I put up a post yesterday related to Sridevi’s death about how there is a recent association in Indian popular culture between “skinny” and “healthy” and also “beautiful”. And then the comments section just went wild with people talking. Mostly people from the west, where the weight issue has been the dominant issue in appearance for years. But I started to feel odd talking about this on an Indian film blog without acknowledging the fact that in India it is in fact skin tone that is the dominant issue.
I am not Indian, or even part of another skin variant ethnicity, so I truly have no right to talk about this issue. The only time I remember ever having a conversation with my mother, or any other woman, about skin tone was related to whether or not we would burn and needed to put on more sunscreen (I always burn. This is the curse of light skin). It’s an issue that is literally invisible to me, unless someone points it out I would be unaware of a public figure having lighter or darker skin. Not that I am a naturally superior person, just that it was not beaten into me as an important thing to notice, because in our family/community most everyone was simply “white” with no shadings.
But from the few classes I took on body image and minimal research, I know that skin tone is a big big issue for essentially every culture in which skin variance is common, African American to Indian to Hispanic to Nigerian to everywhere.
In India, as I understand it, there are a few unique features:
- North versus South: The farther north you go, the more generally pale the people are. The preference for lighter skin over darker skin could also be a form of Northern aggression.
(This is also why Pushtan/Afgani heritage actors with the last name “Khan” dominate the Hindi industry. Because they are so pale. And also why it is a bit unpleasant that Shahrukh is the face for “fair and handsome” because his fairness is genetic)
2. The British: Yes yes, they were there too, and they were mostly white.
(There is a sexualization of the British “memsaab” image that plays into this somewhere)
3. Class: the working class are I think assumed to be darker than the more educated wealthier class.
(Rajinikanth is proudly dark, and often plays working class heroes)
4. Caste: This is a big one. The lower castes are recognized (supposedly) partly by their dark skin.
(In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Salman’s family does not want to risk caste contamination by bringing an unknown little girl into their home, but Salman argues that she must be Brahmin because of her pale skin)
5. Adivasi: The indigenous people of South Asia. Before the Dravidians in the south and the Aryans in the north. They have reserved land in the forest areas set aside for them in various places through out the subcontinent where they live through hunting and gathering. They tend to have “kinky” hair and darker skin.
(Big deal for this actress to be considered the epitome of beauty in Premam with her wild hair and darker skin)
6. African immigrants: there is a regular ancient trade route between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of India. In recent years (I think) there has begun to be more discussion of these immigrants “taking” our jobs. And they are beginning to be more and more visible in popular culture, while still not being that visible.
(For instance, the African dancers and musicians in the background through out this film)
7. Racism imported from overseas: The least important element, and most recent. There will often be sexy/not sexy maids of African heritage somewhere in the background of a film if it is set overseas. Not sure why that is, but it is disturbing. However, it’s also the element with the least effect on Indian culture back home.
Okay, that’s all I’ve got. And I know there is SO MUCH more to this topic and things I (and others like me who read this blog) should know. Go wild! Discuss and educate!