Millennium Post

When beauty divides

It’s a Thursday evening and the year is 2013. At around 8 pm you find yourself on the bustling Oxford Street in London and decide to take a stroll from Marble Arch to Oxford Circus only to be by yourself and soak in the sense of invisibility that most Western countries provide even in hugely crowded spaces.

You glean at the Selfridges department store and your eyes wade through the countless other high-end showrooms and shops in the area. Dark and dusky mannequins in skimpily-clad outfits invite you inside. Even the billboards and sign boards make an attempt to attract your attention with models who have a ‘wheatish’ complexion.

Is it a world of fantasy from which I write this piece?

Now, imagine it is 1558 in India and Mughal control over the northern part of the country has been finally established. Emperor Akbar is sitting with his courtiers. From his throne, encrusted with the finest gems and stones, he declares: ‘We will now move to conquer Europe. We will rule the hearts and minds of the Western world and its people.’

Imagine that the Mughal army has actually made such an ambitious plan, executed it and established its military supremacy by conquering Britain much before the British empire set its foot on Indian land.

Would the dark and dusky models on the bill boards and sign boards on Oxford Street still appear weird and the idea a hallucination? It might and it might not depending on one’s idea of beauty or the total rejection of beauty as a parameter to group or sub group people.

It was a historical accident that Europeans colonised India and set the tone for the dominant discourses that many are still trying to shrug off. Dark is Beautiful, a campaign started in 2009 by Kavitha Emmanuel, director of Women of Worth - an organisation working for women’s empowerment, is an attempt in the same direction. The campaign recently grabbed national headlines once again as actor and activist Nandita Das lent her support to it.

But many questions have now been raised on the logic and the intention behind running such a campaign in a country as diverse as India where various parameters have been created to divide people into groups and create oppressive hierarchies. Anjali Rajoria, a medical graduate based in New Delhi, has written, ‘The facade of beauty has divided women into two broad categories - Beautiful and Ugly. This division actually acts as a hindrance against the collective effort of women to challenge patriarchy by pitting them against one another.’

She alleges that the Dark is Beautiful campaign gives more value to the marketised commodity of
‘Beauty’ and creates a sense of insecurity in the women belonging to the ‘out-group’. Rajoria contends that the campaign is led by the ‘leading ladies of Bollywood and models’ and that these women have refused to question the reprehensible portrayal of women as sex objects in their respective industries.    

She goes ahead to say that in this entire exercise of pitting Dark against Fair, Beauty as an oppressive category remains unchallenged.

Some of the actresses of Bollywood such as Bipasha Basu and Esha Gupta have indeed refused to endorse skin whitening products but they have inadvertently created a different idea of beauty which too has generated its own market.

Talking about this new ‘beautiful women’, Nandita Das say, ‘To me sparkling honest eyes and a genuine heartfelt smile are the two most attractive elements of beauty. Of course, good features, clear skin and healthy hair all add up to a person ‘looking’ beautiful.’

‘Not all dark people have good features. What is the category we are going to create for them? Why can’t someone get up and say that it’s ok to not be beautiful in terms of your physical features? That what you do in life is far more worthy of being talked about than how you looked at that happening party on Saturday night,’ asks Delhi University student Meesha Arora.

The pressure on women to have good skin is so immense that it can drive some to utter madness. Tripti Sharma, a young IT professional from Darbhanga in Bihar remembers her mother trying to draw solace from the fact that her dark daughter had a ‘lovely skin’. Sharma says that her mother would often tell her to go for this uptan or that reasoning that since her daughter was not so fair she would still look pretty in a glowing skin.

‘Even though I have found a job in a reputed IT firm and have also chosen my life partner, my mother has still not stopped trying to talk me into using home-made beauty products. She forces me to gulp down a glass of water every morning saying men don’t like pimples and that the pimples might make the boy lose interest in me,’ Sharma says and bursts into laughter.

But not everyone is as lucky or as strong as Sharma to manage that laughter. Himani (name changed), would come down to the capital city every month or two from Lucknow to meet her boyfriend. A day before the meeting she would ensure her face became a laboratory for experiments with beauty treatments. After two years of obsessing with getting the right skin and complexion, when the guy still decided to part ways, Himani knocked at the doors of godmen for help. She still believes it was her skin colour that ‘forced’ the man to leave her.   

Asked if a campaign like Dark is Beautiful makes her feel better, she says, ‘These are successful women and though dark they still look ‘hot’. It’s ok for them to say it. But I can’t go and tell someone that though I am dark, I am beautiful. It would sound so funny.’

It is in ideas like these that the campaigns egalitarian approach comes under question.

Emmanuel, the brain behind the campaign, however clarifies, ‘As far the skin colour issue is concerned we would like to reiterate that all skin tones are beautiful. This does not mean we limit the definition of beauty to physical features. Nor do we agree with the notion that a person’s worth is in relation to their physical attractiveness as stipulated by societal or media standards. ‘But as far as the campaign goes, it is addressing a specific bias related to skin colour. As far as that goes, we would like to let all people know that the colour of their skin does not define their worth,’ Emmanuel adds.

Asked if the campaign divides women into sub-groups of dark and fair instead of bringing them together to fight against the paternalistic notion of beauty, she says: ‘Many have suggested that the name is misleading… With the Dark is Beautiful campaign we hope to give back to dark-skinned people their dignity and sense of self-worth that has been denied to them. They have the right to feel beautiful and complete as they are! We want to give women and men the power to outrightly say, ‘dark is beautiful,’ in the same breath as ‘fair is lovely’.

Talking about the roots of the problem Nandita Das says, ‘This theory about fair being more beautiful and desirable stems from ancient caste hierarchy, which overlaps with the class pyramid. For centuries, the upper class/caste has been fair and the lower caste/working class, dark. The former works indoors and has had the best nutrition while the latter toils in the sun and is under privileged in many ways.’

But does the message of the campaign reach out to those bearing the brunt of the prejudices? ‘When we launched the campaign, our target audiences were English speaking people in the cities. We have since been working on raising awareness using various regional languages. We have started this effort in Tamil and hope to get the message out in other languages as well.’

Akarshita Dwivedi, who did some modeling assignments during her college days says when she tried to get a break into television serials, she was told that she was ‘too dark’ to get lead roles but she can always get negative roles with ‘important ones’ added as a consolation.

‘The fundamental problem lies in attaching tags to everything that we see or experience. Human beings have a tendency to make things easily identifiable. Assigning categories helps. But such tags tend to give rise to power equations and it is here that the problem stems from,’ Dwivedi says.

‘Let’s get rid of these tags and celebrate the diversity that has been endowed upon this world,’ she says smiling.
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