What do Priyanka Chopra, Shahid Kapoor, John Abraham, and Shah Rukh Khan have in common? For one, all of them have endorsed fairness creams of some kind or the other, and have appeared in TV commercials for the same. We Indians seem to have a long-standing obsession with fairness, so much so, that in March, a company advertised a fairness cream for women’s private parts–sparking outrage in the media.
While that may have been a rare extreme occurrence, the preference for fair skin is present at all stages of life–in subtle and explicit ways. When a baby is about to be born, family members pray for him/her to have a fair complexion and, in the belief that they can influence the skin colour of the child, they even resort to illogical practices such as rubbing powder over the mother’s belly or encouraging her to eat more dairy products.
At schools, particularly in North India, phrases like ‘woh kaali wali ladki’ [that black girl] and jokes like ‘tu andhere mein kho jaayega’ [you’ll get lost in the dark] are commonplace, right from class four, five and six. For marriages, the precedence given to fair skin is immense. Pick up any matrimonial newspaper. A typical advertisement will start with ‘Wanted suitable match for fair girl, educated family…’ In fact, a popular Hindi TV channel even aired a serial about the difficulties faced by a newly married woman because of her dusky complexion.
What is most worrying about this trend is that it’s not just existent in the illiterate pockets of the country. It’s happening in schools; the bride that seeks a suitable groom comes from an educated family. Clearly, the present schooling system and value educational curriculum is not enough to tackle this problem.
What is needed is a combined effort from the domestic, social, and educational spheres, right from childhood. This problem begins early. Young children are highly impressionable. Seeing their favourite celebrity telling TV viewers to apply a fairness cream, and hearing even a stray comment like ‘Oh she’s quite dark’ from their parents can have a lasting impact on what they think. Often, when children tease their peers about skin colour, they do not even realize they are being discriminatory. They are just repeating what they have heard elsewhere.
It is not easy to change a mindset that has been dominant for decades. But if we don’t start, we’ll never succeed.