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Bollywood Actress Nandita Das leads the campaign <a href=
Bollywood Actress Nandita Das leads the campaign Dark is Beautiful in India against the unjust effects of skin colour bias. Photo: IANS

The word fair is defined in Webster dictionary as “not dark.[1]” However, this word has so much more of a connotation than just that when it comes into the South Asian perspective.

The fascination with being light skinned dates back to the era of Queen Elizabeth I, she used ceruse, a white lead based powder to whiten her skin. It is believed that she died due to lead poisoning as a result of daily use of Ceruse[2]. Yes, even then, this concept of being light skinned was never healthy. In Asia as a whole, women are driven to be as light as possible, in South Asia, being pale, captures much more than chromatic qualities, it includes perceptions of culture and vastly emphasise on all associated morals.[3] This is to stress the belief that people with darker skin must be of a poorer and lower class because being dark is associated with working in the fields and outside whilst being light skinned means one is from a rich enough background to not have to work outside. This is very representative of countries such as India and Nepal where there is an institutionalized caste system due to Hinduism being very integrated within the culture. The lower caste known as the Dalits or untouchables are in general dark as they work outdoors and the Brahmins, the highest caste in Hinduism would remain indoors and were therefore lighter skinned[4]. However this epidemic is not just confined to the borders of South Asia, it is rampant in all of Asia, Africa and even some parts of Latin America. In Vietnam for example women cover themselves from head to toe, in heavy clothing, wearing masks and gloves as well so that they stay light skinned. I remember having encountered an old woman in a piping hot beach in Hoi An, Vietnam, who was so heavily clothed that she could barely walk, when I asked her why, she answered, “I don’t like the dark skin.” This one sentence sums up how South Asia feels about it.

As the old saying goes, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Or in Bangladesh’s case, beauty is in the eyes of the oppressor. No you did not misread that, that’s what I wrote, “oppressor”. Bangladesh and its people remain to be subjects of its British colonial past as they adopt the dirt left behind by their coloniser. I don’t mean dirt in its literal sense, I mean dirt in the sense of the backward way of thinking.  We have held onto all the horrible things the Brits have taught us like: condemning homosexuality/sodomy, creating a very classist system and among all these horrible things one of the worst, an affinity, which almost borders on obsession, with white/light skin.I am honestly yet to meet a Bangladeshi person who has not mentioned that someone looks beautiful because they are “fair”.

Go to a department store in Bangladeshand you will find shelves full of creams, lotions, soaps, face washes that claim to make one light skinned or, to use the more colonial term for it, “fair.” These products are found in majority of households in Bangladesh. The richer population of the country goes to beauty parlours to consistently bleach their skin and consult laser treatment for ways to further lighten their skin. The lower middle class people use fairness products in the hope of achieving similar results. A huge factor that fuels this obsession with being light skinned are advertisements. The advertisement industry has a strong hold on people and their perception of what should and should not be beautiful. What appalls me the most about advertisement of fairness products is not just the fact that they market fairness as something that is a requirement to be considered beautiful, but the fact that they try to market it as if women are empowered by these fairness products. Each advertisement depicts a female who is either unemployed, refused jobs or unable to find a husband but as soon as they use fairness products they find themselves somehow empowered by the colour of their skin and everyone around them is at awe by their confidence and newfound beauty. This is nonsensical. Women, in fact, no one should have to measure their self worth using skin colour as an indicator.

A recent conversation with a CEO[5] from a well-known company in Bangladesh revealed that they will never hire a dark female to work on a front desk or as a customer service executive. When I asked them why, they said to me that it’s because they are not “presentable” and that they have to think about what “sells” and what the public wants. So apparently a dark customer service female is somethingwhichpeople of a country full of dark people don’t want. I used the term “something”, not “someone”, because when a person is reduced to JUST the colour of their skin then s/he is not being treated as a human being, rather simply as an object. The reason why I argue about women is because men don’t get as much of a backlash as women on this matter, in fact not even half as much. Because in Bangladesh women are considered to be ornamental – they are the creatures you marry because they look good next to you and to people around you, take care of your children and cook for you. Arguably, more and more women are working these days, but this mind frame is still very much there in the country. If you don’t think it’s true, ask anyone in your household what their perception of a “beautiful” girl is. Better yet, ask yourself. Chances are, the first thing to pop into your mind will be “Forsha/Fair.”   We, the people of Bangladesh, have reduced the women in our country to just that– the colour of their skin.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fair

[2]Sandbeck, E.2009 “Green Barbarians: Live Bravely on Your Home Planet”. Simon & Schuster, New York.

[3] Phillips, A. 2004 “Gendering Colour: Identity, Feminity and marriage in Kerala”. Wilferd Laurier University, Ontario, Canada.

[4]Dahal. D. R, Gurung. Y. B, Acharya. B., Hemchuri. K. Swarnakar. D. (2002) National Dalit Strategy Report: Part I. Situational Analysis of Dalits in Nepal.

[5] Name of individual and company not mentioned to protect identity

8 Responses to “‘Fairly’ beautiful”

  1. Muhtadi

    So true…

    And I like the paragraph, where a CEO’s comment has been cited as Humans are seen as objects of objective…

    Hats off for writing such a true fact…

  2. Nawfal

    Discrimination based on skin color is not only practiced in South Asia but also rest of the world. The African-American descendants have suffered excruciatingly more than three hundred years in the United States. The only crime they committed is their BLACK skin color. Although slavery was abolished officially in the United States, the color lining racial tension is still going on.
    We demonize the color black in every aspect of our life. TV shows, books, movies, and everywhere ominous, bad, evil, and wicked things are represented by the color black. For example, we say “Black Magic”. Why can’t we say “White Magic”? The British left and decolonized Indian sub-continent more than sixty five years ago, but unfortunately we are still unable to emancipate ourselves from the mental colonization of white skin Englishmen. For example, “Fair and Lovely” TV commercial is running in our TV channels, which teaches us to be a white skin person is the most invaluable thing in our life!

    • Shudha Chowdhury

      “The only crime they committed is their BLACK skin color.” No one chooses their skin colour and even if they did, its not a crime to be black…..

      I get your point but i would highly discourage this kind of language.

  3. rickta

    Fair Fair…..!
    very recently i asked my boy friend (who lives in Bangladesh) what will be the responses of his parent’s about me, he replied ”my mum will never accept you because your skin is pale!” the was a shocking response! it also noted i have got two masters degree in UK and work in a reasonable company in London! i would help him in every way i could. first time after a long time i felt that the person i love he will have a hard time to convince his parents because i am not fair! so i decided not to continue this relationship with him……i felt i dont have any energy to fight about fairness blah blah blah…if my quality and qualification not get valued then why would i continue with such relation! i can’t do that at this point of my life!
    i live in UK for a long time i never heard any single word about skin! in fact they like our skin!

    • Shudha Chowdhury

      I know what you mean- I have not struggled with this personally because I happen to be very light skinned but I have heard and seen this all the time. Just today, I went to my grandmother’s place for Eid and she told me- “You look beautiful.” I said “Thanks! Its a nice kameez right?” She replied “You are Fair, everything looks good on you!” I was dumb founded. Yet again- I was reduced to my skin color. Its appalling that Bangladesh holds so dear, something so very shallow.

  4. Golam Arshad

    My deep respect for your brilliant write up! Me too in less civility.Given up to yield in hypocrisy, to be that simple being cloaked to be that Mr. Nice. Thanks

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