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Thursday, September 12, 2013


Please read: 

 ON THE DARK CONTOURS OF MY BODY: NIKHILA HENRY:

http://storiesbehindstories.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/on-the-dark-contours-of-my-body/

This is a narrative on my body—its hue and tone, its not so curvy curves and its lines. This is also about a campaign that talks of one aspect which I mentioned above, skin colour. The Dark is Beautiful and live happily ever after campaign.
Should I start with a disclaimer that I do not support the campaign or state that it makes me uncomfortable? A better idea. Let me begin by saying I am a dark skinned person who has not been disadvantaged the way the campaign imagines a dark skinned person to be. Professionally I was not disadvantaged for being dark. And dark/fair/white/black men have found me attractive. But I have used fairness products in the past. My concern with the talk on skin tone is purely based on the reasons that led me to use those products.
Some questions first. Did I use the products purely because of their advertisement campaigns which equate fairness with success? No. Did I use them because people used to taunt me for being dark? Partly, yes. But most importantly, I think what prompted me to do the unthinkable act (as per the campaign) of using fairness products was the fact that I had internalised certain notions associated with darkness of skin tone. I had internalised the ‘logical’ reasons which spelt out why darkness was ugly.
I remember times when my fair skinned grandmother who was married to a coal dark grandfather told me to wash my face and put on talcum powder to look clean (note: not pretty but clean). There were umpteen jokes in my family about why some cousins were dark and others wheatish or fair. I remember times when I was told that I looked like construction workers. I remember times when I was told that the household help was prettier than me. I was also told not to behave or look like some dark skinned classmates of mine. Now, it was only after my adolescence that I realised that the construction workers and the household help in question were beautiful people. And most of my classmates were beautiful too. It was only in my late teens that I realised that there was nothing demeaning about a comparison with any of the above said people.
Cut to a post on the Dark is Beautiful blog. Kavita Emanuel writes, “Have you ever wondered where skin colour bias originated from? I have. And frankly speaking, there is no simple answer.” To say the least this statement scared the hell out of me. The naivety in Emanuel’s words which indicated the presence of an unknown force which had led to the worship of fair skin tone made me cringe. Is our obsession with fairness so apolitical and naive?
Unlike what the above mentioned post on the Dark is Beautiful campaign page claimed, my grandmother’s worries (and the worries of umpteen relatives and friends) about my skin tone stemmed from a specific reason, which I now recognise as caste or a casetist aesthetics. Knowingly, yet subtly these worries othered a certain body type. A Dalit body (generalised as dark, monsterous and undesirable). It was the resentment towards this body which I was made to internalise as a kid and a teenager, even as my body bore the trait darkness, generalised to be the mark of the other. The contradiction which I internalised was very much part of a violent casteist aesthetics which condemned with some hesitation and a patronising forgiveness a ‘flaw’ of the insider even while clearly demarcating the other clearly. “You can trust a Brahman who is dark skinned but never a Dalit who is fair,” says a common ‘upper’ caste belief which finds a mention in Lelle Suresh’s documentary Mahadiga. This statement clearly demarks the contours of a castiest aesthetics and also politics, I believe. While the statement establishes the Brahman or ‘upper’ caste person as a fair skinned being, it acknowledges certain aberrations in this generalization even while assuming that the aberrations were to be looked at with suspicion. Such is the grid of casteism and caste guided aesthetics in the country. The rubric of this aesthetics is guided, its mediated and its bound to be kept intact.
Is the central point now a question of a mindless obsession with fairness? Or is it a question of internalised aesthetics which is prescribed by casteist and racist bigots? What is the real enemy here? The cosmetic industry which capitalises on the obsession with fair skin or the fact that the obsession with fair skin springs from a lucid casteist aesthetics?
Yes, the Dark is Beautiful campaign is right when it says that there is a particular skin tone which is advantaged over the other. But is this aesthetic judgment experienced the same way by all people who are dark? Lets take for instance the flag bearer of the Dark is Beautiful campaign, a celebrity, Nandita Das. Can we forget the fact that calling a dark skinned person, a Nandita Das, Smita Patil or Chitrangada Singh lookalike is considered a compliment in this country? So the dark mass of people which according to the campaign is disadvantaged on the same scale is really a heterogenous entity where some are more discriminated than others. The caste of the person in question matters. There are multiple tones here, believe it or not. There are multiple voices, whether you hear them or not. bell hooks writes of colour caste systems to talk of varying hues of the black body. She explains that black women of a darker complexion are pitted against those of lighter complexion as part of a “politics of representation affirming white beauty standards as the norm.”  In the Indian context the colour caste system is even more complex. While ‘upper’ caste women and men are expected to be fair and their darkness is considered to be a betrayal, fairness among subaltern men and women is construed as a deceiving trait (bringing to notice the Telugu ‘upper’ caste belief mentioned above once more). Now is the politics of fair skin na├»ve? Isn’t it a result of larger demonising structure established by a brahmanical aesthetics?
I laughed when I heard the campaigner placed dark men and women on the same scale. Is the politics of colour caste gender neutral? I have heard fair skinned friends of mine say that they like dark men. “Fair men just won’t do,” someone had said. I always wondered what about dark skinned women? Will they do? When I was young, I was told that the bride should be at least two tones fairer than the groom. Women have the extra burden of being fair in ‘upper’ caste households, an aunt told me. hooks talks of gender and colour caste: “Dark skin is stereotypically coded in the racist, sexist, or colonized imagination as masculine. Hence, a male’s power is enhanced by dark looks while a female’s dark look diminishes her femininity,” hooks writes. She talks of Michael Jordan who is the symbol of black beauty and Tracy Chapman (singer) whose beauty is devalued.
I had written an ode to a dark man a year ago in this blog. I wonder what the Dark is Beautiful campaigners would have to say about that. Will someone write an ode to a dark woman, I wonder? I have noticed that even those who celebrate the presence of dark heroes in regional films or Bollywood do not find it disturbing that dark skinned women do not get the lead role in these cinemas. Why are our dark actresses (irrespective of their caste) asked to do roles of the vamp, the mistress, the sex worker or the underdog? Here my concern is not about why actresses like Nandita Das do not get lead roles or why they get ‘type’ cast. My question is about why fair skinned women are not considered suitable for these roles? What comes into play in the film industry’s discretion of assigning roles is casteism which cannot think that a dark skinned Dalit woman can become a lead character, be it an upper middle class career woman or an executive of a company. Are we still ‘victims’ of an apolitical skin tone bias? I guess the Dark is Beautiful campaign would want us to believe we are. Why should a campaign which assumes the character of a movement have the people associated with it believe that there are no substantial reasons behind the skin colour bias? Should we grow suspicious of it?
Anyway, when I look at the mirror after going through pages of Dark is Beautiful campaign posters, I laugh to myself. In my mirror, under a dim light I see the dark contours of my body, it’s not so curvy curves and its sometimes smooth sometimes rough texture and I feel the pleasure of feeling it. I am dark, among a lot many other things. That’s it. Take it or leave it.