Centuries back John Keats had created a flutter in our hearts with the line, “A thing of beauty is joy forever.” And our quest to be beautiful, to see beautiful and feel beautiful are on. Beauty is an elusive term which no one ever had an answer to, yet we are desperate to put words to define it.
For most of us being beautiful is quintessential to being fair. And there seems no limit to being fair. That slight lightness in complexion seems to completely change our perceptions towards individuals. Be it job interviews, making friendship and most certainly getting married, being fair is the most important criterion. Fair enough? How far can we get at being fair and is it fair enough?
Pecola, in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, believes that if she had a light complexion and blue eyes her life will magically transform. She will receive universal love and cease to be ugly and unwanted. Meanwhile, she continually receives confirmation of her own sense of ugliness and that’s only because she is a dark little thing. The grocer looks right through her when she buys candy, boys make fun of her, and a light-skinned girl, Maureen, who temporarily befriends her makes fun of her too. She is wrongly blamed for killing a boy’s cat and is called a “nasty little black bitch” by his mother.
Meera feels had her skin been slightly lighter, she would surely have been a great singer. From fiction to reality the story remains unchanged. She had a voice to die for. But she kept getting rejected at multiple auditions. Perhaps she was not lucky enough, maybe her voice faltered at crucial moments or maybe she was good but not good enough. But Meera, feels her only flaw was that she was not fair enough.
There are people from certain communities who believe that God’s cursed ones are born dark. Canaan, Noah’s grandson, had been under a curse in consequence of the transgression with his father Ham. Therefore, he and his descendants turned out to be dark. The fair-skinned people are the kings and the dark-skinned ones are the devils – this is the predominant idea that is passed on through generations in many communities. Nigger, is a curse, slang used on people not so fair. Not fair!
Snow White, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood had all been fair and pretty women. How we easily associate being fair with beauty, right from our childhood days when we are just learning to read fairy tales. As if it’s the most natural thing to do. The dark ones are just the poor ones. Pity them, feel sorry for them. What else? They just missed their chance. Better luck next time. Well, this is not the prattle of the idiotic, uneducated lot from the 16th century. In today’s world skin-whitening cosmetics rule the market and is a multi-billion dollar industry. And all in all, this industry reinforces that single all pervading idea – being fair is being beautiful.
In a country like India, the craze and desperation for fair skin has a colonial implication, it’s rather an extension of our post colonial hangover. Our masters mostly had lighter complexions, and so we have to emulate them to reach a desirable place in society. Fair enough? It also has a caste legacy where the higher castes are always fair and wealthy while the darker ones are suitable being slaves.
With crucial matters like employment and relationships often depending on skin colour, people go berserk in investing on skin-lightening products and cosmetics in the hope of a better and happier existence. Happiness is often equated with skin colour. The search for the ‘pretty and FAIR’ bride is still on for most unmarried Indians.
Capitalising on this psyche, hundreds of products are sent to the market, which can be as bizarre as fairness baby oil, armpit whitener or genital whitener.
In one affluent family in Bengal, a dark daughter is born to a fair mother. The child grows up hearing why can’t she be just cleaned white. Life will be simply a curse for a girl who is born so dark. Even when her mother is playing with her or kissing her the child hears the mother saying to herself, “I wish I could just wash you well so that you also would be as fair as me.” One afternoon when no one is around the child decides to clean herself so that she becomes fair and beautiful. The five-year-old gets in the washing machine and tells the maid’s even younger son to press on a particular switch once she is inside. When everyone rushes out after hearing the deafening noise, it is too late to save the child.
At least in death she is happy that she has cleaned herself so well that no one will ever tell her now how dark she is…