The Fairest Of Them All

And now learn ye by these words to distinguish from one another the four orders of woman-kind.

She in whom the following signs and symptoms appear, is called Padmini, or Lotus-woman. Her face is pleasing as the full moon; her body, well clothed with flesh, is soft as the Shirasor mustard-flower; her skin is fine, tender and fair as the yellow lotus, never dark-coloured, though resembling, in the effervescence and purple light of her youth, the cloud about to burst. Her eyes are bright and beautiful as the orbs of the fawn, well-cut, and with reddish corners. Her bosom is hard, full and high; her neck is goodly shaped as the conch-shell, so delicate that the saliva can be seen through it; her nose is straight and lovely, and three folds of wrinkles cross her middle, about the umbilical region. Her Yoni 3 resembles the open lotus-bud, and her Love-seed (Kama-salila, the water of life) 4 is perfumed like the lily which has newly burst. She walks with swanlike gait, and her voice is low and musical as the note of the Kokila-bird ; she delights in white raiment, in fine jewels, and in rich dresses. She eats little, sleeps lightly and, being as respectable and religious as she is clever and courteous she is ever anxious to worship the gods, and to enjoy the conversation of Brahmans. Such, then, is the Padmini, or Lotus-woman.

-The Ananga Ranga by Kaylan Mall written circa 16th Century, translated by Sir Richard Burton in 1885

“I don’t like myself tan, its nice on some people but with my complexion it just looks dirty” she says. With her long dark hair and, yes, quite fair, olive-toned skin striking features and elegant fashion sense, the stunning woman in front of me is a Bombay bombshell, poised, successful, talented and intelligent. She’s worldly and cultured, articulate and modern. And she’s telling me she prefers fair skin to dark.

The conversation started, as so many do, with Priyanka Chopra. People I meet here are quite surprised and often incredulous to learn that Bollywood stars, despite their deity-like status in Indian society, are virtually unknown in the United States among a lot of the American public, specifically the non-Indian portion. Chopra, a superstar here in India, was virtually unknown before her recent US network debut in NBC’s Quantico (which, PS, I watch, both because I think Chopra is talented and want to support her, as clearly it’s my viewership that is keeping that thing alive, and because I’m a sucker for a conspiracy procedural). Chopra has done over 50 films (I learned this by counting them up on Wikipedia, solid research standards here), walked in countless fashion shows, and even won Miss World one time (like literally every other Indian actress, I swear, they have that market cornered), but in the United States she is a breakout star. Welcome to the West, Priyanka. Hope you stay a while.

Now, Priyanka Chopra is, in my personal totally subjective opinion and the opinions of many 15-year-old Indian boys, straight up gorgeous. Check her out in Quantico, where her giant magnificent hair is, much like that of Regina George, full of secrets.

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Look at it. You could hide a bird in there. It’s like a horse’s mane. It’s magnificent.

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Her no-nonsense ponytail is no match for her hair, which rises, like Venus, from the sea. Chopra looks sad here, presumably because she feels bad that her hair is so wonderful, and the hair of so many others, so not.

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Even in the ruins of Grand Central Station, about to be accused of terrorism, the Hair of the Chopra is not daunted. It’s come to far, it knows too much. And frankly, who among us HASN’T thought about blowing up Grand Central Station once or twice? Although, seriously, I’d hit Times Square first.

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One fun thing about Quantico is that Chopra plays an FBI agent accused of a terrorist act and she’s on the run from the law and we are supposed to believe that she can be easily disguised by, like, a hat, and later, a hoodie, like, HAVE YOU SEEN THIS WOMAN? Her hair flows like lava, into a sea of excellence. You cannot hide the Chopra. You can only marvel at it.

So yes, Priyanka Chopra is gorgeous. But here is the thing, the way she looks now is not the way she always looked. And honestly? I liked her better before. But I can see, being here, why Bollywood didn’t. But it gives me sort of a sick feeling, knowing why.

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Do you recognize the woman on the right of the photo? If you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you. That is, in fact, Chopra. There is a ton of speculation that Chopra has had plastic surgery, at the very least, a nose job. Putting aside the fact that this woman was a beauty queen before she began her acting career and yet, apparently, the face that won her MISS WORLD wasn’t good enough and had to be altered, there is another big difference between 2007 Chopra and 2011 Chopra, featured below:

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Thoughts? Anyone? I know. It’s subtle. It’s only her entire skin tone, nothing major, right?

Also, her hair is short, but still magnificent. Girl has got follicle fierceness, am I right?

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Here is Chopra in 2015, somewhere between where she was in 2007 and 2011. But still on the lighter end of the spectrum.

Now of course, skin color changes, with sun, with season, with life, and there is an element of that possible here. But the Bombay bombshell I mentioned earlier informed me matter of factly when discussing Chopra’s current color in Quantico, that “she’s painted. Down to her fingernails.”

“They’ve painted her white?” I asked, horrified and amazed.

“No, not white. Fair. A little pink, the undertones. She looks better this way.”

When I ventured the opinion that I actually liked Chopra better before, my friend stated shaking her head. “On some people it looks good, when they get orange, they look good. But when I tan I’m brown, and it’s so ugly.”

I mildly mentioned that I get brown when I tan. She shook her head. “I’m sure that looks good on you.” she smiled. She wasn’t being condescending or trite. She knows that in the US we are proud believers that tanner is better, despite all the skin cancer we have to show for it. Fair and Lovely, the leading skin whitener cream, has mercury in it, though, so either way you want to go, you can rest assured you are welcome to die for beauty.

I am no stranger to this rhetoric. It’s a conversation that we have all the time in the States, the issues of skin tone and beauty writ large over our stars and public figures of color. We extend the conversation to hair, as well. Among a million other things, a read of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah or Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would each open a door to this world of hair and it’s implications in American racial identity. My father, a Puerto Rican kid growing up in the East Village in the 1950’s, used to soak his hair in lye to straighten it in efforts to look more like his white contemporaries. When I was in high school straightening your hair was de rigour, and my mother used to find it appalling, wondering out loud if everyone was so unhappy to be Jewish that they straightened their semitic curls.

What I am a stranger to is the directness with which Indians, or at least the Indians I’ve met, say these things. The way it is an accepted back that fairer is better, and opinions of the opposite are politely responded to as if you were saying “I really love the smell of garbage” or “I’m a big fan of mass murder”. Some might argue that it’s more honest, being so direct about this, but I would say that what it speaks to is a kind of complacency, a social agreement that fairer is usually better, and while there are exceptions, they are few and fair between. It is not a combative mentality; Indians I meet acknowledge that they know in other places they value darker skin and tanning, they cheerfully nod along with my blatant statements that I myself have always wanted to be darker than I am, but when it comes to Indians, there is one way and one way alone. Alternatives are for other people. Darkness is for other people.

It doesn’t matter where you go, in fact, here. Although the peoples of the North are generally believed to be paler, possibly because of their mixing with Arab raiders and Persian nobles, there is paleness in the South, too, and while the general mass of complexions might be on average darker, it doesn’t mean that the value system is different. In fact, Tamil and other South Indian film industries frequently import Punjabi actresses and dub their voices to the local language, preferring their fair complexions to the domestic options. Nor are pale parents a recipe for paler children. The consequences of colonialism from a variety of invaders have resulted in a genetic lottery in which there are clear winners and losers. Just read this article from Rumnique Nannar, which Mr. India couldn’t make his way through, so close to home did it hit. You can be a lily-white lady from Kerala or a dusky darling from Delhi, but only one of them will help you on the marriage mart.

Bollywood stars are all different, but if you watch their careers, they do tend to undergo a bleaching process. I can’t fault them for it. This is their job, their career, they want to work, this is the consequence of it. But it’s a little different when someone you are hanging out with tells you they, too, prefer paleness, or when your mother-in-law mentions offhandedly that she needs to bleach her (gorgeous just the way it is) face for an upcoming event so she can, and I quote, look beautiful. And it’s not just pale people want, it’s pink. Check out the array of beauty products I found while browsing for toothpaste in a store in my neighborhood:

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Not just fairness, but pinkish fairness that lasts 3X longer (than…what?)

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Swiss Magic? Free! Feeling bad about your skin tone? Priceless.

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The history of beauty standards in India are long and rich, and this is an interesting paper on the subject, if you are interested. In the words of the poet Mall, as quoted from his erotic handbook the Anganga Ranga, above when describing the ideal woman “Her face is pleasing as the full moon; her body, well clothed with flesh, is soft as the Shirasor mustard-flower; her skin is fine, tender and fair as the yellow lotus, never dark-coloured, though resembling, in the effervescence and purple light of her youth, the cloud about to burst.” That’s a pretty tall order there, Mall. I had no idea that my youth was full of purple light, nor do I know if I’m cloudy or not, let alone close to bursting. But I do know that here, I’m on the fair side of the spectrum, and other people consider that a good thing. It’s just a shame, really, that I don’t.

I asked my mother-in-law jokingly after a trip to San Juan, in which I had, with a responsible amount of sunscreen on, still managed to acquire the kind of brown glaze I so crave, if I was ugly to her now, because I was tanner. She looked at me seriously and told me no, because no matter how tan I was, I could never be as brown as an Indian. Since I’ve been here, though, I’m met many people with paler skin than my own. The Bombay bombshell, in fact, either through cosmetics or genetics, is, to my eye, far fairer. But it doesn’t matter. Fair, it seems, is a state of mind.

When he describes the non-ideal woman in the Anganga Ranga,  Mall remarks on her thusly:

The Hastini is short of stature; she has a stout, coarse body, and her skin, if fair, is of a dead white; her hair is tawny, her lips are large; her voice is harsh, choked, and throaty (voix de gorge) and her neck is bent. Her gait is slow, and she walks in a slouching manner; often the toes of one foot are crooked. Her Kama-salila has the savour of the juice which flows in the spring from the elephant’s temples. She is tardy in the Art of Love, and can be satisfied only by prolonged congress, in fact, the longer the better, but it will never suffice her. She is gluttonous, shameless, and irascible. Such is the Hastini, or elephant-woman.

I don’t know, though. She kind of seems like my kind of lady. Why does a man from three centuries ago, or an outdated exclusive beauty standard that feels arbitrary and irrelevant at best get to dictate how people look? Wasn’t Chopra beautiful from the beginning? So for me, I don’t think fairer is better. The comparative adjective implies that you could always be more. What’s wrong with as is?

Gluttonous, shameless and irascible? Sign me up.

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