In February, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was left red-faced when it turned out that all 20 nominees for its Oscar Awards were white for the second consecutive year. Could it be possible that despite a slogan that said ‘We all dream in gold’, the Academy could not find even one African-American actor or movie technician worth nominating?
And so, while Oscars show host and comic Chris Rock took pot-shots at Hollywood’s colour bias, and other black artistes either boycotted the live ceremony or turned up in their red carpet best in Los Angeles, the issue of filmic diversity based on skin colour came to a boil and then simmered down.
In South Asia, where black, coffee brown or ‘wheatish’ is the skin colour du jour, cosmetic companies have been in overdrive for years, trying to make every belle look ‘fair’ and therefore ‘lovely’, and if you are a man, ‘handsome.’ South Indian films have become overrun by fair-skinned maidens imported from Europe or North India, who don’t speak the language of the films they act in, but are sought after.
Tamil film lyrics seem to swing on both sides of the colour debate — from ‘karuppu thaan enakku pudicha colouru’ (black is my favourite colour) to ‘unna veyilukku kaattaama valathaangala’ (roughly translated as, have you been brought up never being exposed to sunlight?). For the Tamil lyricist, it’s okay for a hero to be comfortable in his dark skin, but not for the heroine, who must perforce be milky white.
But even away from the glare of the arc lights of showbiz, colour bias, or ‘shadeism’ as a new online anti-fairness cream campaign tags it, is a part of our life. The most obvious manifestation of this obsession with colour may be seen in matrimonial advertisements, where being ‘fair’ is considered an essential qualification (followed by ‘slim’) for wannabe brides. The insecurity and low self-esteem that fairness cosmetics capitalise on have led to the creation of creams that lighten female genitals, that surely make one wonder, ‘what were they thinking of?’
Even babies are not spared — there are some bizarre Indian rituals, such as studying the colour of a newborn’s ears to predict his or her skin colour in adulthood.
But colour obsession is not all about brown people aspiring for eternal whiteness. There is a whole industry dedicated to making pale-skinned people look brown in the Western countries, where looking mocha during summer is indicative of a life spent in travel to exotic (and sunny) lands.
You can spray on a tan, or strip down to your smalls and sit in the tanning salon to look instantly like a globe-trotter, without leaving your neighbourhood.
Again, just like brown skin looks ashen or sickly yellow after an overenthusiastic bleaching session, artificially-tanned skin can look like burned orange or lobster red on a bad day. Numerous studies have proved the danger and skin-altering properties of bleaches and dyes, but the high-profile advertising campaigns would rather you look at the ‘radiance’ and ‘tan control’ that cosmetics promise.
Chemicals have helped us tailor our looks (and hair colour) like never before, but the love for a certain skin shade over others can lead only to one disease — jaundice.