On Skin Tones and Looking "Indian"

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.


K said...

I'm curious. What is your beef with the cover? Like you've said yourself - for once they've moved away from Kareena Kapoor. The shot is beautiful. The women are in bikinis because it's the 'travel issue'. Travel issues, as readers are painfully aware, necessitate a bikini (cue Dia Mirza on the the Bazaar cover this month or Deepika on last year's issue). I don't think it was a premeditated move to objectify these women. But that's just my opinion.

blue floppy hat said...

My sign-in attempts aren't working, so here goes: my beef with the cover is precisely what I stated- that it claims to laud darker Indian skin colours, and in order to do so, must present them as, well, sexy (as if dark-skinned women can't be attractive in any other way). This is a tendency that runs across Indian popular culture in a big way, and I'm not a fan of it -stereotyping always sucks. I'm no prude, but if they really wanted to present dark skin in a different light, they could have done it in another issue. Or, I don't know, put clothes on the models that don't automatically turn them into sex objects (though they haven't been shot that way). I don't buy the travel=swimsuit line either.

Also, Vogue India has this annoying tendency to cram multiple models onto the cover at a time when they do feature models, which I wish they wouldn't do. This is not skin-related, it just makes for better covers that's all. And all said and done, this cover is still better than the usual hackneyed Bollywood shite that gets served up on the cover every other month.

fashionaddict said...

Well put, as always :) I was particularly interested in that they chose to address it at all, and was wondering whether any articles inside elaborate on the issue?

As for the attempt itself, I'm not well-placed to judge (ignorance and all) but it seems to fall short the way "shape" issues, not to mention "race" ones, do - playing safe by focussing on the people already established and pandering to existing stereotypes. Disappointment is inevitable.

I 100% agree with your point about the comments on how the models don't look "Indian". But I want to strangle most commenters on jezebel/nymag anyway, so no surprise there.

Han said...

Good points! The dark skin thing always irritates the hell out of my sister and me. My North Indian roommate in college (who knew I was from the south) once said: "One thing you have to admit is that all South Indians are ugly"! Yeesh.

The problem as I see it in India is that people don't see casteism as the same as racism. Many people think it's a big joke when I scold them for taking this sort of thing lightly.

One of the saddest pieces of news I read recently featured some air hostess institute in a poor area. None of the graduates were hired, and someone said it was because they weren't attractive. And people have no shame about admitting things like this.

India needs some kind of "Say it loud: black and proud" moment.

As for commenters... they're mostly idiots on popular blogs and websites. Westerners still think they can adjudicate on parts of the world they can barely place on a map.

(Sorry for the rant!)

K said...

I see your point. Yes, dark always has had to be wrapped in sexy in order for it be palatable to the larger Indian audience.

Also, it would have been infinitely better to shoot the cover as is, for any other issue - without the gratuitous proclamation of love for all things dusky.

However, the cover still is beautiful (the universe of comparison remaining past Vogue India covers). And for that I will remain eternally thankful. I swear I will drop dead if I read another article on how disciplined Deepika Padukone is or '27 Lehengas'.

On an aside, have you managed to read this month's GQ India yet? Syndicated cover notwithstanding, there is an article with illustrations on how to remove a unibrow.

Truly inspired.

Angie said...

I totally agree with you about the cover and "comments" it inspires in many. I hate having to explain that: "Yes, I am Indian. Oh, I don't seem like it? Oh, I don't act very Indian?" For people that know and understand me, we can talk about it. But I find it maddening to go through with strangers.

Pennerad said...

well said/written. i understand the gripes you noted here, despite having never read vogue india. it's interesting to find out that the prejudice amongst one's own people (and their colors) is not restricted to the many hues of blackness as i've experienced it. thanks for sharing your point.

Liberty London Girl said...

This is fascinating. Thank you for summing it up so well, LLGxx

That Student said...

I remember reading this article, but I didn't get around to reading the comments. I'm glad I didn't because I would have been pretty annoyed, and fortunately there are other Indian commenters on the site to set people straight. It's one thing to note that the models are not dark, but the comments about whether or not they look Indian disgust me. My mom is ridiculously fair as in her skin is actually white, and I understand that this is a large part of what makes her beautiful by Indian standards (though she is beautiful in her own right), but these comments make it sound like her skin color would make her look less Indian when I'm pretty sure her Indianness is self-evident. Most Jezebel commenters are usually better than the average internet commenter, but there are so many moments (usually when it comes to race) that individual ignorance is put on display.

Blue Floppy Hat said...

^oddly, there really weren't that many people around to make it clear that this was actually offensive or even flat-out wrong. I gave up in disgust, since apparently facts don't triumph over some people's arrogance and entitlement to their efforts to be PC (not 'dark' enough! not broad-nosed enough! Too thin (they're models, WTF)). Good call on skipping reading the comments, though- some of them were rage-inducing.

Anonymous said...

Indian features are those of Europeans - what is the difference. And yeah, plenty of Indians can pass for europeans...their hair is the same, their light skin is the same. I never knew Indians supposedly had broad noses...wtf? They are the same type of noses I see on white people.

Sorry there is a group of so-called "liberals" that somehow want to bring Indians into the white/black divide. Yes, there are those issues among white and blacks...but Indians just don't fit into that pigeonhole. Everyone I see in Kerala, except for those that have dark skin, have overlapping features with "white" folks..

So the fck what? Do Indians have to deny their regular phenotype to fit into the black/white paradigm? Um noo....I was really disgusted with the comments in Jezebel and Huffington Post. They look like Indians...if you don't like the fact that Indians have overlapping phenotypes with white people, then you are racist against Indians and writing a false narrative, to support your blacks/white divide.

blue floppy hat said...

Anon: Personally, I've always thought Indians looked South Asian, and left it at that- most of us are actually too dark-skinned to pass for even very tan Europeans.

And yes, well-meaning people insisting, in effect, that only those who don't look "too white" have the right to be deemed 'Indian' (again, whatever the hell that looks like- an average Tamil will probably look nothing like an average Punjabi, and yet both are Indian) does show up a great deal of ignorance. Indians aren't black or white or even all brown, heck some of us even look East/ Southeast Asian. I can't help but be a little resentful of such obvious stupidity and ham-handed stereotyping.

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