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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

The obsession with fair skin demeans and devalues women

This belittling of women based on nothing more than a spurious melanin count begins from birth, writes Shelina Janmohamed

A recent campaign by Chennai photographer Naresh Nil depicting Hindu deities with dark skin challenges our ideas of colour and prejudice. Naresh Nil Photography
A recent campaign by Chennai photographer Naresh Nil depicting Hindu deities with dark skin challenges our ideas of colour and prejudice. Naresh Nil Photography

The two Asian "aunties" were having a conversation about gifting beautiful dresses to two new baby girls in the family. “This dress is prettier!” they gushed. “So let’s give it to the white baby. The darker baby will look ugly whatever she wears anyway.” And so, from the very moment of birth, skin colour already begins to affect the perception and fortunes of people, particularly girls.

It’s a true story and one that many will recognise: a constant and pervasive judgment of girls and women by how fair or dark they are. It affects every aspect of their lives, identities, worth and life opportunities, reducing their value to nothing more than where they sit on a Dulux colour chart.

The most heartbreaking part is how women themselves perpetuate the notion that a woman’s value lies only in her skin colour. I was told when pregnant not to drink coffee “because the baby will be dark”, to which I answered: “And even if the baby is, so what?”, adding that the person might want to dispel their ignorance of how science works along with their bigotry. I myself am of Asian origin, with mid-brown skin. Growing up, the nicest thing the aunties could find to say about me was that I was “charming” – a euphemism for dark and therefore by definition unappealing.

The perfect prospective Asian wife is often described as "fair, homely and domesticated". Her job is to look pretty to her (be)holder and stay at home while she cooks. The irony is that the mothers-in-law and the prospective husbands themselves have no sense of how dark they often are while believing that a woman’s skin defines her value on the marriage market.

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The implications of colourism are very serious – and sometimes deadly. If you look on screen, female actors are almost always fair. Fairer women have better job and marriage prospects. Darker women are often considered undesirable and less valuable. Underpinning all this is, of course, the irony when those of non-white racial origin complain about being treated in a racist way for not being white.

This displays a lack of understanding of how racism and colourism work. To get yourself and your progeny recognised as "fair" does nothing to overturn a system structured around discriminating against people based on their skin colour. The aspiration to rise up the colour ranks pushes women to do the unthinkable, often ludicrous and sometimes fatal. You may have seen a bride’s face caked with white makeup, while her neck and hands are a totally different colour, making her look like a forlorn clown. There are products that have been marketed for women to apply on their most intimate areas to whiten them, because otherwise they would not be of interest in a relationship. Many whitening products contain poisonous ingredients like mercury. Women are literally killing themselves to look fair.

Perpetuating skin-lightening is big business. A Future Markets Insights report estimated the global market to be worth $4.8 billion in 2017 and set to rise to $8.9 billion in 2027. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your skin to glow, look fresh and sparkle with health but any skin colour can exhibit those characteristics.

That’s exactly why I love a recent campaign by Chennai photographer Naresh Nil depicting Hindu deities with dark skin with the strapline “dark is divine”. Deities are usually illustrated with fair skin, cementing the idea that there is something special about fair skin. Instead, Mr Nil used darker-skinned models in traditional poses to challenge our ideas of colour, status and prejudice.

What broke my heart about Mr Nil's casting for the campaign was how darker-skinned women themselves felt they weren’t as worthy of the shoot as fair-skinned women. This belittling of women based on nothing more than a spurious melanin count begins from birth, from those conversations that aunties have, from the photos we see in newspapers and magazines and from how we converse with children about beauty and self-worth. If you’re fair, that’s nothing to be inherently proud of. And if you’re dark...well, that’s where the sentence tails off, because the terms are inherently loaded as though we have to mitigate and give solace to "dark" skin.

Skin is skin. Humans are humans. And all of us have the ability to shine with the divine spark.