13 November 2009

taste the rainbow

There was a story on NPR the other day about skin-lightening cream in India, and how they’re starting to market it to men after years of selling it to women here. Heather and I have seen the commercials for them, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe. I’m settling on cringe.
there are all kinds of products, skin lotions for men and women that contain moisturizers and sunblock and some kind of lightener like lemon juice or enzymes that break down the melanin in the skin.
i guess from the cosmetics industry’s point of view, there’s 500 million more potential customers, but the idea freaks me out. with both genders. i love india so much, the people, the culture, i hate to see them be influenced by the west, but anyway it’s much more complicated than that.
is it just to stand out, to look different? in the West, (white) people go to tanning salons and buy creams to get their skin darker, is that so that they stand out? is it the same thing with skin-lightening? since most people here are some shade of brown, is it just to stand out?
are they trying to look more Western? the trend is very popular in show business, from actors and actresses to models of both genders, almost everyone you see on TV, movies and magazines has light skin, and they’re always trying to get lighter. is that the trend because they’re copying Western media? I hope not.
For there are a few indigenous reasons, too.
There is the north-south rivalry, for one. people from south India are generally much darker than those from the north, and there’s a rivalry between the two that you see a lot. Even in the language; for years the north has wanted Hindi to be the official language of India, but in the south they don’t speak Hindi, they speak Tamil or Kannada or Mayalayam or Telugu, the languages of the states down there, and they are very different from Hindi. That’s why English is so important here; it is spoken all over the country, unlike any of the regional or state languages.
the north-south difference is also very much related to history. throughout India’s history, it’s been invaded multiple times, and the vast majority of those have come from the north, through pakistan and afghanistan, and down into the subcontinent. all of those invaders, the persians, the mughals, and the most important one, the so-called aryan invasion, were all lighter skinned people.
(the aryan invasion is the theory that lighter skinned people entered india about 1500 BCE, bringing with them a language that was the mother language of both Hindi and Latin/European languages. while sometimes disputed, the theory is widely accepted and the Indian culture we know in the north is descended from these people, while the earlier Dravidian people are the ancestors of south Indians, because the aryans didn’t make it that far south. and yes, hitler was enamored with indian culture and stole the term aryan and the symbol of the swastika from the story of those invading people.)
anyway, all those invading peoples had lighter skin than the indigenous people, so light skin is also associated with power and success.
and dark skin is still associated with some of the lower castes, with light skin associated with brahmins or other higher castes.
for all these reasons, it seems that indians are trying to lighten their skin. in newspaper ads by families looking for mates for their children, a light skin color is often mentioned as a desired trait. that’s been going on for a while, but this marketing of skin-lightening cream to Indian men is new.
i guess it’s easy for me to say as a light-skinned outsider, but i have the same reaction as when i see young indian women in jeans or falling for other western trappings. i think, your culture is so rich and so beautiful, your clothing and food and everything, please don’t lose it.
but with the entire history of india, outside influences are absorbed and somehow become wholly indian, the indian culture just absorbing, redefining, and integrating them until everything becomes Indian again. India is strong and only getting stronger, so i guess it’ll just roll with this trend as well, and come out the other side still as Indian as ever, even as the culture changes and grows.

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