Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dark is beautiful: How Indian women are redefining beauty

By Anči

You may remember the controversial Miss USA pageant from September-- featuring our first lady of homegrown babedom, Nina Davuluri. You may also remember that she looks like this:

"Kneel before your queen!"

And sometimes, like this:

"Traditional American values"

As you might recall, the Miss USA fanbase  (which granted, is comprised of a "select" class of people,) all reacted by losing their minds. There were slurs  tweeted,  followed by totally reasonable accusations of terrorism, and of course digs at her "formerly fat body."
But I'm not here to go into that because A) it's boring B) we already knew that anyone who follows this televised celebration of misogyny must be pretty stupid.

What really fascinates me then, isn't America's reaction, but India's. As Mallika Rao of the Huffington post put it, the "unfortunate irony" is that "Davuluri is dark-skinned. In India, where skin color is a national obsession, you likely wouldn't see someone of her complexion in a pageant, much less winning one."

She's right about skin color being a national obsession in India, where "fairness creams" and skin bleach are hawked like candy. According to the BBC, "One market research firm even reported that more skin lightening creams are sold in India than Coca Cola"

Well why wouldn't they be, judging by these ads?
With our product, anyone can Photoshop half their face

Fairness cream: as painless and natural as it looks

"Look how far I can rotate my head!"

I want to make it clear that my intention is not to make fun of India, here. For one thing many of these skin-whitening products are owned by American Corporations, (including companies like Dove, Garnier, and Vaseline,)  all eager to exploit a social injustice. And let's not pretend it's not in America's interest to reinforce a white standard of beauty wherever it's least attainable. (By the way,  how brazen is it to promote a concept of beauty that favors you? I can almost picture a creepy executive saying"Guys, from now on the official standard beauty is what I look like." Insecure much, white people?)
But I do want to hold Indian society accountable, for their complicity in the system, which unfairly targets young women. According to actress and activist Nandita Das, the woman behind the  burgeoning "Dark is Beautiful" campaign, India's whiteness obsession is "a prejudice [which] has driven some young women to the brink of suicide." This is primarily due to the central role "fairness" plays in landing women a husband; an inequality routinely exploited by capitalists. This is evidenced by the slew of products intended for "prospective brides, which now includes a bleach for vaginal purity. (We all know what scented soap does to lady bits. Now try and picture bleach down there.)

You can view that particularly delightful TV commercial right here: And once you have,  note how heavily it leans on the wifely pressures Indian women experience. That's right:  in this perfectly healthy on-screen representation of wedded bliss, the husband acts cold and distant towards his wife until she applies the "fairness formula" to her junk, at which point he deems her worthy enough of affection. (Nice.)
Like all campaigns aimed at female consumers, the primary tactic involves systematically undermining our confidence. (I can tell you right now confident women don't bleach their vaginas.)

In fact, self-esteem is so linked to fairness, that the "dusky-skinned" Nandita Das, (a success by any standards) often gets asked "How can you be so confident despite being so dark?"
"Oh I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm a freaking movie star?"

This brings me back to Miss USA winner Nina Davuluri, who as a Hindu newspaper recently speculated: "would have been... a person with low self-esteem and few friends," adding that "had she been in India, far from entering a beauty contest, it is more likely that Ms Davuluri would have grown up hearing mostly disparaging remarks about the colour of her skin."

Let that sink in for a minute.  Nina Davuluri, who was literally just hailed America's Popular Girl, would have been condemned to a life of rejection and loneliness, in India. It might also be  reasonable to assume that  this "alternate-universe Davuluri" would invest considerable resources in fairness creams--  with potentially flesh-melting consequences. According to Indian blogger Sarah Malik, those consequences could include "burns, rashes and permanent skin damage." Malik goes on to  recall an eerie memory of "a young woman who came from a summer holiday.... bleached at least ten shades lighter, her skin, a strange chalky pallor." I'm sure it was worth it though?
 But luckily for women like Davuluri and Malik, the "Dark is beautiful" campaign has gained significant traction since its launch in 2009.  In fact, the project has been credited with renewing interest in a more inclusive culture of Indian beauty--particularly among young women. Malik warrmly echoes their newly-acquired outlook, writing: "I hope the 'Dark is beautiful' or 'Brown is beautiful' call-out becomes just as celebratory for the young   men and women struggling to see the beauty in being brown."


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