The moment we turn on our television, we see advertisements playing: “Fair skin…guaranteed in two weeks.” “Get whitening beauty”… “Try the new fairness beauty treatment”, and so on. You switch the channel and you see an advertisement of a clothing line, or a bank, or soup – or anything you choose – you will see starlets flaunting fair, ‘perfect’, blemish-free skin. You are repeatedly told: if you want to be successful, you’ve got to be beautiful. But, what is being beautiful?
We posed the same question for our ninth standard girls, in their Leadership lessons. The answers we got were not surprising – fair and smooth skin, long brown hair, light eyes, pink lips, pretty smile, petite frame. This is what our students aspire to be – beautiful – which only means to have a lighter skin tone. This is something which is unattainable for most of our students since most of the people born in a country like India, have darker skin tones. Our students are constantly told that they don’t look good enough. The kinder people will say – “Looks don’t matter. What matters is what is inside you.” But this is problematic as well. As a result, our students grow up hating their skin colour; believing that they don’t deserve to be called beautiful, being made to feel shameful about the way they look. What message are we sending by saying this? Are we telling each other that it’s OK for us to accept that we are not beautiful? Are we telling each other that we should focus on our inner selves because we are not good-looking on the outside? But who decided that we are not beautiful? Who decides what beauty is, anyway?
To grapple this complex concept of beauty, we started with talking about a difficult topic. We talked about our outer appearance – a topic which, in my opinion, a lot of people avoid talking about. The students were reluctant to talk about this as well as it is a sensitive issue.
To make it easier to talk about, we started with an activity of looking closely at ourselves. The girls were asked to bring mirrors and look closely at themselves to start creating self-portraits. Almost all girls found it difficult to do it at first. However, with a lot of push and encouragement, they started creating their self-portraits. The next challenge was to colour the portraits. The first instinct was to look for “skin colour” (light brown) in the colour palette they had. Unfortunately, the colours that were provided to them did not have that colour. The girls had to create the shade of brown to match their skin tone. Some girls were fascinated by discovering that their skin tone was actually darker than the “skin colour” they had been looking for, and was complex to create with just red and blue; some found it frustrating and disappointing to accept that they had to colour their portrait with a dark shade of brown. Nonetheless, the girls managed to complete their portraits and put it up for display for their peers. They realised that despite ‘spoiling’ their portraits by using darker shades, the other students appreciated their skills. The girls gave critical feedback to each other on their art and wrote messages about the new things they noticed about their own, and their peers’ physical appearances.
The following week, they became much more comfortable with discussing skin colour. They were asked to observe the illustrations closely in children’s literature and give their opinion about how the characters were drawn. They had to look closely at the physical features given to the characters, and if they thought if there was anything that was missing. They shared that their observations with everyone about how dark skinned main characters were missing in most of the illustrations. They also observed that darker skin shades and exaggerated facial features were used to show ‘evil’ characters.
This week, they looked critically in media’s representation of the concept of beauty. The physical features of the most popular actors from Bollywood and Tamil cinema were observed. They also saw around ten contemporary popular advertisements being shown on TV, from HDFC’s life insurance ads to Knorr’s soups ads. It was, again, undoubtedly, observed that ALL these directors and producers preferred to take models who had a fairer skin, even to show people of darker skin colour! People who are differently abled were completely missing from anything that was shown in popular media. Reading about some of the experiences of popular Bollywood actors, who faced discrimination in the film industry, made the girls realise that they are not the only victims of this bias.
To dig some of the roots of these problems, they learnt about the idea of ‘White Man’s Burden’ which was used by the colonizers to justify imperialism and slavery in other countries. Using this idea and the concept of Social Darwinism, the colonizers were able to convince the people in Europe that their race was superior to the other races. They made them believe that it was needed for the white man to ‘civilize’ the non-white humans, as they were closer to wild animals.
This week’s lesson ended with the girls concluding that since the advent of ‘fairness’ products to ‘clean’ the ‘dirty’ darker skin, nothing much has changed in how we look at our skin colours. The Indian advertisements of fairness beauty products are still the same as the advertisements of fairness products from different countries in the 50s.
We ended the lesson by discussing the message being given by the ‘Dark is beautiful campaign’. However, we are yet to conclude this series of lessons by reading poetry on this topic written by some famous poets, followed by a reflection about what we have learnt in these few weeks about beauty.
These lessons are an attempt to make our students feel proud about their identity when they stand on their feet in a world which will constantly tell them that they should feel ashamed of who they are, and should rather aim to become someone who they are not. This is also an attempt to make our students start looking critically at everything around them which influences their ideas and behaviour. We only hope that they grow up to become leaders who make choices towards creating a world which aims to provide justice to all.
(These series of lessons have been adapted from the lessons posted on tolerance.org. If you wish to see the original lessons, follow this link: http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/different-colors-beauty)