Mirror, mirror on the wall, Who is the fairest of them all?
These are the famous words uttered by the jealous stepmother in the story of “Snow White” – a popular tale collected by The Grimm Brothers. The reference to this story illustrates perfectly how whiteness has been associated with beauty, which again becomes a means to power.
While Snow White mainly was written in a European context it does not change the fact that many within the Afro-American, African and Asian community all have undergone great lengths to attain a lighter skin complexion. The explanations are many some more speculative than others. In this post my primary focus will be on India a country which have a huge market for fair skin products usually advertised by celebrity Bollywood stars latest being Shahrukh Khan.
When people such as Shahrukh Khan has become a spokesperson for these products there are reason to be concerned. Not only is he is ranked among the highest paid Bollywood stars, many also see him as an ambassador for India. Instead of contributing positively to the Indian society, which consists of a population whose shades of skin color extends from very dark to medium brown to very light, he upholds the status quo of divide and rule a strategy heavily used by the British colonialists in India.
Not long ago he was was detained in an US airport and it did not take long for people to cry foul and himself complaining that he was racial profiled. Of course this should not be tolerated if there is any truth to it. However one must remember that this is a person who while feeling discriminated has no problem participating in a smear campaign against his own kinsmen who does not meet the standard of what the media considers to be an acceptable skin color. The double standard apparently knows no end!
Fair skin products for men is a relative new phenomenon in India. Prior to 2000 it was mainly target at women, but with the risk of falling behind and more activists speaking out about it the companies are now desperately seeking new territories across gender. Yet since they cannot touch on the same marriage issue for men as with women an artificial masculinity has instead been invented where fair is being projected as manly and dark the opposite.
The formula these fair skin ads are based upon is pretty much the same for both men and women. Being dark equals being ugly, inferior and less attractive and the only way to overcome this stigma is to possess lighter skin, something which fair skin products will help you achieve. Not only that they also promises a world full of success, admiration from the opposite sex and better career opportunities in a competitive job market. The irony of this whole masquerade is that the person who the company hires to undergo this transformation from dark to light usually is a light skin actor who by default has been darkened either by tanning or makeup. In reality the products rarely works as intended and more often than not severe damage to the skin has been the price for using them. In recent years many companies have been branding their products as Ayurvedic to make it sound more authentic and free from chemicals. Whether this approach has reduced the risk I cannot comment on, but it does speak to us that fair skin products are a huge industry, which aren’t running out of business anytime soon.
One might wonder where this fascination with fair skin comes from in a country where the majority of the people are rather on the dark side. This is not an easy answer, but one has to keep in mind that India has been a melting pot for different ethnicities for centuries where those in power usually have been people with lighter skin all the way from the Arabs to the Mughals to the British Raj. Here it gets a little tricky though because the fair skin that is desired in India is not necessarily that of the Nordic European look, but more that of a light skinned West Asian.
The desire for fair skin has not always been the norm in India. Marco Polo can testify to this in his, “The Customs of the Kingdoms of India” where a different mindset of the Indian people is depicted:
“To turn now to other matters, it is a fact that in this country when a child is born they anoint him once a week with oil of sesame, and this makes him grow much darker than when he was born. For I assure you that the darkest man is here the most highly esteemed and considered better than the others who are not so dark. Let me add that in very truth these people portray and depict their gods and their idols black and their devils white as snow. For they say that God and all the saint are black and the devils are all white. That is why they portray them as I have described. And similarly they make the images of their idols all black.”
Lastly, fair skin cream apologetics often argue that bleaching is no different than tanning. This might be true in a micro perspective, but in a macro perspective these two are not comparable. 1. Western Europe has never been enslaved and colonized in the same systematic way as America, Australia and parts of Africa and Asia have been. 2. When tanning became popular in the 60’s in the West it was never because people wanted to be associated with natural dark skinned people. In actuality it was quite the opposite. Specific rules had to be applied. The goal was to be golden brown, but only so much that people never would mistake you for being an immigrant. Instead they should recognize you as a white person who could afford a luxury lifestyle where money could take you to different exotic places.