Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Mirror Mirror On the Wall, Who's the Fairest of Them All?

The first thing my mother-in-law said to me when she saw me last weekend was that I had lost weight and turned darker (ki roga aar kalo hoye gechhish). And my Mom totally agrees with her on that. And I realize I will never be able to conform to the age-old notions of beauty in our society.

I live in a place where people live on salads and run two miles everyday just to stay in shape. They lie out in the sun for hours trying to get a tan that gives them a bronzed look. You'd think with my petite 100lbs and complexion I would be what most females here would want to look like. But not where I come from. You see in Bengal the beauty in a female is her fair skin and well rounded proportions, something that is referred to as doodhe-aaltay rong (peaches and cream anyone) and Lokhi-sri (a la Goddess Laksmi). People never reprimand you for having put on weight. Oh no! That is looked upon as something good, a sign of prosperity. And hence the term Lokhi-sri.

And don't even get me started on complexion. A girl-child who is not fair is doomed for life. Or so it would seem. I remember countless occasions when I have seen some overweight, meddling, female relative or neighbor shake her head at me and tell my mother in the saddest voice possible, tomar meyer mukh ta eto shundor kintu tomar moto gaayer rong ta pelo na (your daughter is pretty but she did not get your complexion). Which saddened me because I have always wanted to be as pretty as my Mom. And I would spend hours in front of the mirror to see if I really was kalo (dark complexioned). Thank God I grew up before these petty complexes could get to me and realized that there was more to me than being called ujjol shyambarna (bright dusky complexion).

I knew when I was getting married that there would be some talk about the bride being on the dusky side since everyone on B's side of the family including him was really fair. However B assured me that he was enamored by girls who were darker because he thought they had really big, bright and beautiful eyes. So I wasn't exactly worried. But in the two weeks following my wedding I was victim to various home-made recipes of instant brighteners of the skin that included dahi, haldi, and cucumber among others.

And now living in the US, I hardly ever spare a thought about things like sun-tan and dark complexion. I do hours of gardening in the scorching Virginia sun. I go out and play tennis in the sun and lie out on the beach without worrying about how dark I am getting. Until I meet people from back home. With preconceived notions of beauty. Admiring fair maidens with plump cheeks and well-endowed proportions. And it makes me want to scream. For the sheer frustration of dealing with things like this. For having people disapprove and shake their heads at me. For not being the typical traditional conformist that everyone craves for.

And then I look at myself in the mirror. And I see who I really am.

I am, therefore I am.



Blogger Seashells said...

As long as you're comfortable in your own skin, such things shouldn't bother you... Bother not about what the world says; if you want to be judged, it better be by the person who means the world to you.

7:15 PM  
Blogger Rohan Kumar said...

A classic 'grass is greener' scenario under which cosmetic giants keep hard selling fairness creams to Indians while westerners keep spending their dollars in fake tan parlours

10:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely post. As you so rightly said 'You are therefore you are'

I remember this one time several years ago, when we were watching some beauty contest and a 'black' lady came out. Our maid was also watching it and she said something to the effect of - How dark she is, I could have been on stage instead. Unfortunately, people themselves think that dark is synonymous with ugly.

Me : Personally, I prefer thin, tall(taller than me) and dusky women. They rock ....


1:14 AM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

i think i know exactly what u mean ... but my wife would be able to appreciate this better ;-)

1:55 AM  
Blogger Ekta said...

Thats the spirit girl...dont get hasseled by what the "elders" say..just enjoy urslef the way u are:-)
Am sure u look beautiful!

5:57 AM  
Blogger karmic_jay said...

Loved your post and love the fact that you are very comfortable with yourself. :)

This did jog a few memories, one of *A*'s niece an amazing kid. It was disquieting to hear some relative say she is so nice but does not have the fair skin or green eyes of her mom. I was like WTF has that got to do with anything.

Someone clue these folks in beauty comes in all shapes, shades and sizes. Don't they even notice their inherent hypocrisy in pointing our someone's skin tone while conveniently ignoring the layers of fat hanging off them taht supposedly makes them prosperous? Oy Vey!

I don't care much about what people think either. So I am 40 I run a few days a week religiously stay in shape and in some ways am not like a lot of desis. That is till you meet fellow desis, when suddenly you get the once over and then the twice over. And *A* gets that too.
I am like "Haven't you seen another desi?"
Skin tone/color is so overrated and does nothing but reinforce old stereotypes and body images. The west is also guilty of this but it does not feel so instituionalized or all pervasive as it does amongst some desi circles.

7:49 AM  
Blogger BongoP'o'ndit said...

Very apt observations, as usual. I do not know about other Indians, but Bongs have this 'Fair and Lovely' obsession that irks me to no end. As a boy, I was spared of the anti-melanin crusade by well-meaning grandparents and other relatives. Unfortunately, my sister was not - even though she was much fairer than me.

The funny part of this is the matrimonialese for dark complexion -'ujwal shyamborna' (in Bengali) or 'wheatish complexion' (n English) !

Regarding 'well-rounded'-ness, I think that comes from the perception that skinny means you don't get to eat two square meals a day. A heavy set almost confirms your economic status as one who can afford to eat well and have their menial tasks performed by others.

8:26 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ seashells you are back! Glad to see you here. And no I don't let such things bother me. But it irks me that people still stress about trivial things like that.
@ rohan well atleast the cosmetic manufacturer cashes on the prejudices of human mind.
@ t.b.g. well beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, right? And I once heard a lady say UGLY stands for 'U gotta love yourself'. So the first step to feeling beautiful is loving yourself the way you are.
And B had the same criteria that you have as far as likes. Except I am not taller than him :)
@ bonatellis we all grow up hearing people talk about this so I'm sure she can.
@ ekta I am happy with myself. And thanks!
@ karmic_jay like what you had to say there and totally agree that skin tone/color is overrated. But these are age old cultural traits that will not go away. Everytime we have a baby born the first thing that people notice is whether he/ she is fair. People really don't bother to see if the kid can see, hear or function. Really! Think of all the songs we have in the movies that emphasize fairness of skin- "gori" or "gora rang" that make you believe that to be beautiful you have to be fair. Its like fair and lovely are synonymous.
And like you I hardly realize how differently we think until we run into a bunch of 'desis'.
@ bongop'o'ndit thanks for the very nice comment. I agree with you completely. Being well rounded truly has been seen as a sign of prosperity and being able to afford two square meals a day. Hence the term "lokhisri". And no matter how much I tell people that most of my freinds and family in India are overweight and totally out of shape (thanks to all the sweets and ghee that they consume) and that they will end up with diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure at an early age, no one really cares or cares to believe. They still shake their heads when we order a salad, or when we proudly say we've lost 10 lbs or we try to stay healthy. It really is ridiculous.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Cacophoenix said...

You should see people talking about girls when they are looking for a boy. They would proudly say she has studied so and so thing, she is an engineer,/doctor, workd in america blah bkah and the slowly go near the ear and whisper as if it s national shame that is a little on the darker side. There is also the legth of the hair. It should be long, thick able to be plaited and hold the flower market on her head on marriage day. If it is short, she is definetly a rebel. and woe me if I ever ate cereal or oats, it would automatically mean I ma dieting and I have become westernised. the indian diet is the perfect one for all th ewalking and sweating we do, but here it is just impossible to follow that regimen adn still be on a healtheir side. A lot of cultures have that thing BTW. Seen Big fat greek wedding and many middle eastern and east european movies to vouch for that

10:46 AM  
Blogger Kausum said...

Very good observations. Somehow, it has already been so. One of my pisi after my innumerable objections have turned diplomatic to say "gayer rong ta porishkar noi"

But, somehow Tennis and the Beach tans you, but for Indians burns the skin. On my last trip to India, had to hear from my mom about sunblocks and how ur skin 'poore gayche' and a huge lecture on UV rays (doctor that she is). Ultimate threat ... no girl likes a guy who is not fair. Biyer problem hote pare. Wondering what happened to Tall, Dark and Handsome. Somehow Dark and Fair for girls are the only words that remain in the consciousness

12:14 PM  
Blogger Jinguchakka said...

The concept of beauty depends on the society. Certain African tribes have their ears pierced and the pinna holes made extremely big because they are considered beautiful. But we would have none of those, would we?
All said and done, beauty serves as an ice breaker. Would YOU start a friendshp with someone who is ugly from your perspective, but is very good as a person? To get to know the inner beauty, you have to get close and to get close, outer beauty helps.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Priya said...

My m-i-l after seeing me the first time had said "Shara jibon ki shade bachte hobey!" Poor that I am in colloquial Bangla, didn't quite get it till N explained it to me:P. And was I mad! Coming from someone who was not only darker (and shorter)than me, and who had an eligible daughter much older than me and far darker, that was pretty cheeky, I'd say! I didn't have to do much since N put her firmly in her place;)
Choosing one's own life partner, does have it's own advantages, sometimes, ki bolish?:)

4:56 AM  
Blogger Ron said...

Who ever said Bongs like their women well rounded has never met my family and friends. I am well rounded..believe me, and I am constantly ridiculed for the same. But then, the moment I work very hard and lose weight, I am told I am nyaka and should eat more.I have decided that its a battle I can never ever win, and have therefore given up on it.

As for complexion...I get all ALL THE TIME. Dad is very fair with light eyes, Mom and sis are extremely fair too. All my life Ive had people saying Baba / Ma r moto rong paye ni.

Somehow that doesnt bother me so much as the conctant obsession with my weight.

8:47 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ cacophoenix true a lot of cultures have these preconceived notions and peculiar prejudices. Which once again brings me to my pet peeve regarding the arranging of arranged marriages which usually brings these prejudices to light.
@ kausum that is so not true. I think women still like the tall DARK and handsome guys. But trust me for biye purposes it hardly matters what the guy/ girl looks like. It is far more important to end up with someone you like and can trust. I know so many not so goodlooking guys (in the traditional sense of physical appearance) who were such wonderful people to be with that girls would just die to be their girlfriends.
@ jinguchakka I really have a problem with what you said there.
"Would YOU start a friendshp with someone who is ugly from your perspective, but is very good as a person? " Honestly yes I would. Because I really don't choose my friends based on their looks. In that case I would be missing out on life big time, becasue my nicest friends and the ones that are closest to me are not that great looking. And I would never trade them for someone who was better looking. Which is what I like about the blogosphere. nobody knows what the next blogger looks like, so there are no preconceived notions. Everyone is just a name, a figment of imagination and we judge and choose the ones we like based on the kind of person we perceive them to be.
@ priya *lol* "Choosing one's own life partner, does have it's own advantages, sometimes" tells you so much about our judgement skills, huh? We only pick the best. Give N a hug for being such a good sport.

8:56 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ ron oops don't know how I missed you there sweetie! I know what you mean. B put on weight after he got married. And there was no end to people saying that he needed to lose weight. And now that he is exercising and dieting and lost over 25 lbs in the last 4 months, people are concerned again about him and saying things like "bou ta bodh hoy ranna kore na tai". So I know what you mean about not being able to get around it. Its the society we live in.
And as far as you go, I've seen your picture on your blog and I think you are very attractive. So to hell with what people say....

9:01 AM  
Blogger karmic_jay said...

If it is short, she is definetly a rebel

I agree, I am married to one and ny choice too. She just had her hair appointment yesterday and I was bowled over. A new look :)

9:36 AM  
Blogger Jinguchakka said...

I guess it didn't come out exactly as I meant. Even I make friends based on the vibes and wavelengths and not on the looks. That's not the point. I am not questioning your preferences. And I appreciate your points on blogosphere. It allows friendships based on what we are and not on how we look. I'll try to put again what I meant. Given a room of miscellaneous people. You don't know anything about them. Then if you are there for some more time, tell me the parameter for selection of people to talk to. Agreed we talk to some people then find them not compatible and move on. But still what is the factor that draws to, in the first place?
No offence intended on you, please.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Kele Panchu said...

I'm a proud 'bright-shyam-colored' person. Most North Indians think I'm a South Indian, and most South Indians think I'm West Indian person (No offense). I used to get this 'roga hoye gechhis' before I turned 20. Now, everytime I go home I hear 'ki bhuNuri hoyechhe!'(you've got a pot-belly). I actually enjoy the criticism. At least, it shows someone does care.

You can't change this attitude. I think it's universal.

3:17 PM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ karmic_jay good for you!
@ jinguchakka "what is the factor that draws" well may be common ground, compatible wavelengths....definitely not looks or the way someone dresses. HOnestly, I just talk to whoever is near at hand and see if i can find common ground. Or I wait for someone to introduce me to someone. But I just don't go for the most goodlooking or attarctive individual. I'm just being honest. And that's just me. May be it is different for other people.
No offense was taken :)
@ kele panchu well sometimes the name speaks volumes, eh? Unless it is something like "kana chheler naam padmalochan" :)
And people do care. Sometimes just a little bit too much for comfort.

4:00 PM  
Blogger simmi said...

as a South Asian, South African, Danish woman I empathise.

Beauty is constructed by socio-economic politics.

I am not a comodity, but borne from the love between two people.

with out colour life with be quite bland.

and even white can only be experienced/understood in terms of its counter "colour".

Please read my blog on 'beauty'

I believe that it could add a different perspective to your experience...and would like to hear more from you on this topic.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Dadoji said...

Dark, brown and fair complexions can be equally attractive - all depends on other features as well.

But being attractive has nothing to do with being a good person. I'd go with being a good person if I had to make an either/or choice. Yes, this would be knowing fully well what might come my way in the real world.

Last time I said this to someone, I had to hear "Oh but it is easy for you to say that. Both of you are fair. Why didn't you marry someone darker?!!". As if I could have loved through the prism of colour. *rolleyes*

11:25 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ simmi thanks. I will read it.
@ dadoji agrred that color of skin has nothing to do with the kind of person you are. I'd be a good person over being attractive too. My point was about this fixation we have over "fair and lovely" in India. I just don't agree that fair is always beautiful and vice versa.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best regards from NY!

1:44 PM  

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