India’s obsession with white skin

|India’s obsession with white skin

December, 2020

Understanding India’s historical obsession with whiteness and the consequent rise of beauty salons

5 minutes read

Is color discrimination a thing of post-colonial India? History suggests that it is not. Color discrimination is a thing of precolonial times and it has been indicated in our religious and mythological texts, if only we look closely. Caste discrimination in India is the longest evil our society has seen and it seems like it has always been there. Oftentimes, dark skin is associated with people belonging to underprivileged caste and it has been a matter of shame, stigma, and stereotyping in our society. This caste and color sort of bizarre coordination can be seen in different characters in Mahabharata wherein Bhrigu, noted the priestly class; ritually, the most superior, Brahman was of white color, Kshatriya of red color, Vaishya was of yellow color, and the Shudra of black color. Have you ever heard people engaging in casteist slurs? Next time you hear something of the sort, ask them what it means and you will realise how dark skin color is so rapidly associated with underprivileged castes in our society.

We are a different sort of racist society, but we are. When our privileged communities use #blacklivesmatter for the American society on social media, they probably don’t think of the relevance of #blacklivesmatter in Indian society.  Not only are we racist towards people of our own country, African students have faced enough violence on the basis of color in progressive cities like Pune, Delhi, etc. In a country with the “Atithi Devo Bhava” tagline for Incredible India tourist campaigns, we have been quite discriminatory towards people of color coming from African countries. Devaluation of dark-skinned people and violence against dark-skinned African students have been rampant and are rooted in our history.

Cultural constructions of beauty, femininity, and superior social status have been a matter of Aryan Supremacy according to Indian Vedic traditions. Remember one North Indian MLA stating “We are so tolerant of black people because we live with South Indians”?

While this inherent devaluation of dark skin impacts all, women have been especially discriminated against because of color and the idea that whiteness is femininity. During medieval times, women’s only role that was considered of significance was that of a wife and there have been numerous stories, poems, and narratives where it was clear that men, especially the rich ones never wanted a dark-skinned woman as their wife. She was simply considered ‘ugly’. Before women started entering into the organised sector in modern times, women’s religion was Pavitradharma- the role of wife, which was very important and her beauty standards were dictated by cultural norms of the Indian society. For most women, this is the reality even today. This is not surprising in a country where women with fair skin are considered moral, docile, and feminine, and women with dark skin are perceived as angry, mad, and at worst immoral. Even our goddesses are not spared in this where you can see a woman sitting on the lion as a decorated white-skinned person as if she is riding a lion whereas Durga, who is black in colour with her tongue out is perceived as an angry one who will kill and will not spare anyone. The colour connotation is important to note there as well.

White Woman= Feminine

Black Woman= Angry

The real fascination with the idea of a modern-day corporate woman started in 1978 when Uniliver launched a product called Fair & Lovely, one of the most trusted brands for young women in India. A controversial 1990 ad features a young Indian woman who is heartbroken after hearing her father say, “Kaash beta hota/ If only I had a son.” She runs to her bedroom crying and sees a Fair and Lovely ad after which she would suddenly become a happy, independent woman, taking her parents out to dinner. The father beams approvingly and her life is sorted.

Moral of the story: If you are fair skin, you earn better and then you take care of your family and then you fit into the idea of being a “good woman”.

In 1996 Femina Miss India started going global and Miss India transitioned into taking part in the Miss World as well. Television made dark-skinned women believe that they should aspire to be fair. One market research firm even reported that more skin lightening creams are sold in India than Coca Cola.

India started participating in Beauty pageants and only women with light skin color had access to the global event. Post 1990s the beauty industry started growing tremendously and beauty salons started using posters of Miss India and Miss World with the promise that the salon can convert young women’s desires into reality. Beauty parlors soon became the site of desire, therapy, and the ability to look white. The parlor industry grew because there was a demand; a demand that was created by global influence as well as the aspirations of the rising Indian middle class.

The industry became a source of employment for women belonging to the lower class while some lower-middle-class women started opening their home-based salons to make more money as well as to engage with the idea of beauty.

While it gave autonomy to some women, it gave employment opportunities to others and it became a new normal that could no longer be ignored. It was everywhere, in every locality, to provide services like threading, waxing, facials, make-up, and hairstyling.

In a country where women are not given access to education, this was something that could be done without formal education. Most women who are employed in this industry aim to have their own beauty salon someday so that they can make it big and feel empowered by being financially independent. Some also choose to work for some time and save money for their education. This entire industry came into being in the context of a patriarchal and neoliberal globalised world but it gives different women different meanings in life. From being able to access the services for your D-day to beautifying other women to getting ready and waxed; the salon is the site where many sociological, historical, and economic realities meet every day.

2020-12-18T12:05:27+00:00 December, 2020|Tags: , , |0 Comments

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