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You taste of chocolate, Girl

Shreya Sen-Handley @shreyasenhan

Updated: May 9, 2013, 11:06 AM IST
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Three, as they say, is a magic number.

When bad things follow good in batches of threes, it has triple the impact in transforming your mood from ecstatic to ewww in a trice. Like watching the three hunky men of "Ocean's Wotsitsnumber" (any three except Elliot Gould) in a cool flea-free cinema hall in, say, Kolkata, only to emerge into the sweltering, wraparound heat afterwards to catch a rickety, fume-belching tin can of a minibus which arrives at breakneck speed as part of an infuriating trio heading in exactly the direction you don't want to go (and doesn't that perfectly describe Calcuttan men too?). It doesn't take long for the treble Ooh effect of the film to morph into the intense triple yech of another hot-and-bothersome foray into the world of Indian public transport.

But that's a memory from another time. This morning I am in sun-mellowed England, arranging myself decorously by the window (you never know where B. Cumberbatch might be lurking), with lemon tea and crackers (no less rant-inducing than hot chocka n' Oreos, trust me) and my not-so-beady eye on not one but three knuckle-rap worthy transgressions this week...

Because you're fair game

The din 'round the Dove Real Beauty commercial has rolled on and on till it has become as insufferable as it was, initially, interesting. Ever since their little weepy went viral and spawned (some excellent) spoofs, interminable media musings and social network natter, Dove is all around us (as "Wet, Wet, Wet" sang, or was that "love"?). It has pursued me for weeks; fluttering after me, cooing in my ear, reminding me that I am indeed worth it (Dove, L'Oreal, same difference). I am especially worth it if, like their many real beauties, I am gullible enough to spend lavishly on cosmetics masquerading as a good cause. A real beauty should really, really want to improve (though they must also be at ease with who they are because aren't they clever for using Dove?), and have the wherewithal to summon, with a swing of their mighty purse, the Fairy Godfather of every unrecognised beauty's Cinderella story, Dove's Daddy, Unilever.

I use the word "Godfather" deliberately because while Dove is all airy-fairy and caring, Unilever is a nasty piece of work, a peddler of dubious potions. While Dove will hold your hand as you cry over your wretched unworthiness (worth=beauty, of course), Unilever is minting money from bigotry and the (so-called) Third World's ingrained self-loathing.

Black Cats and Voodoo Dolls

Believe it or not, Unilever-owned Vaseline boasts a Desi Facebook app that allows users to anorexorise (not a real word? It is now) their profile pictures. This jaw-droppingly scary app is a promotional tool for Vaseline's skin-whitening creams for men, plugged pertly by pale-from-birth pretty boy Shahid Kapur. The boy wants to go global, so what better vehicle than the massive, money-spinning $10bn-by-2015 skin-lightening industry? Not to be left behind, his I-have-this-special-talent-of-looking-down-my-nose-at-everyone ex-squeeze Kareena Kapoor did her bit for Blanchers Inc. when she labelled the much hotter, determinedly dusky Bipasha Basu, a "kali billi". Worth a cheer though that Bips' rejoinder put the boot in for the dark side: "It's bizarre this obsession with fair skin. It reflects a lack of intelligence; something is wrong with their heads," but it IS such an unequal battle in a country where even children are fair game. Not that long ago, an Indian Survey found that 12 to 14-year-olds accounted for 13 per cent of the skin-whitening market.

But In India, you don't have to apologise for pushing or practising the evolved art of skin-whitening, it is, after all, the bleached backbone of Indian society. Even the Hindu caste system is based on 'Varna' or colour. And which dark-skinned Indian girl hasn't had her self-esteem ground to a fine powder by her many real and self-appointed aunties tutting over her disappointingly dirty ("moila") complexion? Like cricket or Bollywood, this aspiration to be lily-white is a national obsession and the bleaches, creams and more benign home remedies are the natural detritus. "The Times of India" doesn't fight shy of advising dusky women, "Rub papaya pulp on tanned skin as it is a natural skin-lightening agent." Aeons ago, I can remember attempts by a never-say-die great aunt or two to lighten my worryingly dark skin with gallons of lemon juice. But can you really expect Hari, Pari or Manjari to resist the lure of glow-in-the-dark skin when its champions are to be found amongst the country's great and good? The shiny-happy King Khan does yeoman service for this industry but some of us can remember when he was a not-nearly-as-luminescent "Fauji" in the 80's...

This colonial hangover is, however, not India's alone. While the vaginal whitening cream (ouch) first made its mark (in places I don't want to go) in India, it's spread like wildfire (or VD) to countries like Thailand. The Thai language is full of phrases denigrating dark skin, like "dam mhuen e-ga" or "black like a crow". Their women's magazines, chock-a-block with light-complexioned girls plugging products that promise whiter skin, have straplines that go "Get to know the miracle of white skin" (no kidding). And that vaginal whitening wash ad? It's a laugh-a-minute depiction of a pale Thai girl in these I'll-pop-out-of-this-if-I-breathe pants describing how "tight shorts can leave your skin darker" followed by the crotch close-up to beat all crotch close-ups, and a voiceover claiming Lactacyd White Intimate can make skin down there become "bright and translucent". Feel right at home, dontcha?

This pallidity problem is not just an Asian thing either as African-American stars are often in the news for having lightened up a little. Jacko, famously, could never decide if he was "Black or White" and bootilicious Beyonce has been dogged by many a skin-lightening accusation. Last week Grammy winner India Arie (what's in a name?) was under the cosh for whitening up for a magazine cover. The furore even reached me, tucked away in Sherwood Forest. Indie fought back though, "There are things about myself I wouldn't mind changing but it was never ever my skin tone. I sing about lovin' my skin so much because I really do. I always wished I were darker like my daddy." You go, Girl.

Shallow Gal

One lady with no skin-whitening worries is the impossibly pale Lady Gwyneth of Coldplayshire who's been telling everyone who cares to listen about her eye-poppingly taut and smooth post-childbirth 41-year-old body. Flushed with the massive box office success of "Iron Man 3" and "People" magazine's "Most beautiful woman in the world" accolade, Gwyneth Paltrow may have lost her balance a tad (how easily we women get addled. I am easily the most beautiful grown woman in my house and that has seriously gone to my head). She's been prancing about all cock-a-hoop with herself, exhorting every woman she can corner to achieve the dizzying heights of bodily perfection she represents. "I lose clothes along the way till I'm wearing a bra and trousers. There are certain requirements to be able to do that but luckily I have a good body because I work out (I'm sexy and I know it: sing it with me)."

No surprise then that it's led to another brace of "Why we hate Gwyneth" articles in the press.

Gwyn, I know you mean well. You want to make the world a better place by fashioning every woman in your image. But the whole point of being a role model is understanding that women don't need further beatings with the beauty stick. Putting us down won't make us want to pull our socks up. Like you, we sometimes lose our clothes and stand there in our bra and pants but rarely, even when our men are not complaining, do we feel lucky. You see, unlike you, we can't devote our lives to working out, exfoliating or bathing in organic oils. I'm glad you think of us in your slippy oil bath (I suspect you think of Downey Boy more often but never mind), but you see, Gwyn, most of us don't have an entourage of nannies, chefs, personal trainers and in case the kids get bored, clowns. Nor do we have money enough for that whole entourage to roll in, or the Can't-believe-my-luck Chris Martin for hubster (though the Chris-alikey M. H does say he can't believe his luck he snagged me. I graciously take it at face value). And we certainly don't have the time to hector our hapless sisters in interviews or through our strangely named lifestyle website (GOOP?). We just work, at home or away, raising our kids, indulging our men, and very, very occasionally, wallowing in organic oils. When we do, Gwyn, I'm sorry but its The Downey we think about and NOT you (generally).

And so, we will never be picture perfect like you but that's OK because Dove has assured us that we are all real beauties.

Three strikes and you're out?

All this adds up to a triple whammy for a 39-year-old dusky Indian mother of two.

Age cannot wither me or custom stale my infinite variety? Ha! If that were true, things wouldn't go south with age or stretchy with childbirth. We were all pert once (pert was my middle name) but then, gravity and society joined forces to pull us down in more ways than one. Even as men of our age and droopiness are celebrated as "craggy", "distinguished" or "Harrison Ford".

While I'll shout about the joys of motherhood from any rooftop you want me to (and I'd mean every word), childbirth and breastfeeding make wobbly gelatinous messes of our bodies. Bountiful breastfeeding boobs may be hot but so ephemeral it breaks your heart to see your baby cry (no, not the one you've just given birth to) when they return to normal. Once you're done carrying, delivering and suckling that little terror (the one you've just given birth to), you look more Monster than MILF. From railway track scars that disappear into destinations that only a brave man will now want to go to breasts that don't resemble any fruit known to man (so stop with the mango-melon-jackfruit analogies already, most of womankind don't have 'em). And talking of known to man, even you don't recognise your body in the mirror anymore. You stand there wondering - so when did I say I wanted to swap mine for this??

If you're lucky to have a man who's an absolute brick (brick, not pr**k), he will cajole you into believing nothing has changed. And very little has, for him, because real love IS blind (although he certainly isn't). And while it warms the cockles of your heart, there's a part of you thinking that as he will never bear children nor lactate, the least he can do is hang around...happily.

These things happen to all women, a decade earlier to mothers, overnight to breastfeeding moms, but the dusky Indian mother has an extra cross to bear - her caramelicious complexion.

From the mother who beholds her dusky baby for the first time with a sinking heart, to the "aunties" who ascertain that you know from an early age that you are doomed to live your life alone and the Pavlov's Dog men, who are programmed to ignore you in public (because you're not pale enough to take home to Mom) but proposition you in private, the colour of your skin will change the course of your life. But then you look beyond the littleness of your Indian existence and think there's a big world out there and didn't that Western man I met the other day give me a very different look from the one I'm used to? And then you flee your ridiculously complexion-constricted life to freedom and choice and appreciation in a foreign clime. Away from the acid-dripping aunties and the wimpy men, you are not 'kalo' or 'moila' anymore. You are deliciously dusky, scrumptiously chocolatey and terrifically tanned.

And best of all, you and your lovely, equally-chocolatey daughter will never even have to look upon a tube of skin-whitening cream for as long as you both shall live.
First Published: May 9, 2013, 11:06 AM IST

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