE FAIRER, SHE WOULD LOOK BETTER.”

THE OBSESSION REACHES EXTREMES IN VOCABULARY, WITH INDIAN WRITERS DRAWING FROM A VAST ARRAY OF SKIN-TONE ADJECTIVES THAT CAN LEAVE AN OUTSIDER WONDERING WHICH WORDS ARE COMPLIMENTARY. AMONG THEM: WHEATISH, DUSKY, CHOCOLATE, MIDDLING DARK, CREAMY, TANNED, TONED, BROWNISH, BROWNED, COFFEE-BEAN DARK AND PEACHY.

IT’S AN IDEA THAT INCREASINGLY GRATES ON MANY IN INDIA’S ELITE.

LIBERALIZING VIEWS ON RACE AND CASTE, AND INCREASING DISQUIET OVER WOMEN’S OFTEN-SUBSERVIENT ROLES HAVE MADE SKIN LIGHTENERS AN EMBARRASSMENT TO MANY IN INDIA’S EDUCATED CLASSES — EVEN IF THEY REMAIN SECRETLY STOCKED IN THE MEDICINE CABINETS OF MANY OF ITS WOMEN.

“THIS IS A PATHETIC, NEGATIVE MESSAGE TO SEND OUT,” SAID FAROKH CHOTHIA, A FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER. MR. CHOTHIA, WHO HAS DONE ADS FOR SKIN LIGHTENERS IN THE PAST, SAYS HE WOULD REFUSE DO THEM NOW.

IN APRIL, GOVERNMENT BROADCASTING OFFICIALS ORDERED AN ADVERTISEMENT FOR FAIR & LOVELY, THE COUNTRY’S BEST-KNOWN SKIN LIGHTENER, PULLED FROM TELEVISION. THE AD, WHICH SHOWED A FATHER WISHING HE HAD A SON INSTEAD OF A DARK-SKINNED DAUGHTER, WAS DECRIED BY POLITICIANS WHO FELT IT DISPARAGED DARK-SKINNED PEOPLE, AS WELL AS WOMEN.

PRASAD PRADHAN, A SPOKESMAN FOR HINDUSTAN LEVER LTD., WHICH MANUFACTURES FAIR & LOVELY, SAID IN AN E-MAILED RESPONSE THAT IT HAD “TAKEN NOTE OF THESE OBJECTIONS AND WILL ADDRESS THEM.” BUT HE SAID THE AD HAD ALREADY FINISHED ITS SCHEDULED RUN BY THE TIME THE ORDER WAS HANDED DOWN.

“PEOPLE ACROSS ASIA — FROM JAPAN TO INDIA — HISTORICALLY HAVE DEMONSTRATED A MARKED PREFERENCE FOR SKIN-LIGHTENING AND GLOW,” MR. PRADHAN ADDED. “IT IS AS MUCH A CONSUMER-DESIRED ATTRIBUTE AMONG PEOPLE IN THIS REGION AS ANTI-AGING OR TANNED SKIN ARE CONSUMER-DESIRED ATTRIBUTES IN THE WEST.”

MOST OF THE LIGHTENING CREAMS “WORK TO A CERTAIN EXTENT,” SAID DR. POOJA KAUSHIK, A NEW DELHI DERMATOLOGIST. “THESE CREAMS CONTAIN BLEACHING AGENTS OR HYDROQUINONE, WHICH CAUSES LIGHTENING OF SKIN OVER A PERIOD OF TIME.”

BRINDA KARAT, GENERAL SECRETARY OF THE ALL INDIA DEMOCRATIC WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION, WHICH HAD FILED A SUIT AGAINST THE FAIR & LOVELY AD, SAID THE VICTORY WAS ONLY A SMALL SUCCESS.

“I THINK WE’LL GET MANY OF THE ADS PULLED, BUT AS FAR AS CHANGING OPINIONS AS TO WHAT THE CONCEPT OF BEAUTY IS, THAT’S A DIFFERENT ISSUE,” MR. KARAT SAID.

THE REALITY OF INDIA IS THAT LIGHT SKIN IS OFTEN A SIGNIFICANT ADVANTAGE. AND IT HAS BEEN FOR MILLENNIUMS.

SKIN COLOR IS NOT JUST A MARK OF BEAUTY HERE, BUT AN INDICATION OF CASTE, THE ANCIENT SYSTEM OF SOCIAL DIVISION THAT REMAINS AN INTEGRAL PART OF INDIAN CULTURE.

THE EQUATION IS STRAIGHTFORWARD: LIGHT SKIN OFTEN COMES WITH A HIGH CASTE, SINCE INDIA’S HIGHER-CASTE PEOPLE TRACE THEIR ANCESTRY, IN PART, TO LIGHTER-SKINNED CENTRAL ASIAN TRIBES THAT ARRIVED IN INDIA THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO. ANCIENT TEXTS, TRADITIONALLY READ ONLY BY HIGH-CASTE HINDUS, DESCRIBED VARIOUS TREATMENTS TO IMPROVE THE COLOR AND QUALITY OF SKIN.

WHILE THE RIGIDITY OF CASTE RULES HAS WEAKENED IN RECENT YEARS, SLOWLY BENDING TO INDIA’S SHIFT TOWARD ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL MODERNITY, MEMBERS OF HIGHER CASTES STILL TEND TO BE BETTER EDUCATED, WEALTHIER AND MORE POWERFUL IN POLITICS.

THEY ALSO MAKE UP THE LARGEST PART OF INDIA’S EVER-EXPANDING ARMY OF WESTERN-STYLE CONSUMERS. MUCH OF INDIAN ADVERTISING IS AIMED AT THEM OR THE MASSES WHO ASPIRE TO BE LIKE THEM.

THE RESULT IS THAT IT’S OFTEN LIGHT-SKINNED MODELS APPEARING IN ADS, SELLING EVERYTHING FROM DVD PLAYERS TO DETERGENT.

“IT STARTS WITH THE CLIENTS, WHO ARE RELUCTANT TO USE ANYBODY WHO WOULD BE DARK-SKINNED,” SAID MR. CHOTHIA, THE FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER. BUT, HE CONCEDED, “THEY ARE BUSINESSMEN RESPONDING TO SALES.”

THE SEARCH FOR PALE FACES REACHED SUCH AN EXTREME THAT SOME MODELING AGENCIES EVEN TURNED TO CAUCASIAN WOMEN. YANA GUPTA, THE CZECH-BORN WIFE OF A BOMBAY ARTIST, BECAME A PHENOMENON BY WORKING IN SARIS AND NOSE RINGS AND PERFORMING EXUBERANTLY SEXUAL TAKEOFFS ON INDIAN DANCES.

BUT ATTITUDES MAY BE CHANGING. WHILE LIGHT-SKINNED WOMEN MAY DOMINATE INDIA’S MOVIE INDUSTRY, THERE ARE SOME PROMINENT DARK-SKINNED ACTRESSES THESE DAYS.

“NOW IT’S MUCH MORE ACCEPTABLE TO BE DARKER-SKINNED,” SAID PRASAD BIDAPA, A PROMINENT IMAGE CONSULTANT AND A FORCE IN THE MODELING SCENE.

BUT ATTITUDES ABOUT DARK-SKINNED WOMEN STILL HAVE A LONG WAY TO GO, HE SAID.

“IT SEEMS TO BE GETTING BETTER AND BETTER, BUT I’M NOT SAYING IT’S ALL THERE.”

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