Too Dark to Be Beautiful?: A Letter From Actor, Deepti Gupta
On October 28, 2015, someone posted a comment on my Facebook Fan Page making a negative reference about my appearance. I chose not to respond to that comment in any way. I didn't want to dignify them with my response at all. But another fan came to my defense and shamed that person on my Fan Page. Thank you for coming to my defense. I appreciate that you stood up for me. I honor your action because I believe if we don’t stand up for each other, our societies will fall apart. This letter is meant to honor your courage. This letter is meant to give voice to all of us who have felt less-than due to our skin color. This letter is meant to provide a space for us to speak about this and thereby pulling ourselves out of the shame. Thank you for inspiring me.
This is not the first time people have posted negative comments on my Fan Page about my dark skin or my features and how I look. Often they call me too dark to be beautiful, not pretty and what am I even doing on TV. These negative comments have come from both men and women, all of them my South Asian brothers and sisters. I used to get affected by these comments and take them personally. But I don't anymore. That's why I am writing this letter. Not just because I am on TV but ESPECIALLY because I am on TV and feel it is important for me to address this issue that has been a chronic disease in South Asian societies for a long, long time.
This is not new information to South Asians (Indians as well as Pakistanis). Because of our colonial past we look up to fair skin. The fairer one is the more beautiful they are considered. We see ourselves in the way the white colonists saw us. "Darkies". This word had (under the British rule), and sadly still has, negative connotations. There is a level of self hate in this. So, as we continue to see ourselves through the white gaze and judge ourselves, we continue to remain colonized in our hearts and our minds. We can say 'Jai Hind' and 'Pakistan Zingabad', but do we truly have pride in who we are? Do we have pride in all the shades of brown that we contain among ourselves?
BEFORE Colonial Hangover:
Some of this fair-skin bias stems from the caste system as well. Historically, in India Brahmins (Hindu priests) were typically thought to be fairer as opposed to Kshatriyas (soldiers and rulers), Vaishyas (merchants, farmers, tradesmen), and Shudras (laborers). Let’s try to understand the simple logistics of how that came to be. Brahmins may have had fairer skin because they didn't have to work under the sun whereas all other classes had to brave the sun and hence were darker. Of course the Brahmin’s life was desirable because it kept you away from the sun and afforded respect from other classes because the Brahmins had the time to study and educate themselves. They were able to engage in the higher pursuits whereas all other classes were engaged in the nitty-gritty of life. That phenomenon slowly became connected to the skin color and today in India a Brahmin girl is more desirable than others when families are looking for a match for their boys in arranged marriage.
TODAY, we attach many meanings to someone's darker skin. We speculate about their economic background, educational background, intelligence and overall appeal. Today in Bollywood films and TV as well as many many other job sectors in India, someone's getting hired and getting promoted can depend on how fair they are. When we make friends with our classmates in school and colleges and colleagues at work and neighbors around us, we bring this fair-skin bias with us. It is a conscious as well as an unconscious bias in our society.
CONSCIOUS bias can be seen in the messages the middle-class families usually give to their kids, especially girls. "Dhoop mein zyada mat khelo". (Translation: don't play in the sun too much) the implication being that you'll become darker under the sun and that's not desirable. So, the girls get the message that their worth is dependent on the color of their skin. The boys hear this and learn that girls are supposed to be fair or else they are not worth their respect.
Or when parents of a young woman start looking for a match for their daughter who might be darker, they start asking her to take an umbrella when going under the sun. These parents often feel like they are giving a defective item to the buyer (groom) and so feel obligated to make up for their daughter's darker skin by giving more than perhaps they can, in dowry. Or there are matrimonial ads specifically asking for "fair girl". Or when a baby is born everyone comments on whether the baby is fair or dark.
UNCONSCIOUS bias emerges in instances such as these: When in a meeting at work we listen more to our fairer-skinned colleagues than the darker colleagues. Yes it happens. That's how unconscious bias works. We don't even know we are doing it but our actions display what we are biased towards or against. Are their any Bollywood songs about a dark woman in a positive light? Any song that says "oh kallo (blackie/darkie) you are beautiful"? No. Instead we have many songs with the word "gori" (meaning white/fair-skinned girl or young woman) in which the girl's beauty is highly praised.
We can't really control our skin color, even though all the skin-whitening cream companies would like us to believe that continued use of such creams will make us fairer and thus increase the quality of our lives. If skin-whitening creams worked, we would all have been looking white-fair at least a generation ago. These creams don't really work. If they did, the big companies that make tons of money from them would have been out of business a long time ago. They sell these products because we are insecure about our own brown-ness. They prey on our insecurities and make billions while they are at it. The Colonial masters preyed on our complex and we haven't been able to shed it. We are still enslaved by it.
The Human Impact of Fair-Skin Bias on Our Loved Ones:
There have been a number of women in my family who have had to deal with this skin-color discrimination in their lives, including me. These women have fought their own bodies to feel loved, to find love and to feel worthy of the love of their families, before and after marriage. Finding a suitable match, in our society, is still harder for darker skinned women than fairer women. What no one talks about is the emotional trauma that occurs as a result. Think about it...if you are taught to hate your body day-in and day-out, how would that affect your self-esteem? How might you enter relationships? Most likely from a place of feeling unworthy. So then the women especially are disadvantaged right from the get-go when they enter a relationship or marriage. These women continue to NOT get the respect they deserve. And when these women become mothers and raise their kids, how can they become positive role models to their daughters and sons, when they themselves do not feel self-worth? This is deeper than we give it credit for. Do we want to live in a society that encourages self-hate?
When I was growing up, I too received negative messages about my skin color. Through direct and indirect communication, through conscious and unconscious bias, I was told that I was too dark and fat to be considered beautiful enough to be in movies and on TV. Some of those messages came from my loved ones. Their intent was to protect me against an industry that celebrates fair skin, to protect me against comments such as the one on my Fan Page calling me "Kali kaluti ", meaning dark black girl. They were coming from a good heart and they understood that we live in a society that continues to perpetuate the self-hate of darker skin. They themselves were victims of the colonial hangover. They believed the lie the colonial masters spun for us.
And then there were those who were unconsciously biased. They didn't tell me directly what they thought of my darker skin. They just looked at me differently. They doubted my potential at every step. They doubted my ability to succeed. And while I have some modicum of success, it has taken a long time for me to celebrate it. My initial years as an actress were spent in self-doubt and low self-worth because of those damaging indirect messages. I've had to learn to validate myself. When someone lets me know they think less of me due to my darker skin color, I know now they are merely victims of self-hate. They can direct their self-hate toward me, but I have news for those perpetrators- their own dark skin isn't going anywhere. I'm glad I'm now mature enough to know that their distorted lens doesn't change or define my truth. My truth is that I love my skin when it gets a darker shade of brown in the hot summer sun. It tells me I'm exploring the world around me, I'm active, I'm healthy and I'm not afraid to experience my body in all its potential.
Its true that media (TV, films, magazines, etc.) has perpetuated the fair-skin bias. Growing up, rarely did I see Bollywood heroines that were darker. Sure Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi existed but they were more for the "parallel cinema" or "art cinema". One could also say that Bollywood perhaps had started to become a bit progressive with casting these women in movies. But I'd argue that in the past 2 decades we've gone backwards on that progress. When was the last time you saw a dark skinned actress in the lead role in a Bollywood film? And if they do exist, they are the exception to the rule. I take my small presence on Indian, Pakistani and Arabic TV as an opportunity to show the audiences that darker can be worthy of leading a storyline in a TV series. If even one young woman finds my presence on TV validating for her own darker skin color, I consider that a real victory for myself.
I have to take a moment to acknowledge that I'm not even that dark. And I don't say that to celebrate how I'm lighter than those who are darker than me. In fact, quite the opposite. My point is, I wish I was darker so I could really drive this point home. There are actresses who are darker than me and they inspire me by their presence in media and by their confidence and self-acceptance in the face of societal skin-color bias.
So, the man who wrote the recent negative comment on my fan page- you can call me names BUT here's what you're really doing to your own loved ones when you call me names. You're telling your mothers, daughters, sisters, aunties, friends, classmates, colleagues, lovers, girlfriends and wives that you don't deserve their love and respect because you are incapable of loving and respecting them if they are not white as snow.
We need to put a stop to this self-inflicting phenomenon. The young men and women in our countries need to be supported in their journeys toward gaining self-worth and self- acceptance so they can realize their full potential as global leaders, artists, musicians, bankers, lawyers, doctors, homemakers, etc. The longer we stay stuck in our colonial hangover, the longer we stay imprisoned within our bodies. Let's put our colonial past fully to rest once and for all. Let's reclaim our skin color and appreciate all our shades without discrimination. Let's not be afraid to say: Dark is Beautiful. Dark is worthy. Dark is powerful.
What YOU can do:
If you've received negative messages based on your skin-color, share with us how it affected you, how you are struggling with it or how you have overcome it. Let's not live in shame! I am listening.