Celebrating diversity in skin tones and textures should be the new beauty anthem
The unhealthy obsession with fair skin driving the younger populace towards taking extreme steps such as cosmetic and skin whitening procedures are becoming a growing cause for grave concern. This obsession amply came to the fore in the recently held Miss India 2019 pageant when a list of its thirty state finalists for this year’s competition was released and the official advertisement showcased girls with similar straight hair and fair skin tone.
In an age when countries like the US are becoming more diverse and removing an entire swimsuit round from their pageants, this comes as a huge setback for India. While people on social media made it extremely evident that they were furious that in a country like India that stands as a diverse nation with many beautiful skin tones and hair types, such an ad could make the cut; are we really moving towards a society with unrealistic beauty standards keeping the heat on its inhabitants to always look a certain way?
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It is a sad state of affairs our society is slowly inching towards as almost everyone looks like they’ve been genetically programmed to look a certain way. This fetish for fair skin is nowhere near the ancient standards of beauty wherein fair skin was never considered ideal or ever glorified. There was beauty in diversity and a celebration of this diversity. Unfortunately, if everyone looked the same, the world would be a terribly boring place to live in.
An American dermatologist, Thomas B. Fitzpatrick first developed the numerical classification schema to determine the response of different types of skin to the sun in 1975 known as the Fitzpatrick scale. The scale became a recognised tool for dermatological research into human skin pigmentation and is also the basis of skin colour in emojis used in social media platforms. The scale that divides skin shades from 1 to 6 with 1 being typically Caucasian and 6 being the darkest brown.
This attempt to fit in all skin colours in the uppermost rungs of the scale is adversely impacting the Indian skin. Most Indian skin tones fall between the Fitzpatrick 4 to 6 range. Anyone with very fair skin will look washed out or even unattractive. This obsession with white skin could be due to the fact that we’ve been ruled by a white race for over 300 years, however, we need to realise that just because it is fair it is not necessarily good for us. Since we are a tropical country and receive much more sun than the American and European nations, the melanin pigment which gives our skin its colour is protective and protects us from sun damage and skin cancers.
As India marches ahead to become a 3 trillion economy establishing itself as the world leader, this trend may still smack off a colonial mindset that we were subject to for so many years and still refuses to leave us. The West went the same way a few years ago with the runway overflowing with white beauties and suddenly this dusky model called Naomi Campbell appeared on the scene trashing the entire concept of fair skin being beautiful. So, when we try and break through this misplaced trend, we might encounter initial resistance but ultimately it will help to break the shackles of this contrived definition of beauty.
While in the West there is a growing trend of moving from the Fitzpatrick scale of 2 to 4, with tanning being the in-thing, we seem to be getting more and more entangled in this web of ‘fair is beautiful’ notion. Paradoxically, some of these fairness creams can actually cause deleterious effects such as skin cancer, excessive pigmentation and even ochronosis. Ointments containing hydroquinone, a strong bleaching agent used for reducing skin pigmentation, have been banned from being sold over-the-counter (OTC) in India from April 1, 2019, as their unchecked usage can cause redness, inflammation and discolouration and in the long run permanent blemishes. A lot of whitening agents such as glutathione injections for skin whitening and lasers are not even FDA approved.
Another worrying cause that may be the major driving force fueling this unhealthy trend further is celebrity endorsement which is not just impacting the minds of young men and women adversely but distorting beauty standards beyond attainment. I have had cases where women have come for skin lightening whereas they should have been focusing on the treatment of their acne. The new-age beauty is making everyone a clone of each other where we are literally struggling to differentiate one from the other. I salute women like Madhu Sapre who had, almost a decade ago, raised an issue of her pictures being airbrushed to make her look two shades lighter. This is a very serious concern. Women who are in a position of strength need to be very sure about the message they send out as people get inspired by what they see. If we see dusky women turning lighter, it does impact the lives of a lot of women and young girls. This is merely a reflection of the negative connotations of self-obsession of beauty decided by society.
Ultimately, it all boils down to the fact that its best to ditch unhealthy beauty standards and focus on being healthy and happy with one’s body image. Then again, while fitness is important, misplaced notions of it being synonymous with size zero can be dangerous. People need to be healthy, normal and exuberant and not what is decided by the media. The rule of thumb should be that the more the colour, the better the character and texture of one’s beauty. Teach your daughters to be themselves and fitting in should not be such a huge priority that it starts impacting the way they perceive themselves.
Of late, this has also seeped into men’s conversations, hence the multitude of men’s fairness creams and products that are flooding the market. The good thing however is men tend to self-rate themselves better than what they actually are vis-à-vis women who rate themselves worse than what the world sees of them. Eventually, it’s about the overall personality and not about a particular skin colour or the perfect nose or lips or disproportionately shaped body parts.
Colour is such an inordinate part of who we are, yet impacting our judgement of ourselves in so many ways. The earth looks beautiful and vibrant with the entire spectrum of colours. When there are people of different skin tones and texture only then does this world radiate its true essence and character.
Dr Debraj Shome is Director at The Esthetic Clinics, and a philanthropist .