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     Volume 4 Issue 32 | February 4, 2005 |

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The Fair Factor

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

I'm a woman of the 21st century. I believe in myself. I know that with my mirror-shattering beauty, I can make any dashing young man fall in love-at-first-sight with me. I know my parents will never lack anything because I can fulfil their every dream. I know I can do anything, be at par with any man in any profession. I know I can fly . . . Because I'm fair!

Somewhat of a let-down? Sad, but true.
Who would've thought that one's complexion could determine one's level of self-confidence, security, love and marriage prospects, even social acceptance and a career? The disturbing truth is that -- especially in our part of the world -- it always has. The even more pathetic truth is that, despite the centuries and so much "progress", it still does.

It's obvious from television commercials -- and less but still apparent from the way people check each other out -- that being "light-skinned" increases (dramatically) a person's, especially a woman's, prospects for marriage and even jobs. A fair complexion does wonders. Not only will it clinch the most sought-after eligible bachelor (hitherto unimagined, so good-to-be-true was he) but it will literally take one flying through the skies!

Over-exaggeration? Not at all, for these are the manifest messages of often highly inappropriate advertisements for fairness products, ranging from creams and lotions to soaps and milks. Fairness is equivalent to beauty, confidence and control over one's life.

And who could argue this? Almost every face up on the silver screen that we know to be a success story is fair. There are exceptions; mostly those who end up playing vamps and seductresses show their dark sides. But, over all, fairness is the symbol of innocence and purity, glamour and success.

Plus, nowadays -- thanks to modern technology -- even "dusky" faces seem pale enough under all the lighting. And, thanks to the art of make-up, every bride on stage on her wedding day is painted (sometimes unrecognisably) white, making each one indistinguishable from the other. (Not to mention their cloned guests with their identically shaped eyebrows, straightened hair, crepe sarees, dark lipstick and fair-polished skin.)

For as long as any woman in our society can remember, they have either been praised for being very fair (and so, beautiful), been tolerated for being "shyamla" or, better still "ujjol shyamla", or looked down upon for being "kalo" (meaning black), "moyla" (intended to mean black but literally meaning dirty) and a variety of other adjectives, depending on the home district one is from.

The first concern for most women, especially of the third category, is a good marriage, which seems sort of unlikely if you can't describe yourself as "brilliant white" or at least "wheatish" in your bio-data. In rural areas, though you're usually married off to someone much older and, yes, darker than yourself, a compromise is sometimes made by the girl's side offering a higher dowry (which is illegal anyway) than usual. Some people actually consider a dark complexion to bring bad luck to the family, ruining any chances of prosperity, causing many an in-law to agonise over their less-than-fair daughters-in-law. A job, which would have been somewhat of a saving grace, also becomes a little iffy at times, depending on the level of prejudice of your prospective employers.

It's true, not everyone in this world is white or fair, and not everyone who is, is successful. Again, there are a number of success stories of those who aren't. But we make the biggest deal out of those who are and somehow, for whatever reason, most people want to be. They are made to want it. Those who don't care still have to work somewhat harder to create an impression alongside those pale beauties. But why should they?

Why the obsession with looking like our colonial rulers, or our great-to-the-power-of-infinity Aryan ancestors -- basically, looking like people we're not? Because they were the rulers, and the more we looked like them, the more chance we had of escaping our own miserable roots and the farther we were from ploughing the fields day in and day out? Perhaps that's one of the reasons. Then of course there's globalisation and the media and marketing and consumerism (and everything else we can blame this on).

There's no end to the reasons and they all make sense. Be it Cindy Crawford or Aishwarya Rai, most faces plastered on billboards, TV screens and magazines are flawlessly fair (face it, there are only a handful of Naomi Campbells, Halle Berrys and Bipasha Basus up there). So what if their looks don't represent those of the majority population of their country? The faces up there are what are considered to be beautiful and they are what we all strive to look like. And, compared to liposuction and nose jobs, fairness is usually the simplest and cheapest way to go about it. It's also the predominantly striking factor. As one wise woman said, as long as you're fair, it doesn't matter even if you're missing a nose!

And so women, and, actually, even many men (32 percent of consumers of fairness creams in India, apparently), make the sun their worst enemy and go in search of their true complexion (usually brought out in four to six weeks) in tubes and sachets and pots and packs, generally costing between Tk 6 and Tk 50. There really is no end to one's choices and they all meet the latest craze -- from being ayurvedic (excuse me, but then what harmful chemicals have I been slathering on my face all these years since I was six?), to having the power to make you not only fair but also looking fresh, nourished, unblemished and glowing pink. And, for those who can afford beyond the plethora of ready-to-apply creams and soaps and everything else being sold, there are always the beauty parlours, ready with their bleaches and polishes (often confusing the drivers picking up their apas and khalammas at the gate).

So, it's really a done deal. For ages, we've been taught and we've taught that fair means beautiful, and with outer beauty comes every other success in life. In the modern day and age, businesses pick up on this obsession, advertise like mad to create demand lest we stray from our inherent beliefs, and provide us with just what we want and desperately need. And, for most of us, who just want to look like everyone else, this is fine. Who are we to want diversity, to challenge the stereotyped, i.e., accepted notions of beauty and glamour and success and set our own standards and trends?

We all have choices. Society and advertisers only half-force their ideals upon us. They can't sell them if we don't buy. Most of us simply give in and choose not to be different (and, thus, truly striking). We'd rather all look lovely by glowing fair ever.


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