Vogue India, let me be blunt, has never been one of my favourite magazines- a cluttered layout and frequently-boring covers/editorials being two of the main reasons. When they do place models on the cover (in place of their usual choice of a vapid Bollywood starlet with an accompanying gushy puff piece inside), it does tend to be a bit of an event- and more so here, since the April 2010 cover intends to 'celebrate' skin tones that aren't on the fairer side of the colour spectrum here in India. I have a fair bit to say about this- firstly about the cover itself and what it's trying to do, and secondly about the reactions it seems to have provoked from news outlets outside the country. Look away if you don't want to read me getting bitter and angry, please.
First off: fair skin is a part of the beauty standard in India*- and in most of South Asia too. Being dark-skinned, even among people and communities who tend to be just that, isn't for the most part considered attractive. If one can't be fair, the ideal is to be as fair as possible- or at least to ensure that one can't be described as 'dark'. It's acceptable to be described as 'wheatish' (a common euphemism for "not that dark-skinned, but not fair either"), but being dark-skinned- any shade of dark-skinned- is automatically= ugly. Note: if your features are otherwise conventionally dead gorgeous but you happen to be somewhat dark, then you might be lucky enough to be stereotyped as 'sexy'/'sultry'/ fill in the blank with some cliché about dark-skinned women and their purported hotness/sex appeal.
Case in point: the cover above. The models are a fair bit darker than Vogue's average choice of cover girl, and some of them (Nethra Raghuraman, far left, and Tinu Verghese, the bleach-blonde one) have been successful models for a decade or more. In my eyes, they're not really dark, but they're hardly considered fair-skinned by an average Indian newsstand buyer either. So some part of me doesn't really get the self-congratulatory patting on the back, with the coverline The Dawn of Dusk, accompanied by pictures of dark-skinned models in bikinis. Sure, they look great, it's April and it's hot here- but frankly, I'm tempted to yawn very widely at yet another reminder of the only way in which us dark women are considered attractive (ie if we're half-naked or close). And I find it mildly funny that they're all the same approximate shade of brown/tan, but nothing's perfect, I suppose. If I had to sum it up, I'd say the cover celebrates tanned Indian women- who are, by the way, considered 'dark' out here.
The cover itself inspires nothing but very mild irritation in me, but my second major beef is with the number of reactions across the Internet, mainly in the comments section of places like NYMag and Jezebel, claiming that the cover models don't look "Indian". Some of the reasons cited are that they look more like "tan Europeans"**, that all the Indian people the commenter knows are darker than that, and that the models look "nowhere near 'dark' by Indian standards", that they look "western and light skinned", that "each one could pass for Spanish or Portugese" and so on.
See, here's the thing. I'm used to people making ignorant, clichéd statements about India online, even ones that are meant to be complimentary (about colours, textiles, food, blah blah). But who on earth is some random commenter (not living in India) to pontificate about what does or doesn't look Indian? Does anyone have any idea of how offensive it is to hear this?
The cover shows up a small, imperfectly represented sample of Indian women- just because their faces don't fit someone's preconceived notions about what an Indian female looks like, doesn't mean that they can't look like they came from India. It's a country of 1.2 billion people spanning a large geographical area that contains people of a massive range of colours who look like they could belong to several different races. That diversity isn't anywhere near being well-represented in popular culture, but that doesn't give people the right to negate my- or anyone else's- heritage on the basis of our appearance. I mean, excuse me for my face and skin colour not fitting into your stereotyped notion of what people from the same area of the world as me, should look like.
* and seems to have been for millennia- this one did not originate with the colonial era.
**Really? Somehow, I doubt that.