I am at a random makeup store with an Indian friend. She leans over and picks up a tube of fairness cream. She then gestures to me and says, ‘You should really use something like this, babe. Might make you a bit fairer. It will be good for you.’ She looks at me pitifully.
I live in a brown society that values whiteness; a society which advocates for its women to use fairness creams on a day-to-day basis. A society which crafts advertisements that suggest that a spinster woman can finally get married after she goes for a few sessions of skin whitening treatments. Most of all, I live in a society which tells me that I am not destined to be ‘beautiful’ simply because life handed me a darker deck of cards as opposed to other women.
When I was younger, my mother bought me my first and (thankfully) last tube of fairness cream, Fair & Lovely. (the most popular fairness cream of the lot) Most dark-skinned Tamil girls would have encountered this pink and white tube at some point in their lives. At the tender age of 16, I believed that this cream would miraculously make me fairer and subsequently more attractive. However, all it did was to darken my confidence as I realized that the fairness creams were nothing more than a moneymaking scam.
Since then, I have steadfastly refused to use any creams that promise to lighten my skin. I have refrained from drinking any concoction that gives assurances to bleach my blood so that I will look paler and I believe that I am a better person for it.
The sad reality is that in my society, you are consistently reminded that you are not attractive unless you are fair. Take the Tamil cinema industry for example; dark skinned girls are almost never casted as leading women. In fact, Kollywood imports most of its heroines from the much fairer North of India. You do not need to be able to speak Tamil in order to excel in this industry; you just need to have milky white skin to succeed. Fundamentally, the less ‘Tamil’ you are, the more likely you are to suceed in Kollywood. Oh, and of course, your whiteness provides the necessary light for songwriters to write praises of your beauty – aka your “purity”. No prizes for guessing the message here!
Dark skinned women are often casted as vamps in our movies. They are often presented to be obsessed with the hero (who is usually dark skinned) who rejects them repeatedly because they are well, dark. And if not as the quintessential desperate girl, they are instead used for comic relief. The hero and his sidekicks will usually mock them for being ‘ugly’.
In a very poignant reminder that the dark skinned girl will always be passed over for the fairer girl, in the Tamil blockbuster movie Sivaji, the hero and his sidekick mock a pair of dark skinned girls while trying to woo the fair heroine. As if this was not offensive enough, it was later revealed that the pair of actresses who played the role of the sisters were artificially darkened to add to the ‘comic effect’ – because you know, it’s so cool to make fun of dark skinned girls. Right.
I remember that when I was a student, I used to be really affected when any of my classmates would refer to me as black. The word was taboo. I used to feel so insulted, as though someone had referred to me as being dirty or ‘untouchable’. I preferred the term ‘brown’. How silly of me.
Now, when I look back, I realized that my discomfort at being called black said more about me than those who uttered it. I had held on to certain notions about being black and therefore I was offended as being referred to as black. I realized that to a truly mature person, it would not matter what colour I was said to be. I would not feel the desire to hide behind euphemisms such as ‘brown’ or ‘dusky’. Today, you can refer to me as the ‘black’ girl and I am perfectly cool with it.
What infuriates me even more is that, even in discrimination, my culture is not equal. Exasperatingly, only dark skinned women are discriminated against. Dark skinned men are appreciated and even revered. Their darkness is often a sign of virility and masculinity. Many of the successful actors in the Tamil movie industry are dark skinned. Very rarely are dark skinned men mocked in the same way that women are. Numerous songs have been written in praise of the dark skinned man, reaffirming his attractiveness and greatness.
Tamil people today, even those living away from Tamil Nadu, continue to discriminate against dark skinned girls. We may have become more literate, but sadly not any more educated than we were before.
To my ‘friend’ who wanted me to buy the fairness cream: “Maybe you should eat some of it. You might actually become a fairer person who can accept people the way they are then.”