About three or four years ago, in a crowded Mumbai restaurant, a male friend, who weighs at least 150 kgs, asked me, “Have you stopped exercising?” A female friend who was with us, and who, since the time I have known her, has put on at least 20 kgs, chimed in, “Yea, you were very particular about it, no? You stopped?”
My expired-gym membership and the way I looked were the answers they were looking for. I sat shame-faced and humiliated, head bowed down in guilt. Yes, I had not been exercising.
Not for a minute, did I stop to think who these comments were coming from. I honestly didn’t. Because, I have a long history of associating weight gain with personal failure and shame. That is my legacy. Their legacy, it seems like, is that of immense self-assurance – at least in this area.
This year, I travelled through South East Asia with two friends, who happened to be white. The journey turned out to be along a predominantly ‘white’ tourist trail – with lonely-planet-sporting, malaria-dengue-risking punters everywhere. When we veered off the major cities, I saw not a single brown or black person. I didn’t mind, didn’t care and didn’t even notice. I was too busy having a good time.
Until, we went to a beautiful island, just off of Southern Cambodia. Some of the islands in the region are drifting towards greater popularity, but this one – Koh Rung – is still quite isolated. On a hot Khmer afternoon, after risking our lives on a rickety, motor boat sea-ride, we reached its shores.
Koh Rung had two independent shack operators, their guests and nobody else. The shore was dotted with shacks, which housed the 15 or so guests, all white; the rest of the island was a forest. Soon, I realized, that no matter which part of the world they came from, and the guests were from three different continents there – Australia, North America and Europe – they seemed to share one common passion: sunbathing.
What was a hydrophobic brown girl, who didn’t care for a tan, going to do in an island for three long days? Despite the quiet beauty of the location and a break from the frenetic pace of travelling, it turned out to be the most boring leg of our journey for me.
No TV. No Internet. No radio even.
Thankfully, I carried a book. In the early hours of the morning, with the blue-green sea stretched out in front, I would sit on the cozy patio chair and reread my dog-eared copy of Trainspotting. But after a point, it would get too warm for me, so I would go inside and lay on my ramshackle wooden bed, just listening to the sea and drift off into a dreamless sleep.
In India, Hindus may worship the sun, but most Indians, non-Hindus included, can’t bear to sit under its vicious glare for too long. We prefer the generous coolness of the shade.
But it is also true, that many Indians prefer not to stay out in the sun, because they dread getting a tan. I, however, am not one of them; which does not, in any way, make me superior to my Indian friends, who fear a tan. I already have a dark brown complexion and I have never cared for being darker or lighter. On the island, among all the sun lovers, I was the only one seeking the comfort of a shaded patio.
But presumption and curiosity got the better of my blonde friend, who asked me, “Is it because you don’t want to get dark?”
“No.” I said.
I didn’t want to get into a discussion about the topic, but somehow, one ensued. My friend, who has lived in India for several years, wanted me to confirm if we had fairness creams to lighten our underarms. Frankly, this was news to me. But she said it with so much assurance that it seemed like I was only required to say, “Yes, yes, we have fairness creams for underarms in India.” As a halfway compromise, I grunted.
After I was wrongly accused of spending all day in the shack, because I was paranoid about getting darker, by my friend, who was lying in the sun all day to get a tan – I felt bad. Just like how I did, when my overweight friends had questioned my weight gain.
Safely back in Mumbai, living with the prejudices of fellow-brown people, that I am marginally better equipped to handle, it occurred to me - ”Why was it okay for everybody else on that island to want to get a tan, but not okay for me to want to be lighter? Not that I wanted to be.”
Is the quest for a tan, somehow, more superior than the desire to be light-skinned? Is it more ‘humble’ to want to be dark but shameful to want to be a few shades lighter? Is risking cancer by roasting in the sun less foolish than risking cancer by the use of carcinogenic fairness creams?
These days, several months after my holiday, I have taken to reading blog posts and articles by foreigners and going over Youtube comments on Indian fairness cream adverts, to get a better perspective on the issue; I am surprised by how reckless some Westerners are with their judgments on India’s penchant for fairness creams. It is an uncomfortable truth, but it is true that for over six centuries at least, from Africa to Asia to America, colonizers have tried to assert their dominance by planting the skin-colour prejudice among locals.
Why even the more enlightened amongst the white-skinned are irresponsible when they pass judgments about brown or black folks wanting lighter skin. They mock us pretty derisively when it comes to the subject.
But, I don’t blame them or my friend. To feel superior, is her legacy. To feel inferior and apologetic, is mine. Therefore, it is okay for her to get a tan, and to feel comfortable about it, smugly modest, even. But I, a brown Indian, am expected to feel embarrassed about wanting light-skin.
It is perhaps, time for deeper introspection and not judgment. If people in the UK or America want to use tanning products without a larger social comment on the issue, maybe Indians should be allowed the wish or desire to be fair without judgement ; only perhaps, some of the advertising could be less discriminatory. Any way, at a stripped-down, basic level, the desire to change is what drives both desires, so what’s the difference?