It is not enough to be Shahrukh Khan. He has to be Fair and Handsome and at least in an ad attribute his success to a tube of fairness cream.
Beauty may have many shades, but in India, for a majority of us, if it is not white, it is somehow not right. Fairness is the door to great jobs and marriage proposals for women in our ads. We argue with our skin, willing it to be seven shades whiter.
Fair and lovely, ‘convented,’ ‘innocent’ and ‘adjustable’ brides are in high-demand in matrimonial columns and when we cannot get our models to get fair enough, we import Caucasian women to sell us skin-whitening lotions, age, tanning and life defiant serums.
We don’t associate dark skin with loveliness, with only an occasional filmy tribute penned for the unsung, “Masoom, nazuk si ladki...bahut khubsurat, magar sawli si.” And even here, her beauty is underscored by the apologetic fact that she is a bit dark.
A lot of our naturally dusky female actors now have bleached beyond belief skins. This despite the fact that striking actors like Smita Patil, Dipti Naval, Waheeda Rehman, Rekha and Shabana Azmi never had to apologise for their Indian skin tone. But today, there is a certain elitism connected with being fair and hence, even the dark-skinned background dancers in Hindi film songs have been phased out by European “extras.” We don’t even want to see Indian cheer leaders in the IPL. They must be convincingly white and blonde.
Those who cared to watch the recent Oscars would have remembered, if nothing else, the stunning picture that Lupita Nyong’o cut as she floated in a diaphanous dream like dress towards the stage to claim her place in cinematic history. And popular culture, we may add because even though she was neither white, nor a beauty stereo-type, she took your breath away. She has recently topped People magazine’s beauty poll and even though her Oscar winning turn in 12 Years A Slave, brought her to the global stage, what became a talking point even more than her talent was the way she effortlessly smashed pre-conceptions about beauty in a prototype-driven industry.
Even though she convincingly played the part of a disadvantaged, free-spirited yet shockingly violated woman in her debut film, her glamour and effortless ease in her ebony skin and unconventional designer dresses helped her stand out like a bejewelled bird in a sea of boring sameness. In a way, she is rewriting fashion Bibles by wearing colours that have never been ‘in’, inspiring columnists to call them the United Colours Of Lupita. Evoking memories also of the controversial Benetton ads that sought to unite racial stereotypes into a harmonious whole.
She is playing her fame with joy and with guileless gratitude but she is not being played by it. At least not yet. She knows how unforgiving the cult of conformism is and she has endured and survived a lot of self-doubt to become the icon that she is today.
While accepting an award for Best Breakthrough Performance at the seventh annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence magazine, Nyong’o delivered a by-now famous and relentlessly shared speech about the politics of beauty and what it does to little girls who are too dark and unconventional and don’t fit in.
Standing out when you can’t fit in is her mantra for everyone struggling with their self-image, while she talked about the tyranny of skin-whitening creams and the pressure on young girls to lighten their natural skin tone. She recalled, “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. My one prayer to god, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter skinned. When I was a teenager, my self-hate grew worse. My mother would say to me, ‘You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.’ Those words bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realised that beauty was not something I could acquire or consume. It was something that I just had to be.”
If only these words could reach young women who are driven by manipulative tag lines to believe they are not enough. White enough. Thin enough. Beautiful enough. Unless of course they buy the right product after market forces, fronted by the lily white faces of our actors and actresses, have plunged them into self rejection. If women began to understand that beauty is a feeling, not a skin colour, imagine the number of beauty products that would go out of business. Imagine how many beautiful women would finally realise like Lupita Nyong’o that they really are beautiful.