To start with a question – doesn’t anyone read Jane Austen any more? For that is all that is needed to understand why all the finalists in this year’s Miss India contest seem to have the same rather pale and white complexion. Certainly, rather paler and whiter than the general run of the mill complexion seen across India.
We can also offer a Marxist interpretation – it’s a class thing, innit?
What is wrong with this picture? pic.twitter.com/61B23aYFr6
— Sameer Sewak (@Naa_Cheese) May 28, 2019
That’s the original tweet which started off the BBC coverage:
With their tame, glossy, shoulder-length hair and a skin tone that is virtually identical, some quipped that they all looked the same. Others wondered out loud – albeit as a joke – if in fact they were all the same person. As the picture gained traction on Twitter, critics made the point that while there was nothing wrong with the image of the women themselves, the lack of diversity in skin colour has once again highlighted India’s obsession with being fair and lovely.
And the CNN:
What began as an innocent collage of this year’s Miss India finalists has evolved into a heated social media debate about India’s obsession with fair skin.
The image, published in the Times of India newspaper, had 30 head-shots of glossy-haired finalists who all appeared to share the same fair skin tone.
And what none of the coverage does manage to explain is why?
The infatuation with fairness now goes much deeper than pageants. “It is a toxic belief that has become part of our culture,” Emmanuel explained.
Parameswaran is currently researching the backlash against colorism, a term that means “a form of skin color stratification and skin color discrimination that assigns lighter-skinned individuals and particularly women greater worth and value.” It’s an issue, she said, that is very much alive in India.
“Colorism and racism are Siamese twins and cannot be separated,” she added.
That could be it of course.
The country’s enduring legacy of caste is often credited as a root cause of the problem, with those from the lower caste group, known as the Dalits, being associated with darker skin, Parameswaran said.
“That is because caste is an occupational-based hierarchy with the lowest of the caste being assigned the tasks of manual labor,” she added, which is often outdoor work. The Dalits are discriminated against as being “unclean,” are considered untouchable by the higher castes, which are associated with fairness.
That’s getting closer. Outdoor work.
Yes, India does have that caste issue, it is true that higher castes are generally associated with lighter skins colours, lower with darker. There are even those who would insist that the caste system exists in order to maintain that dominance of the fairer skinned over the darker, something that has worked well in doing so for millennia.
And yet, Jane Austen. Apologies, the various heroines blur into a montage of Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley for me but then that’s just an expression of my masculinity, not bothering with chick flicks. But there is a scene where the sisters are fussing over their bonnets as they go out for a walk. Be careful – Lizzie? – or you might get freckles and then what man would want you? As one blessed with such melanin enhancement myself, finding it most attractive in others, why this obsession? Because a porcelain complexion was a signifier of social status.
Not because of the racial obsessions of the times – we are talking of an era when a thoroughly dark skin could make you a chattel slave, a white one not. But because a porcelain white skin was a signifier of social status therefore a porcelain white skin was a sign of social status.
70 to 80 percent of the population worked hard, outside. That meant being tanned. Only the rich did not need to do so. Thus only the rich were that pasty white which is the fate of the English gene pool when consistently out of the Sun. White was a symbol of social status not because it was white but because it meant “not farm labour”.
In the Hornblower books – written much later of course – there’s a wonder at the fictional Lady Wellesley – one brother became a Duke, another a Marquis in the real family being referred to – not bothering to use a parasol and thus allowing her face to tan. Why would such a grandee do such a thing? One answer being that with that nose no one would doubt her social status. Another that it was a signifier of her abandonment of the usual social proprieties.
We can even bring in a Marxist explanation for this. The mode of production determines social relations. That mode of production was backbreaking labour in the fields for all but the fortunate at the top of the class heap. That tan, that opposite the clear and pale skin, was thus a marker of the individual’s place in those social relations. And like all such social status markers it was both preserved and mimicked because that’s what human beings do, attempt to display whatever markers of social status their own current society has decided are those markers of social status.
So, what happened in England? We all moved indoors and work in offices and factories. We’ve some 2% of the population that actually work on farms any more and most of those aren’t in fact indigenes. The general skin colour is thus that of the English gene pool – yes, there’s been lots of immigration but still – unexposed to decent amounts of sunshine. That pasty white of a corpse lightly warmed over.
What is now a signifier of social status? A decent and deep tan. To the point that we have tanning lotions, tanning salons, to be able to mimic the effects of that two week winter break where a tan can be gained in January. The rich gain theirs in Verbier, St Thomas, the poor under the lamps around the corner.
Which is a very useful proof indeed that we’re not talking about race as being the thing being talked about when we do talk about skin colour as a social marker. Instead we’re talking about social class. Who was rich enough not to be able to get a tan? Pale skins were the desired item. When riches meant being able to get a tan to distinguish from the poor palefaces then having a tan was that desired marker of the social status of being able to gain that tan.
So, what will happen in India? Presently the country is what, still 50% of the people labouring in the fields? Something we know is declining as a portion and we expect to get to something like the English situation in a few decades, no? 6 to 8% compound GDP growth rates cause that sort of thing. 98% of all will be working under fluorescent strip lights, not under the Sun. Having both the leisure and the money to gain a tan will be a marker of social status and thus will be desired.
As to when this happens the switch really didn’t take that much time in England. Certainly in the 1930s that paleness was still highly desired. By the 1960s it was changing. Today tanning lotions sell in vast volumes, skin whiteners to the indigene English not a single drop.
When will we know the change is happening in India? It’ll not be airbrushed and photoshopped pictures of Miss India contestants that are that first marker. The day someone opens a tanning salon in an Indian urban centre and doesn’t immediately go bust will be that signifier that the great change is under way.
As to whether it will happen yes, of course it will. We’re humans, obsessed with social status. When darker, not lighter, skin is a signifier of that social status then all will want exactly that. That is, collect that ad money for the skin whiteners now for in a few decades the same stars are going to be advertising tanning creams.