Food for Thought
The Eye of the Beholder
Growing up in Bangladesh, especially as a girl, there is no way of remaining unaware of social attitudes to skin colour. And if your skin tone is more chocolate than chalk, you will never be allowed to forget it! So my discovery of the first brown doll I'd ever seen, at the advanced age of eight, was a welcome affirmation that it was okay to be something other than milk-white. I cherished that doll, whom I named Julia (after the TV series featuring the actress Diahann Carroll), and lavished all my attention on her. And that preference was reflected in my subsequent play with all my dolls.
In my world, I made the rules. So, unlike the wider world where blue-eyed blondes have always had it easy, Julia was the one who monopolized my single Ken doll, the belle of the ball at every imaginary outing to the beach or to the sophisticated (let's face it, mostly Chinese…) restaurants of my eight-year-old imagination. Meanwhile the superfluous Barbies were relegated to the status of (only occasionally welcome) nanads, junior sisters-in-law. When I was feeling generous, Julia and Ken invited the Barbies along for the ride on one of their many excursions.
My attitude was also in contrast to a story I heard from the veteran actress, Shabana Azmi, on an occasion when I was privileged to meet her. She described how her father, the well-known poet Kaifi Azmi, once demonstrated his capacity for progressive thinking by giving her a dark-skinned doll. It didn't impress Shabana, who was quite young at the time - “I thought he was cracked, you know,” she said. “Why did he give me a black doll?! Anyway, I just put it away, and I didn't look at it again. In any case, I thought my father was a bit cracked. He was always wandering around the house wearing kurta-pyjama and he didn't have any kind of normal job… What was he doing? Writing poetry! I wasn't impressed by any of it.”
“Then one day my teacher at school started talking about my father's poetry, and everybody was really impressed. And then I acted like I had been proud of him all along! I even showed my other friends the doll he had given me, and they were all very jealous because none of them had a black doll. So I really took advantage of that!” Her father gave Shabana the doll when she was about seven, and the classroom incident occurred nearly a year later, so the doll had been kept in hibernation for some time after she received it.
Alas, like the seven-year-old Shabana, the real world was very far from sharing my own somewhat unconventional standards of beauty. From being made to feel awkward or ugly for not being light-skinned, most of my generation graduated into a world besieged by the now-notorious fairness cream industry, peddling variations of their so-called product alongside other “snake-oil” brands to those who should know better. And of course the level of wishful thinking by the consumer in this world is matched only by the most amazing shamelessness and greed by companies such as Garnier and Nivea who have now joined the fray for a piece of this pie. Interestingly, a recent survey published in the magazine India Today noted that the greatest number of complaints to the national consumer watchdog came from users of such beauty products, possibly reflecting a “flexible” attitude towards truth in advertising by the industry as a whole.
There is certainly no lack of aggressive marketing where these products are concerned, not least in the targeting of new demographics by the advertising agencies. Perhaps one should feel a bitter sense of satisfaction at the knowledge that it is no longer only women who are made to feel unattractive and inadequate by these commercials, but also increasingly - men who are being targeted by the “make yourself three shades fairer in five days” industry. But the creation of greater numbers of miserable people (of either sex) is nothing to celebrate.
I have to say that when I first saw one of these advertisements, I found myself looking at the poster and pondering the three images portrayed there with some degree of puzzlement (basically it featured the same man in three different shades of paleness). I wondered vaguely what the advertisement was about, even as I registered that the man at the back seemed to be significantly more attractive than the man at the front. So at least in this particular case, as far as this particular observer was concerned, “before” actually looked better than “after”!
And from the point where the issue of fairness and the use of bleaching creams basically centred around so-called aesthetic concerns, we have now moved to an even uglier world where the social consequences of our obsession with light skin are beginning to infiltrate into every area of life. As advertisers rush to inform us, nowhere is safe any longer. Whether it is the workplace, your marriage prospects, or even the quality of the performing arts you engage in(!), your chances of success are improved in every area by the use of such a magic cream.
Have no doubts - it will solve all of your problems, including the need to pay a dowry by the unfortunate fathers of girl children, as one ad assured us. Surely we should be ashamed of legitimising a practice like dowry by even mentioning it as something that should be taken into consideration let alone ameliorated by the use of fairness cream! Should we not simply demonstrate our abhorrence of this practice by rejecting all references to it, particularly in the “glamorous” world of advertising?!
Apologists for this kind of marketing justify their attempts to sell these products by using high-flown phrases such as the claim that they are “simply reflecting the world around us”. Namely, they have no responsibility for the state of the world around us. How convenient. For an industry that thrives on selling dreams, how about taking on the challenge of changing some social mores rather than simply reinforcing them? After all, since the job of advertising agencies is basically to persuade consumers to buy products by creating needs that (in many cases) don't exist, perhaps they could reach for the ultimate challenge - creating the image of a world where you don't need to be white to succeed!
The fact is, no matter how “ayurvedic” and “natural” these creams package themselves as, fundamentally that's just what it is packaging. And in most cases, the bottom line is that skin whitening agents, particularly chemical ones, cannot by definition be good and “caring” for delicate human skin. In line with Shakespeare's maxim, ingredients such as bleach are just as abrasive and damaging by any other name!
Perhaps saddest of all are the probable reasons underlying this obsession. In some cases, this may be related to a deep-seated sense of inferiority; perhaps even the hangover of a post-colonial world that has not quite got over the desire to be white, when white is equated with power and success. And it's unlikely to be an accident that it is in countries and among communities that were once colonised and/or oppressed that people have such aspirations - whether they are black people who want straight, “non-kinky”, “white-person” hair, or East Asians (including the Japanese, who should certainly know better) who want wide, non-“oriental” eyes, or South Asians who hanker after snow-white skins. These damaging and delusionary practices have gone on long enough, and consumers of these products need to wake up and smell the ammonia.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009