Of all the things part of the big fat Indian wedding scenario, colourism is something that manifests in its fullest spirit. In a country of brown people, a woman has to be “fair” to be considered beautiful. Fairness is attributed to a pale skin tone. One cannot help but notice the absurdity in that judgment as scientific studies have shown that darkly-pigmented skin has better function and provides better protection against skin-related issues. Nevertheless, pale skin comes with layers of social privileges and validation.
We must ask why.
In Old English, the core meaning of “fair” was “equality” – which means values of truth, reason, justice, impartiality, equitability and so on. In the modern context of beauty, fairness typically means the lighter skin tone. The semantic shift of this word is surprising. Why is the lighter skin fair? Is dark skin unfair? Contemporary culture has conveniently embraced this binary: fair-beautiful: dark-undesirable. Fairness is a colourist ideology and it is deeply rooted in people’s psyche. We must problematise the practice of equating fairness and beauty with a paler shade of skin. So, fairness for some of us is rather unfair.
The obsession for lighter skin is extant all across South Asia. Assam is no different in this regard. As a young woman I grew up in a small family in an Assamese village. I saw dark-skinned women getting married and their relatives publicly complaining about how it was such “a disgrace for a bride to look that dark” or that the woman “did not even look like a bride because she’s so dark”.
I recall a friend in school openly cautioning me about another friend, “Stay away from her. Kola bamun birat bhayankar (Dark-skinned Brahmins are evil!)”. The stereotypical assumption is that the upper-castes descended from the lighter-skinned Aryan invaders and are thus superior in caste ranks and beauty standard. Hence, a dark-skinned woman from the Brahmin community is associated with evil. The caste and class intricacies behind colourist prejudices such societal problems even more complex.
As a child, I would often visit our relatives with my mother. Everyone would lament about the “dark-skinned daughter of such a beautiful mother”. Others would give unsolicited advice about applying turmeric and other such solutions to achieve a light complexion. My cousins were light skinned. I was the “koli”, I was the “bhoot“, I was the undesirable.
From the age of seven, I felt constantly examined and the stigma of being dark-skinned tore me apart. If I have a good education, good job, I will have respect and nobody would bother what colour my skin is, I thought. I was disciplined, sincere, and good in studies but I was made to feel that something was lacking because of my dark skin. I could not be loved and adored like my lighter-skinned cousins.
When I was 15, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I lost her. Soon after, I took the responsibility of looking after my little brother, my ailing father, the kitchen and my studies almost with a military alacrity. I had no time to grieve. My academic result set a record in the institution I was studying at. Sometimes I would get a compliment like “even though she is dusky, she has good qualities”.
I went to Europe for a year on a university scholarship. I met a variety of people from different races and continents. At the university cafeteria one day, two Nordic friends told me they had never seen such jet black hair and a skin tone like mine. I thought they were insulting me for being dark, something that I have been familiar since childhood. I could not take an honest compliment. Such was the trauma some of us grow up into adulthood.
The attention I had received in countries full of mostly pale-skinned people shook my idea of beauty. In another incident, I visited a friend who was living abroad. She gave me a Thai magic cream as a gift which was supposed to change my skin tone overnight. I was enraged and insulted. She told me she only suggested this because she “cared” for me.
By the time a woman finds the confidence to embrace her skin as it is, most of her young life is spent agonising over her identity and worth.
Assigning fairness and beauty to a particular skin tone not only creates an inequitable unjust boundary, it reflects our inability to break free from the colonial hangover. This colourist prejudice has been further multiplied by the media with underlying capitalist patriarchy. Indian television, cinema and the billboards are abounding with the lighter-skinned women. I am not even touching upon the issue of the fairness cream industry which has flooded most of Asia.
Against the ideology of fairness, very few are bringing awareness that beauty is truly polyphonic and not one fossilised category of skin tone. All skins are different and beauty is diverse. Light, dark, dusky – we are all but different shades of brown!
Daisy Barman is a translator and folklorist based in Guwahati, Assam.
Featured image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash