The Unfairness of our ‘Fairness’ Fetish

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One of my earliest memories is of a conversation among my grandmother’s friends discussing how ‘dark’ I was and how inexplicable it was given that both my parents were ‘fair’. Though I can’t recall any other such references as a small child but they must have been frequent enough to have prompted me to ask my father to give me a good scrub with lots of soap so that I could be fair! Later, my sister, who was ‘fair’ and 4 years younger to me, started taking exception to anyone calling me ‘moila’ (the Bengali colloquial for ‘dark-skinned’ which literally means ‘dirty’). When she was only 4, she told off close relatives so effectively (“Why do you call her ‘moila’, doesn’t she bathe?”!) that the topic of my complexion was never raised, at least not in our presence. My parents made no bones about the fact that they intensely disliked these old ladies who loved to pick on my complexion. All this meant that, unlike a lot of others, I grew up without a chip on my shoulder regarding my skin colour.

Of course, the basic issue of ‘fair’ vs ‘dark’ continued over the years. In school, my classmates wondered aloud how I was dark when my sister was so fair. I would smile to myself and imagine setting my sister on them! There was a standard joke that dark women wouldn’t find husbands because 1. A dark guy needed a fair wife to produce fair offspring and 2. Why would a fair guy marry anyone ‘less’ than him?

Countless people around me have described someone as ‘dark BUT pretty’, as if there is a contradiction there. Once, an acquaintance who had just seen my father, was raving about how fair (and handsome) my father was and how difficult it was to believe that I was his daughter. I finally shut her up saying “Let me talk to my mother and get back to you on that!” I’ve heard wonderfully dark adult women asking me which fairness cream I used. On being told that I didn’t use any, they would first be taken aback and then grudgingly admit that despite using them since childhood, their creams weren’t working. “Why don’t you be happy with what you are and not waste money on these creams?” I’d tell them smilingly while mentally berating them with much stronger words. I make it a point to share these experiences with people just to make a point, but guess what? More often than not, they try to reassure me by saying that I’m not THAT dark, totally missing the point.

I am 47 years old and have had my share of ups and downs but I can’t recall my skin colour having an impact on a single one of them. I have only one regret, though – not having the dark complexioned daughters I wanted (and therefore, not being able to take on some regressive, fairness obsessed people on their behalf). I do have sons who aren’t ‘fair’, but that’s hardly the same thing…




Nandini Bhattacharjee, 47, has lived in Kolkata, Durgapur, Hospet and now resides in Pune. She worked for 18 years in a steel plant mainly in environment management. Nandini has been a trainer for management training programmes for 21 years. She took an early retirement from 'paid' work and spends some time volunteering when she's not mentally wrestling with her teenage sons.

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