January 2014
#Skin , 1158 Views
Life’s a Bleach

Text: Juhi Pande
Photographs: Sheetal Mallar

The Indian beauty parlour business thrives on a bid to tighten, brighten and lighten.

I remember the first time I said “Majority wins!” I was probably in class two, around the time that most children start to grapple with the subtle nuances of arguments. Groups are formed; disagreements are had, and nine times out of ten, the majority wins. It doesn’t matter if the majority of those little people are completely wrong; the rules state that they win. That’s the beauty of being with the greater number.

I remember screaming it out for everything. Game of hopscotch, a game of ‘what she said’, whether we should play inside the class or outside, every day was a new day to come up with situations in which we’d manoeuvre to be kingpin and trot out our beloved phrase.

As I grew into an adult, I came to realize that this percolates through to how most things work. Elected governments, juries, NATO or any large body of people belonging to a group, they all bank on a larger number of votes before coming to a decision. And in cases where this doesn’t apply, generally there is some sort of rationale behind it, one that is, one would assume, tough to refute.

Which brings me to colourism in India. This is a country where the majority of the populace is dark complexioned, and yet, is only a step shy of worshipping the light skinned. Ours is a nation in which Gods are named for the colour black. Would it then be safe to assume that in the land that reveres Kali, dark skin might also be revered?

Nope. We are a people obsessed with alabaster. Most Indians aren’t fair, but will stop at nothing to change that. It’s a fairly dark picture. So who to blame? I could try to pin blame on a post-colonial hangover, but I’d struggle to make it stick. The reasons for any national obsession are varied and difficult to isolate or even to put a date to. But the unabashed pimping of white skin by advertisers isn’t difficult to identify at all, and it is starting to grate.

Selling insecurity has been the modus operandi of so many industries over the last century. As the world has gotten tinier, reaching millions of people at a time has gotten that much easier. Television, radio, and the internet claw their way into caves, mountains and deserts. And with expansive reach, suddenly selling a product, or an idea, becomes that much more convenient (and effortless).

This is a billion dollar business. It is a conglomerate of industries with an unwritten rule that is essential for their survival and prosperity: to keep people from feeling content.Because content people don’t buy things.

Once you sow those seeds of discontent, there’s no limit to the solutions for sale, the “fixes” to help achieve that ideal of perfection handcrafted by cosmetic giants. People turn into silly putty, ready to be molded into whatever shape, size, or colour the giants desire.

I was lucky to grow up in various parts of the country, and I discovered myriad obsessions with fair skin rather early on in life. I didn’t realize I was dusky until I was seven, and called “kali kalooti” in school. I didn’t react, because I assumed the name caller didn’t know what she was talking about. See the thing is, I was being brought up in an environment where the colour of our skin was never a topic of conversation, or of comment. Then I moved schools and I realized that the color complex is dealt with differently depending on which direction the compass is facing. From name calling (kali mai, bhoot) to putting talcum powder on their faces (my classmates in Coonoor), to being subtly ostracized for not being fair enough, although never being given a straight indication of the reason (Delhi), I noticed the many ways in which being dark skinned in India is akin to being less than average, less than beautiful, or rather, just less than.

It starts out very early in life, when Indian mothers trot out those ancient, homemade “remedies” to lighten a newborns skin. Ubtan, besan, milk, honey are blended in various permutations and combinations to try and turn every baby into Casper. Then follows the instructions, to not stepping out in the sun too much, and unsure teenagers grow into adults convinced, through years of classical conditioning, that light is right.

In the late ’80’s and mid-’90’s nineties, the obsession with sunblock hadn’t really hit in India just yet. It’s not that people were unaware of sun damage; it’s more that there wasn’t really any means of procuring sunblock in places like Assam. And so all my friends and I looked like chimney sweeps. And why wouldn’t we? A significant portion of our day involved playing outdoors in the sun, similar to those simulated reality games the kids are playing on their phones these days, except we dropped the ‘simulated’. But collective sooty grey appearances notwithstanding, there were a lot of snide “She’s gotten too tanned. It doesn’t suit her,”’ going around. Either at me or at some unfortunate soul who was darker than me, little realizing that in the shade card of grey we’d all be only a column apart.

That ‘light is right’ brigade are the same bunch who subscribe to whitening/lightening creams just the way they’d buy into gateway drugs, slowly and steadily, until it becomes a habit very difficult to shake off, fuelling the already booming fairness cream and lotion market (one estimate places its worth at Rs. 2,940 crore).

And much like a drug, the addiction is more psychological than it is physical. There’s only that much melanin production that a topical cream can inhibit and no more. Then why is it that year after year women and men spend so much of their money and time trying to fix something that isn’t even broken? Because that idea that light skin is better, superior to a darker complexion has transformed from something grandmothers and mothers would hand down generation to generation in hushed tones, snowballing into Big Business brazenly advertising, youth icons and movie stars emblazoned across billboards proclaiming that fair is both lovely and handsome.

There are those whose initial hesitation at purchasing a fairness product will, at some point, be ambushed by an eager believer at a beauty salon trying to push a cream, lotion, or bleach (all with questionable ingredients) with promises of fixing the bane of your brown-skinned life.

Trendy, Hong Kong, Blue heaven, Glory, Florence, and Shonelle: all tiny, white-lit salons scattered between Bandra and Colaba that all abhor the idea of dark skin. These are the convenient salons we all rush to for a quick wax or shampoo. And the employees at these establishments are very serious about lightening your epidermis even if you only walked in to have your upper lip threaded.

It borders on a prestige issue, and there are few who hold firm in refusing the smorgasbord of treatments on offer. On innumerable post-beach holiday salon jaunts I have heard: “Did you go on a holiday? You’ve become so black. It will take time to go.” If you take a bite out of the first “You need a bleach” sentence, you need to start deflecting the arsenal of other ‘solutions’ that will come your way. Many of these are ‘new and improved,’ and several with advanced ‘albino aspirational’ qualities.

Is this a question of supply chasing demand or vice versa? Between our dislike for dark skin and the resultant glut of remedies, it’s morphing into a dysfunctional co-dependent relationship, where one is indistinguishable from the other.

Even if you sit comfortably in your own cocoa skin, you will, most likely, be reminded in none too subtle ways that it isn’t really making the cut. Having worked as a television presenter for several years there have been more than a couple of occasions on which makeup artists have told me that I’d tanned too much and that they would ‘fix’ the problem.

“Most people walk in to get rid of a tan, but a lot of times it’s not a tan, it’s just the way their skin looks,” said Priya, the owner of an eponymous salon in a Bandra nooks. “We recommend bleaching and body polishing to lighten the skin but no topical creams.” She also mentioned that on beauticians courses they are taught several techniques to help Indians “cope” with their dark skin but, of course, flatly refused to divulge what those procedures were, while shooting me a semi suspicious look. She did mention that while her salon doesn’t recommend fairness creams, a lot of her patrons insist on using them anyway, and so her beauticians are forced to go along.

Priya’s reluctance to push whitening creams herself stems from personal experience, from using those creams for years, before coming to realise they’d made no difference to her dusky complexion whatsoever. She’s since moved on to treatments that aim to make the skin glow, thereby looking less dark.

Ritu’s is another tiny salon situated next to several eateries, and Ritu’s is both a bleach believer as well as a fervent fan of fairness cream mania. “Look at Bipasha and Chitrangada,” the manager said to me, “they are dark, but they have been doing so well in Bollywood. Girls now want good features but not so much white skin.” Just as I started to bask in the positive swing of this conversation she said casually, “But lots of people still want fair skin. What to do? Indians are just not okay with being dark, so they keep trying. Everyone has tried using these creams and lotions at home and they keep hoping it will work.”

The notion of brown being beautiful one that’s still a mere speck on our horizon. Bombay is a city light years ahead of most others in India, and as much as the bias towards dark skin is camouflaged here, it is evident that it exists. Salon owners will try the products on themselves before discarding them as useless. Employees are savvy enough to be wary about denouncing dark skin outright, aware that there is a trend toward acceptance of darker hues, but given a long enough leash will wax poetic about the advantages of fair skin (marriage, work). And look up at billboards outside the city to see Caucasian models selling everything from Ayurvedic creams to bathroom fixtures.

Even if you sit comfortably in your own cocoa skin, you will, most likely, be reminded in none too subtle ways that it isn’t really making the cut. Having worked as a television presenter for several years there have been more than a couple of occasions on which makeup artists have told me that I’d tanned too much and that they would ‘fix’ the problem. It took a lot of effort to convince them that I wasn’t actually tanned, and that there wasn’t any problem to fix. This was just how I looked and they’d just need a darker palette to paint my face with.

This tussle is an ongoing one, worn as second skin. Sometimes you must stand your ground, and other times that pinch of salt comes in handy. There was once a gentleman who took a little extra time doing my make up in a hotel room, deliberately facing me away from the mirror. After 45 minutes of painstaking work I was allowed to look at myself in a mirror across the room, and there I stood, large-eyed and resplendently purple.

It is possible that he may have used an entire bottle of talcum powder on my face, but I felt I might’ve broken his heart had I tried to wipe off the layer cake on my face, so, on this particular occasion, I stayed lilac.