Fairy tales celebrate them, our celluloid heroines sashay around looking like whipped cream, and the great Indian marriage market is driven by this singular requirement: fair complexion. Nothing else matters it would appear, even here in Tamil Nadu, the heart of Dravidian land.
And it took an in-your-face event such as the 'Dark is Beautiful' flash mob dance in Chennai for people to face up to the prejudice, and acknowledge it. After watching the 50-young dancers groove to Michael Jackson's 'number 'Black or White' at the Besant Nagar beach recently, Lata N said, " I wish this had happened 15 years ago." That was the year she rejected her dark skinned niece as a prospective bride for her son. The dark skinned girl went on to make a happy marriage, but that was not the case between her son and his fair skinned wife Lata chose for him.
"Indians have an innate racism and favour fair skin, but cosmetic companies also milk it and the prejudice and the marketing blitz feed on each other," says Ranjitha G, a media professional.
And it is not women alone who are targeted by cosmetic companies. Years after Shah Rukh Khan tumbled into a bath to promote a luxury brand of soap, the fascination with grooming products, specially fairness cream, has only grown. And a cricket match is considered a fair positioning for promoting such products. Don't we see Shahid Kapor encouraging his male friend to go for fairness cream, often enough, in those ads, while watching the on-going Asia Cup ?
According to business analysts, the estimated market value for fairness creams across India is a whopping Rs 1600 crores . And the share of the Dravidian south in the fairness cream segment (including mens' fairness ) is a mind boggling Rs 608 crores . Tamil Nadu accounts for 32% of the total market value in the south. But while Tamil Nadu is growing at the rate of 10%, the market is growing at 20 % in the other southern states.
It's not merely the ads. Sometimes even cinema reinforces stereotypes. Even though some of the most beautiful and talented stars have been dark skinned. Savithri, Smita patil, Bipasha Basu and Rajinikanth. Remember those scenes in 'Sivaji the Boss', when Rajinikanth desperately worries that the heroine may reject him because of his skin tone? "This was the same Rajini, who in the film 'Muthu' said his complexion was god given.
From being god's gift, the complexion has turned into a liability in a matter of a few years," says Ranjitha, adding, "We feel that what is natural is intrinsically wrong, despite all evidence against such belief."
So, the conservative Chennaiite, who was once parodied for the oily hair and the dark complexion is today going all out for an image make over. Surya Narayana, who works in a pharmacy says in Mylapore says that there are many enquiries for fairness creams, specially those that promise a lighter skin tone in 14 days' time. "Both men and women make such enquiries, and quite a few also make purchases," he adds.
Sheela K, a first generation corporate employee says she spends close to Rs 400 on skin enhancements. Her take home pay is Rs 5000. "I have to be properly groomed, otherwise I feel no one will respect me," says the25 year old from RA Puram.
Blame it on wanting to be aspirational if you will, but the point is, such feelings exist. It is to highlight such a misplaced angst that the Dark is Beautiful campaign was launched, says Kavitha Emmanuel, of Women of Worth (WOW), the NGO which conducted the flash mob event in Besant Nagar.
"Grooming is not bad in itself. But when it becomes an obsession it lands us in trouble. We do that either because we have serious insecurity issues to deal with or because we forget that there are deeper things life that matter more ", she adds.
But how far can one event off-set the innate prejudice that only a fair skin is beautiful, and any other shade is, at best, a poor second? Kavitha says WOW plans to take the issue forward, and keep it alive with consistent campaigning. The NGO has tied with quite a few schools, to conduct workshops to reinforce the message that beauty is beyond mere pigmentation. And empower both sexes with their self worth, early enough in life.
Three years ago, in 2009 when WOW launched the campaign against fair skin with British Council, many were reluctant to come out in the open. The organizers opted for artistic expressions and conducted short story and painting competitions. This year, WOW could put together an in-your-face event because Chennaii tes were ready for it.
WOW is also keeping the issue alive, and is confident that its facebook page http://www.facebook.com/darkisbeautiful will make everyone feel 'it's okay to be any shade.'
Speaking at the flash mob event Inspector General of Police Pratap V Philip observed, " Colour is the last bastion of discrimination for people everywhere ".
By bringing the issue of skin bias out in the open, he NGO has forced everyone to face up to the prejudice which is fed very early in life via fairy tales and reinforced by matrimonial ads. WOW has been flooded with messages saying, 'We are happy that someone has finally taken this up.'
Now, WOW is trying another kind of affirmative action. It is on the look out for a cosmetic major to come forward with a product for dark skinned people.
Can't get fairer than that, can you?