There is a word in Kutchi, my mother tongue, that confused me as a bilingual child. For the most part, I could translate words and phrases between Kutchi and English. I always got stumped though when I had to pinpoint a definition of ‘rupari’ in English. Because every time someone murmured “Keri rupari ay” (how rupari is she) I knew it was a compliment. However, I also knew they were specifically referring to the woman’s light skin. Rupari was never used to describe someone with dark skin. Nailing down one definition for rupari is difficult because there are two ideas tangled up in this one seemingly innocent word.
Throughout adolescence and early adulthood, I realized that it’s not just the two words in our lexicon that are commingled in rupari – it’s our self-esteem and self-image. It’s our mental health and even our physical well being. India’s obsession with light skin is harming generation after generation. And it has now travelled across the seas to wherever desis have settled.
I recently asked some of my desi friends for words in their languages that would be synonymous to rupari, and I heard: gori (Punjabi), forsha (Bengali) and hoor (Arabic). All of these words literally mean light-skinned, but culturally also mean beautiful. They are said with appreciation and even envy. They are sprinkled throughout match-making ads as bait and thrown in the faces of women with dark skin. “It will be easy for Sunita to find a match. Kitni gori hai.”
As children, we are warned against spending too much time in the sun. Not for fear of melanoma, but for the disgrace of becoming too dark. In my search for personal childhood stories from other desis, I heard things that shattered me inside. One woman recounted being slathered in lightening cream by a ‘helpful aunty’ while taking a nap when she was a child. She woke up because the cream was burning her skin.
There are many explanations for why this obsession exists – everything from India’s caste system to colonialism – but we need to focus on where we go from here. Whether it’s a born and bred Indian ideal or something imposed on us by ‘foreigners’, it’s perpetuated today by the local Indian grocery store in my Canadian neighbourhood. How does India’s obsession with light skin show itself here in Canada? By the bleaching creams lining shelves that my children are forced to look at when we stand in line to buy sabzi.
How do we get those products, chock-full of steroids and cancer-causing poison, off the shelves? By getting the idea of ‘white is beautiful’ out of our minds. A social movement to uplift dark skinned women and bring awareness to the cruelty of lightening creams is growing. Finally we see hashtags like #unfairandlovely thumbing the nose at brands like Fair and Lovely.
Women are also speaking up through art, like this spoken word poem by Aranya Johar titled “A Brown Girl’s Guide to Beauty”
Johar’s voice, and the voices of those who join her, is competing with something so entrenched in our culture that even our languages hold evidence of the bias and prejudice. I will admit that this is not just an Indian cross to bear. Even Snow White was the ‘fairest’ or most beautiful in the land because of her skin as white as snow. ‘Fair’ in English has its own double association of light and pretty. However, our preoccupation is made particularly dangerous by the extreme measures women, and men (hello, Fair and Handsome) take to achieve it.
So what can we do?
I’m adding my voice to the movement and I encourage you to do the same. India’s obsession with light skin is not fair – please tell anyone who will listen.