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Shahrukh Khan (SRK) is arguably the Indian film industry’s biggest global star and commercial brand ambassador. In one early advertisement, he strikes a match from a dark-skinned kid’s face to show just how abhorrent it is as a trait. In another ad, ostensibly more humorous, SRK disses a group of traditional Northern Indian wrestlers for wearing skirts and make-up. The star chides them for using the feminine product instead of (converting to) the newly available male version (i.e. re-packaged in gray rather than pink). The product? The skin bleach Fair and Handsome. In both ads, the transformed, ‘fairer’ skinned consumer is pummeled with young girls virtually appearing from nowhere.
This follows the typical consumerist trope: The product makes users more popular and sexually appealing. Yet, things got worse. Clean and Dry’s ‘intimate’ bleaching shower gel for women (C&D). Yes, you read right: A bleaching shower gel aimed at lightening brown women’s crotches. There’s no male equivalent, save for a well-circulated spoof called Gore Gote: India’s #1 Testicular Fairness Cream (Mukherjee). In the initial shot of the C&D advertisement, a pouty-mouthed (fair-skinned) woman is ignored by her (fair-skinned) husband in their (upper-middle-class) apartment. Naturally, it seems, she bleaches her labia with C&D. After displaying the product’s virtues, the husband literally chases the wife around the fancy flat as she playfully dangles (his) keys. Her secret to happiness: A newly bleached intimate area. Is this a proxy for a white woman’s vagina?
What’s wrong with consumerism? The marketplace will not save you. As a Black person interested in self-love, it is clear that the market is murderous. There, the fetish of blackness is made widely available, as if one could bottle stereotypical ‘coolness’ and sell it to the youth in Asia, one of the largest consumer groups in the world. Fashion shops targeting youth regularly plaster posters of Bob Marley or Hip-Hop thugs to peddle goods to youth. Yet, standing in the rotunda of this mall, one could see shops of every major western cosmetics brand, including Clinique, Mac, Estée Lauder. Here in Asia, the flagship product in each shop is skin bleach! Black is cool, but white is power. Ironically, at the time I was modeling for a campaign in Vogue and Elle Décor in India, yet none of the make-up artists carried my mocha shade (shady, right).
The skin bleach industry is by far the most virulent of all consumer products – even fast food. The bulk of this industry is meted out on the bodies of women…and girls who learn early that fate of darkness (just check out any Indian Matrimonials page). According to an August 2019 article in Vogue: “Per a recent World Health Organization report (WHO), half of the population in Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines uses some kind of skin lightening treatment. And it’s even higher in India (60%) and African countries, such as Nigeria (77%).” After a 7 minutes instrumental intro to his 1976 hit, Yellow Fever, Fela Kuti chants: “Who steal your bleaching?/Your precious bleaching?…/Your face go yellow/Your yansh go show/Your mustache go show/Your skin go scatter/You go die o.”
It’s lethal, often a mercurous poison used to kill the soul. It is a fetishization of whiteness, that reveals the “internalization of the coloniser’s inferiorisation of dark skin as native and Other” (Thapan: 73). It’s euthanasia. Skin bleachers are painlessly killing themselves, willingly participating in their own annihilation. Not only does it quite literally murder the melanin in one’s skin, it symbolically kills one’s ‘dark and native’ self, giving birth to a new and improved modern identity. It requires constant application and reflects a consumerist’s self-regulation. Bleach is expensive, despite the industry’s ‘bottom of the pyramid’ approach to the marketing 4P’s – bleach sold in cheap tiny packages for the poor. Skin bleach is a form of mimesis, to actually embody modernity through crafting the ‘cultivated, developed and perfected’ self (Thapan: 70).
When I began teaching at UoN, I was asked to propose topics for business ethics modules, which were then optional. Hesitantly, I suggested skin bleach and hair weaves. Looking at the composition of the student body, this would be as familiar to them, as the products were locally available (see picture below taken in an ‘ethnic’ hair shop on Northampton’s high street). Several students have subsequently pursed these subjects in their dissertations. I was sad to learn that in colloquial Somali, ‘fair skin’ is a moniker for pretty, just as we western Blacks use ‘light skin and long hair’. Colourism makes dark-skinned people unsafe in our own homes.
I was pleasantly surprised at the support from the module leader, an older, straight white man. He said he knew little about the politics of black and brown skin and hair, yet listened with great interest and did his own research into the matter. What’s more, he stood by me both literally and figuratively. He was there when I was called to account for some negative student feedback such as “I’m a guy, I don’t wear make-up,” when asked to consider the differential impact of beauty standards on the psyches and earnings of women in business. He stood by me when I’d dropped the F-word (feminism) into the curriculum. This was before the Gender Pay Gap became more widely known or theBritish government required audits from large organisations. He is an ally. He stood by me in ways that may have been riskier for individuals outside the circles of normative power of gender, race and class. Talk about a way to use one’s privilege!
Kuti, F. (1976). Yellow Fever. [LP] Decca 8 Track Studios. Available at: https://genius.com/Fela-kuti-and-africa-70-yellow-fever-annotated [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].
Mukherjee, R., Banet-Weiser, S. and Gray, H. (2019). Racism Postrace. Durham, N.C.
Thapan, M. (2009). Living the Body: Embodiment, Womanhood and Identity in Contemporary India. New Delhi: SAGE.
Jessica is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.
Unlike the episode from Family Guy, which sees the main character Peter Griffin present a segment on the Quahog news regarding perhaps ‘trivial’ issues which really grind his gears, I would hope that what grinds my gears is also irritating and frustrating for others.
What really grinds my gears is the portrayal of women without children being pitied in the media. Take a recent example of Jennifer Aniston who has (relatively recently) split from her partner. The coverage appears to be (and this is just my interpretation) very pitiful around how Jennifer does not have any children; and this is a shame. Is it? Has anyone bothered to ask Jennifer if she feels this is a shame? Is this something Jennifer feels is missing from her life? Who knows: It might be the case. But the issue that I have, and ultimately what really grinds my gears, is this assumption that as a woman you are expected to want and to eventually have children.
There are lots of arguments around how society is making progress (I’ll leave it amongst yourselves to argue if this is accurate or not, and if so to what extent), however is it in this context? If women are still pressured by the media, family and friends to conform to the gendered stereotype of women as mothers, has society made progress? I am not for one minute saying that women shouldn’t be mothers, or that all women should be mothers; what I am annoyed about is this apparent assumption that all women want to be mothers and more harmful, the ignorant assumption that all women can be mothers.
It really grinds my gears that it still appears to be the case that women are not ‘doing gender’ correctly if they are not mothers, or if they do not want to be mothers. Families and friends seem to assume that having a family is what everyone wants and strives to achieve, therefore not doing this results in some form of failure. How is this fair? The human body is complex (not that I have any real knowledge in this area), imagine the impact you are having on women assuming they want and will have a family, if biologically, and potentially financially, having one is difficult for them to do? Is it not rude that you are assuming that women want children because their biology allows them the potential to have them?
In answer to the last question: Yes! I think it is rude, wrong and ultimately irritating that it is assumed that all women want children and them not having them somehow means their life has missed something. As with all lifestyle choices and decisions, not every lifestyle is for everyone. Therefore I would greatly appreciate it if society acknowledged that women not wanting or having children does not mean that they have accomplished less in life in comparison to those who have children, it just means they have made different choices and walked different paths.
For me, this just highlights how far we still have to go to eradicate gender stereotypes; that is, if we even can?
For my blog this week I thought I’d follow up on @charlottejdann’s blog on tattoos and add some personal experiences to the discussion. The media certainly have had their part to play in the negative connotations surrounding tattoos and the types of people with them, however I question the extent to which the media influence those perceptions today. Based purely on my own experience and opinion I believe that tattoos have become relatively common and as we saw in Charlotte’s blog the rise in tattoo studios would certainly seem to support this assumption. In fact, I think a process of normalisation has occurred whereby it is more surprising when someone hasn’t got a tattoo than when they have. Furthermore, the negative connotations and ‘expressed shock’ at the increase in tattooing is, in my humble opinion, typically associated to those of the older, more traditional generation for whom tattooing was a symbol of deviance, rebellion and/or disrepute.
I got my first tattoo when I was just 14; a small black panther discreetly placed on my thigh. My choice of phrase here is not accidental, being just 14 and below the age of legal consent the placement of this tattoo had to be discrete to hide it from my mother. The intentional law breaking and deception of this act would certainly look like deviance to an outside observer. Since then I added two more tattoos to my collection and have another one planned for the near future. Reflecting on this notion of deviance and my own motivation I arrive at a number of conclusions. My first tattoo was, without doubt, an act of rebellion against the expectations placed upon me by family and peers to be a ‘good girl’ and a ‘high achiever’. I don’t in any way regret that tattoo but I can recognise the reason for getting it. My second tattoo was more daringly placed on my upper arm and in hindsight was not thought through or carefully picked but at the same time it was not an act of rebellion. Those of you with tattoos may understand when I say that getting tattoos is like an addiction, you either love them or hate them but once you’ve got one, you want more. It was this ‘addiction’ so to speak that led to my second tattoo. My third tattoo which covers my foot and spreads up my ankle, symbolises the changing direction of my life after the birth of my first child and is by far my favourite to date. In short, the meaning or motivation for each tattoo has shifted over time reflecting my growth as a person and my life experiences.
At the point of my third tattoo I’d entered the world of academia and was establishing my professional identity; an identity that was in some ways at odds with my tattooed body. Wearing a professional suit and heels with a tattoo on my foot and ankle certainly led to some raised eyebrows and disapproving looks from older colleagues. This reaction was nothing compared to the openly disapproving judgements I later encountered from fellow magistrates; not only was I young to be a magistrate but I was also tattooed and had the audacity to display them in court! Linking this reaction back to my earlier statement about deviance, rebellion and disrepute, the simplest thing would be for me to wear a trouser suit in court and hide my tattoos, in essence, conforming to societies expectations of that position. However, my reasons for not doing so are twofold, firstly I am a bit of rebel at heart and secondly, I do not see my tattoos as an act of deviance but one of self-expression. In all other areas of life, I conform to the norms and values of society, I have a career and present myself as a professional, I’m trying to raise my children to be good law-abiding citizens, I pay my bills on time, I put out my rubbish when asked and I try to treat others with compassion and respect. In short, I’ve joined the collective, blended into society and accepted the expectations of me as a woman, a mother, a daughter and so forth. My tattoos therefore are a reflection of self-expression, my little rebellious side that says, “I’m more than one of the collective, I’m an individual”. Each tattoo reflects my journey, where I have come from, what I have experienced, who I am and where I am going. They tell the reader that I am more than just a number, I am an individual embracing self-expression through body art because to me tattoos are not just ink, they are pieces of art symbolising your life journey. For this reason, I agree with Charlotte’s argument that tattooed people cannot be stereotyped as a homogeneous group because tattoos by their very nature make us unique individuals.
Charlotte Dann is a psychology lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Society, researching women’s tattooed bodies. You can find out more and get in touch via Twitter – @CharlotteJD
Whenever I discuss my tattoo research, I always frame it historically, because I think it’s important to consider how we have come to the point we are at with how tattoos are perceived and understood. And you know, it’s good for a laugh.
In the late 1800s, Lombroso researched deviancy and criminality, and as part of this, came to the conclusion that people who had tattoos were criminals and prostitutes. However, this research was conducted on – you guessed it – criminals and prostitutes. Despite the poor correlation that was presented, his research was influential in how we perceive deviancy and deviant bodies, to the point that those negative connotations towards tattooed bodies still ring true today. Tattoos may be ever rising in popularity (figures indicated one in five has a tattoo, and the number of studios rose by around 170% in the last decade in the UK), but tattooed bodies can still be found to be associated with deviancy.
Let’s consider the influence of the media in this. Over the past few years, there has been a flurry of articles that express shock for the fact that ‘normal’ people are getting tattoos, and why tattoos are becoming more popular for women. It only takes a quick gander at the comments left on these articles to see that public opinion hasn’t changed that much, and that these articles perpetuate negative perceptions about tattoos (i.e. they’re not meant for ‘normal’ people). Newspaper articles such as this often make reference to the ‘normal’ people who are now adorning their bodies – normal being white, middle-class, ‘respectable’ people. The narrative of such newspaper articles often seems to rely on a discourse that positions tattooing as the proper domain of ‘the other’, associated with deviant, problematised, and generally male bodies. Newspaper articles often reflect a certain moral panic about the rise of tattoos among so called ‘normal’ people, whilst at the same time, normalise the practice of tattooing itself.
The media does not do a good job in quelling negative connotations regarding tattooed people, as they tend to focus more on the extremes – the eye-catching headlines, the things that make you wince and tut, not the everyday person who is tattooed. In recent years, newspapers have reported on tattooed teachers as being ‘inappropriate’ for children, on young adults who get cheap ‘joke’ tattoos on holidays in Magaluf, and present morality tales such as those who regret their tattoo choices. In addition, they also frame our understandings of ‘who’ this ‘normal’ tattooed person is (look – even Samantha Cameron and David Dimbleby have them!)
I think what we need to do is question the idea of what a ‘normal’ body is, and really think about the assumptions we make about that body based on frankly outdated perceptions. There is no longer one particular type of person who is tattooed – the availability and accessibility of tattoo studios, designs, and techniques, has meant that you cannot stereotype all tattooed people as one homogenous group.