My best friend from high school and I reeked. We had been backpacking through South India for three weeks for our graduation trip, and we had run out of soap. We needed to wash away the stink of sweat and semi-poisonous mosquito repellant. Occasionally dousing ourselves with our bottled Bisleri water, we panted our way to the nearest market.
We stopped at a small beauty shop to pick up toiletries. I asked the girl behind the counter to show me some soap.
“What do you mean what kind?” I asked.
“Well we have soap for the body and soap for the face. In soap for the face, we have soap for oily skin or dry skin or pimply skin or … actually, this one will be good for you. Fairness soap.”
I politely listened to her spiel about how ground pearls and jasmine flowers somehow combine to form this magic cream that “naturally” makes even the darkest South Indian fair as someone from “Amrika.” It’s called Fair and Lovely. I hear that now they’ve come out with a Fair and Handsome for men, who apparently equally suffer from the burden of being dark. I had to interrupt.
“I’m sorry, I don’t need fairness cream. Just soap please.”
Yet they pushed on. She quickly recruited two other shopkeepers, one of them male, and all three very kindly assured me that I really did need fairness cream. “Skin will be so white!”
Like many second-generation Indians, I live a duality between India and America. The obvious deep, intrinsic culture differences aside, there’s the very superficial issue of skin color. I affectionately think of my skin color as “Soft Honey,” a term borrowed from my Cover Girl pressed powder. Alternatively, Indian matrimonial ads would describe my skin tone as “wheatish.” To the outside observer, “wheatish” sounds like a pretty innocuous term, but to the seasoned Indian, it is a well-intentioned euphemism, similar to saying you look “healthy” after you’ve gained a few pounds. Indeed, some of my relatives say, “Isn’t it cold in Amrika? Why are you so dark?”
“Of course I’m not fair!” I want to yell sometimes, “It doesn’t snow in Southern California. I go to the beach for fun!”
Of course, outer beauty does not define Indian culture. Yet the reasons behind this predominant standard of beauty reveal important mindsets in Indian society. One theory is similar to that of older Western traditions, in which dark skin identified farmers and laborers who toiled under the sun, while the light-skinned worked high-class jobs indoors. No matter what the origins of this cultural belief, the elevation of light skin as a marker of beauty only detracts from Indian pride. The majority of Indians are medium to dark-skinned. By extrapolation, Indian standards of beauty brand the majority of Indians as ugly. How demoralizing!
As the cliché goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” White Americans who tan to the perfect shade of brown—coincidentally, my shade of brown—while espousing racist sentiments will always confuse me. Talk about mixed messages! For inexplicable reasons, people the world over get worked up over an arbitrary amount of pigment in one’s skin.
I couldn’t help it. I started yelling. “I do not need fairness cream. I am perfectly happy with the skin I have and the skin I am in. Don’t you know this stuff has bleach in it? It’s bad for you! I don’t need to fit your standard of beauty. I think I’m beautiful the way I am.”
The shopkeeper smiled sheepishly. “Yes ma’am, I do not care if you are fair or dark. You see, I just need to make a profit. This cream sells.”
It sells. That’s it. That’s the answer—making women try to become something they’re not. It might have root in the colonial history of India—trying to be white to avoid persecution—or artificial markers of caste differences, but it’s all perpetuated by the fact that appealing to deep-seated insecurity sells. The same theory holds for the tanning salon about a block from the beach near my house.
It’s hard to accept that this is an issue that is so important to people—including me; I lost my dignity over this in a crowded store in India. I anxiously wait for the day when skin color loses importance, if not for the sanity of women worldwide, then at least to make buying soap a much happier and simpler experience.
Priyanka Chaurasia is a senior Public Policy major at Duke University.