The recent furor over the techno-meddling with the skin tones of Aishwarya Rai, Beyonce Knowles for Western magazine shoots has re-launched the age old argument about colour. When Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister in the beloved epic The Ramayana, is shown using fairness creams in a television ad, we realize that the stigma of an’ Indian’ skin tone that is brown in any form is actually considered a handicap or a weakness. Look at the matrimonial ads for “fair”, “light complexion” as if they are trophy points for a bride or a groom. Fairness creams and skin lightening products is a multi billion dollar industry and the subject of feminist ire and scholarship.
For the West, black may be beautiful for political correctness but the actresses who have succeeded in white-dominated Hollywood are those who resemble their Caucasian colleagues. Halle Berry, Rihanna, Whitney Houston, are all beautiful-yes but with aquiline noses and gently sloping chins. No hint of any African ancestry evident. All their endorsements show them with lighter skins than what is theirs naturally. When Monique of generous proportions won the Oscar for her supporting role in the disturbing film “Precious”, she was featured in VOGUE magazine with considerably lightened skin, causing a major racial uproar in the US.
In the world of performing arts, especially dance, the same rule applies. If you are light skinned with an international body type- slim, long limbs, lean torso- chances are that western presenters will choose you as their Asian Barbie Doll. If you are brown toned, then you MUST be of perfect body shape. No Indian Ajanta hips and Chola breasts. Yuck! Please be uber slim and’ exotic looking’. Look at Freida Pinto! She is poised to vault over beauteous Ash because of her size zero body size.
I am also no stranger to this subconscious prejudice. This time from the other end. As a Tamizh woman, I am often asked with amazement if I am “puuure Tamil” by people from the North AND the South. I was overlooked by the government some years ago to represent Tamilnadu at a major outdoor event, citing my light skin colour and “upper class looks”. Huh?.
Which brings me to the tyranny of the Western ‘optic’. All Asian women, or women of colour need to subscribe to the ruthless mono culture ‘gaze’ of the euro centric gatekeepers. A strong, outspoken Asian woman is not as welcome in performance spaces compared to the demure, adorned bride/dancer type. For the West, all Asian women are “geisha babes” and all Asian men are kung fu fighting Jackie Chans. We cannot wait until the Euro-centric gaze changes to accommodate all our differences and exciting individualities. We just have to go out and break down those barriers and claim our space. Until we do that, we will always cower beneath our beautiful brown tones in embarrassment.