Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Beautiful Norms

Standards or norms of beauty are generated within and by civil society. These norms can have an overwhelming impact on many facets of our lives - sometimes with rather discriminatory and exclusionary results. This is particularly so when beauty is filtered through the rubric of skin tone and racial features. As Shankar Vedantam notes, "these factors regularly determine who gets hired, who gets convicted and who gets elected." Vedantam's New York Times commentary came following U.S. Senate majority leader, Harry Reid's ill-advised comments about President Obama's electability amongst White American voters on the basis of his lighter skin and absence of a particular African-American dialect.

Norms of beauty as filtered through fairer skin tones set normative standards about who is deemed acceptable and worthy of positive attention - e.g. as a romantic partner, as an employee, as a friend. How are these norms conveyed?

Values that extol the "superior" value of lighter skin tones are not the monopoly of any particular community. However, given my own "membership" within the South Asian community, I shall highlight some examples where the value of such prized skin tones are explicitly and unabashedly endorsed and serve as socio-legal norms.

The first are in matrimonial web sites where partners search for mates on the basis of either wide open criteria or restrictive ones. As one article by Achal Mehra in Little India notes, numerous Indians who post profiles on such sites characterize/advertise themselves as fair-skinned or "wheatish".

An examination of Bharat Matrimony determined that 57% of the profiles were self-classified as fair or very fair and another 33% as wheatish or wheatish brown.
The figures may seem incongruent in a community that hardly fits into the fair skinned spectrum on the global scale, but it underscores the widespread affinity for fair skin tone in a nation that has witnessed exploding demand for skin lightening creams in recent years. It is reflected in even the complexion choices that websites like Bharat Matrimony offer users, four of which — very fair, fair, wheatish, wheatish brown — are skewed to the white end of the spectrum and just one — dark — to the black tone. Shaadi.com, another prominent matrimonial Indian website, likewise, offers users four complexion choices, three on the light end — very fair, fair, wheatish — and just one dark.
These normative values on lighter skin tones are reinforced through commercial products and television/films. On the commercial front are the widely purchased Fair and Lovely (F&L) and Fair and Handsome (F&H) skin lightening products. F&L produces creams for both males and females while F&H largely focuses on the male side of the equation. But merely seeing information on their websites doesn't convey their purported value or message until one views the commercials advertising their effects and social benefits.

For example, in one F&L advert, a female vocalist and teacher provides music lessons to young girls. Her singing and demeanour are made to appear subdued as she is hoping to draw the attention of her male neighbour who is ignoring her. The scene cuts to the young lady in front of her mirror disconcerted about her "dark" skin. After her mother comforts her, she applies F&L and as the commercial's male narrator explains, no other skin cream reproduces F&L's results. After fully lightened our already fair singer is now much fairer. Her singing suddenly draws the attention of her neglectful and youthful male neighbour who suddenly discovers the singer in her lighter avatar.

The commercial touches upon several messages. Lighter skin produces heightened confidence. Heightened confidence in turn leads to enhanced artistic professional performance. Enhanced professional skill then draws in the romantic male interest who suddenly is enraptured by her much lighter pigmentation. There are of course a couple of other added messages. First, parents ought to encourage their daughters' attractiveness through the use of such products. Second, through the presence of several young female students, their counterparts watching on television are encouraged to watch as their elder engages in this type of conduct as though it were to be modeled.

F&L has also rolled out a similar commercial for its male skin lightening products. In its ad, a "dark" complexioned stunt man performs a death defying stunt on a motor cycle. As he takes off the helmet, the director yells cut. The main lead and light-skinned actor then steps in and the director yells action allowing him to finish the scene. Following the shoot, the stunt man coincidentally receives a text about F&L cream for men and is suddenly transformed. After completing another stunt scene, the stunt man once again removes his helmet with the director yelling "cut". The director suddenly notices an attractive and handsome man and yells action coaxing the stunt man to continue the scene with the displaced older fair-skinned actor fuming at his sudden and unceremonious exclusion. The scene then cuts to the stunt man having transitioned into a big-time film star with a beautiful and fair-skinned starlet accompanying him at a red-carpeted event.

As with its female counterpart linked above, F&L endorses fairness as a norm to live by in order to access improved career prospects, and enhanced visibility which leads to greater professional and economic opportunities as well as romantic ones.

Not to be outdone, F&H has a similar type of commercial that encourages men to purchase their product. The commercial features top-grossing Indian film star Shah Rukh Khan who in essence coaxes a "darker-skinned" (essentially obvious applied face makeup) young twenty-something to apply some F&H in order to get the fair-skinned and attractive female love interest. Having taken Shah Rukh's advice by applying the facial cream, he is confident, dressed better and approached by the ad's attractive female heroine. Although F&H's message is limited to the romantic realm, it's principal boost comes from the name value brought by one of India's top named screen actors.

Skin tone is also encoded with other socio-legal meanings that are gendered. In films, the fairer one's skin tone, the closer the analogy to virginal purity and marital worth, whereas the darker the skin tone - the closer the analogy to female promiscuity. During one segment from NDTV's "We the People" program, Prahlad Kakkar, a commercial director and producer, expressed it in the following blunt terms (starting at 3:38):

If you saw a dark and a fair [skinned] girl side by side who were equally attractive - the dark girl would represent eroticism where you would like to take her to the first hotel room that you could find. And the fair girl you'd like to take home to mommy...This is a very deep-rooted bias. My biases are towards people who can deliver a performance. And that is my only criteria. And sometimes I have to fight tooth and nail for that because [clients] turn around and say "she's a little dark." I say "so?"
Thus both fair-skinned and dark-skinned Indian women within this paradigm are considered commodities. The fairer-skinned women are considered of greater worth as marital partners, while their darker-skinned counterparts as sexual objects. Hence the emphasis on the lighter shades on the matrimonial websites.

It is useful perhaps at this stage to acknowledge that norms of beauty (like other norms) are not digested and accepted uncritically. While many may purchase products like F&L or F&H, and not an unsubstantial number, there are others who do not. Note the model and actress, Deepal Shaw who spoke in the earlier NDTV segment linked above. She is an individual who seemed to have been considered "darker" and thus typecasted as result of it in the role of the "sexy woman". Noticing that she was being typecasted, she states that she consciously took a two year break and when she returned she insisted that she be allowed to play more diverse roles. When questioned by the show's host Barkha Dutt about why she would want to play the role of the "sweet" girl - normally set aside for "fairer" actresses, Shaw asserted: "It's not that I want to be sweet. I am also sweet. I am also sexy. I am also sensuous. I am every character [that] I want to portray." Although I am not familiar enough with Hindi films, and thus cannot say whether Shaw has been successful in capturing these more "diverse" roles, nevertheless her statement of intent suggests an important and conscious effort in challenging norms of beauty and acceptability that stress lighter skin tones.

As suggested earlier, norms of beauty, particularly with respect to preferences of skin tone are not the monopoly of any one community or culture. My attempt in this post was not to cover all of them in one writing. There are of course other numerous examples of intra-cultural as well as cross-cultural/interracial notions of beauty and sexual attraction that have been discussed and explored in scholarly writings and examined in popular culture. See for example, Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. In subsequent posts, I shall return to this idea of standards of beauty serving as normative standards against which humans are expected to conform to.


Achal Mehra, "Fair and Ugly" Little India (10 Feb 2010), online: http://www.littleindia.com/commentary/6044-fair-and-ugly.html

Achal Mehra, "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall" Little India (10 February 2010), online: http://www.littleindia.com/data-file/6045-mirror-mirror-on-the-wall.html

Shankar Vedantam, "Shades of Prejudice" New York Times (18 January 2010), online: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/19/opinion/19vedantam.html

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Every corner of the world has discrimiation based on color in one form or the other. Recent firing in US shows that even developed countries are not an exception to this evil.

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