This past Memorial Day, I opened the medicine cabinet at my aunt’s house looking for toothpaste only to find a tube of Fair & Lovely staring back at me. My heart sank. I yelled for my 10-year old cousin. “What is THIS?” I asked her, holding the tube gingerly.
“What?” she said innocently, “It’s just suntan lotion so I don’t get dark.” I looked at the ingredient list. Indeed, among the ingredients was “sunscreen.” I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was the same girl who had teased her seven-year old darker-skinned cousin so much that a year later, the poor kid still adamantly states “I’m not pretty.” Little wonder given that our mothers come from a country where bridal makeup still means you pancake the woman in white foundation from the neck-up and then hide her hands under her dupatta so the color disparity doesn’t show. Strangely enough, I never realized the extent of the South Asian obsession with light skin until I was in college. Growing up with mostly Pennsylvania Dutch peers who were openly envious of my “natural tan,” the context in which skin color figured in my upbringing was limited to the African American literature I read in school. Novels like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, about a young girl’s desire to be white and Fannie Hurst’s The Imitation of Life, about a young black girl who decided to “pass” as a white girl certainly impressed upon me the importance of skin color in America. I just naively never considered its impact on South Asian culture.
My mother’s preoccupation with skin shades wasn’t revealed until the time my little sister and I went off to camp for the first time, when I was in college. In addition to sunscreen, she bought us both floppy, wide-brimmed hats “to protect your complexion.” When I made a joking reference to tanning, she went ballistic. “Tanning is for goras [white people], not for people like us. We already have enough color.” The topic came up again, after college, when I dated a guy from India. “Make sure you don’t get any color this summer,” she warned me. “Your in-laws won’t like it.”
I thought she was crazy until the guy told me the same thing. “At least wait until after my parents see you,” he groaned, when I told him of of a pool party. “I don’t want them to think you’re darker than you really are.” I was speechless.
Incidents like that are why I’m so happy that Women of Worth, an organization based in Chennai, is promoting a “Dark is Beautiful” campaign. (Thanks to Gem, a mutineer from Colorado who passed on the tip to Nilanjana.) The organization purports to erase the notion that “the beauty and value of an Indian woman is determined by the fairness of her skin.” Check out their video:
Thank goodness someone is trying to counter the obsession with all things fair. Especially since Hindustan Unilever Limited’s Fair & Lovely continues to market itself as a female-friendly brand via promotions such as their “Fair & Lovely Foundation: 2009 Scholarships for Empowering women” contest, as noted by SM’s Vasugi on Twitter. Yes, because fair skin tones are exactly what I need to feel empowered. Keep in mind, this is the same company that released ads like this: