Akanksha Batra registered herself on a matrimonial website in 2019 only to be objectified within the system of patriarchal conformity. Most men who she ‘matched’ with asked the Delhi-based marketing professional to lose weight. “You have a pretty face, you just need to shed a few pounds” was what she was subjected to, and that’s how Batra’s experiences with her arranged marriage led her to binge-watch the Netflix reality show, ‘Indian Matchmaking’ during the lockdown in 2020, one that created quite a stir for normalising archaic practices prevalent in India’s arranged marriages.
While many called the show ‘regressive’, others praised it for holding up a mirror to society. You could be on either side, but the harsh truth is how even today, the gender bias is painfully obvious in arranged marriages, where women are valued more for their appearance than character.
Take a look at the classified matrimonial ad section, and it is apparent how the system conforms to ruthless ideals of female beauty. A set of words that repeatedly appear to qualify as a prospective bride include ‘fair’, ‘slim’, ‘virgin’, and ‘educated and homely’ , among others.
In theory, the nation might have progressed and become ‘modern’ but the story is quite different in reality. The Indian society perpetuates the belief that women who do not tick all boxes in the ‘perceived beauty checklist’ might not find the ‘right partner’, or could remain single for life.
The glaring gender bias
According to a recent survey conducted by a beauty brand, the pressure to give in to traditional ideals of beauty adversely affects a woman’s self-confidence. Out of 1,057 women who were surveyed for ‘India’s Beauty Test’, 68 percent confessed that rejections based on their appearance had impacted their self-confidence, while 74 percent said they felt immense pressure to look more beautiful during a meeting with a potential suitor.
Arranged marriages in India are more like a ‘market’ today, where women are graded into batches. Once the caste, appearance and height are ‘approved’, all women who fall under that category are instantly labelled as ‘perfect brides’.
In an episode of Indian Matchmaking, Sima Taparia, dubbed as one of India’s top matchmakers says, “Richa has beauty, she has a good smile, she’s tall, slim, trim, educated, from a good family. I can give her, I think, 95 marks out of 100.”
Fortunately, the show also gives its viewers a few strong-willed women like Delhi-based entrepreneur Ankita Bansal who doesn’t adhere to the Indian beauty standard. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want to compromise on having an equal partner — something that resonates with women the world over for speaking up against the process’s constrictive standards.
“Saying that a person is not photogenic but is of a good nature is to condition women to believe the socially acceptable norms of beauty. All of this existed earlier because we were still understanding how to function as human beings. Those cultures were actually forms of discipline that were being introduced to society. But today, as educated and evolved individuals, we don’t need to conform to societal norms like colourism, casteism, and labels like ‘dark’, ‘fair’ or ‘fat’. How does it matter at the end of the day?,” says Bansal to MAKERS India.
Indian obsession with fairness
The deep-rooted obsession with fair skin as the epitome of beauty is inherently linked to social status in Indian culture. Those who are dark-skinned are mistreated and face prejudice, while women with fair skin signify that they belong to a higher caste and well-off family. This cultural bias is apparent even in childhood, when young girls are subjected to inappropriate comments on their skin. Ridiculously, skin colour is not a mandate for men.
In an article titled ‘Colorism as Marriage Capital: Cross-Region Marriage Migration in India and Dark-Skinned Migrant Brides’, author Reena Kukreja writes, “Colorism is foundational to a new form of gendered violence for dark-skinned poor women. Skin fairness emerges as a pivotal marriage capital and diminishes the chances of dark-complexioned poor Dalit (a politically self-aware term for untouchable castes) women to marry in their own communities.”
Skin lightening creams are a billion-dollar business in India. In 2020, FMCG giant Hindustan Unilever (HUL) came under attack for promoting colorism and dropped the name ‘Fair’ from its (in)famous skin-whitening cream ‘Fair and Lovely’. After years of anti-colorism petitions and protests against racial prejudice, HUL had said that it wanted to make its skincare portfolio more “inclusive” and celebrate “a more diverse portrayal of beauty.”
A 22-year-old Chandana Hiran triggered this change by starting a petition on Change.org, demanding that Fair & Lovely change its narrative after years of regressive advertisements and branding.
In an interview to a media publication, Hiran said, “It's absurd how so many girls of my skin colour find almost no representation in popular culture. I find no leading actress of my colour nor any magazines or ads endorsing my skin colour. Even filters on social media platforms and photo editing sites constantly focus on making you look fairer.”
The need for systemic change
Gender discrimination begins in childhood when girls are classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, based on how demure they are and what their interests lie in. A research conducted by a UK charity group a few years ago had revealed that girls as young as seven felt stifled on being unable to speak their mind, or do things freely, based on their gender.
In India, beauty standards are further perpetuated by pop culture and an ever-growing cosmetic industry. Mini Mathur, actor and TV host, feels that women have always been viewed through the male gaze, leading to an intense pressure to look a certain way.
“With Instagram, where everyone is busy projecting an unreal, imaginary version of themselves, it’s become almost dangerous. This damages the self-esteem of those who can’t match up. We need to keep it real, and be more inclusive and less judgemental,” she tells MAKERS India, adding that she makes it a point to keep her social media interactions real and relatable.
Negative body image can have a detrimental effect on mental health, says a new research published by The Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. The findings show that teenagers who are dissatisfied with their bodies are more prone to experiencing depression as adults. The scale tilted more towards women.
Another survey conducted by NIMHANS and the Government of India shows that one in four women suffers from depression, vis-a-vis one in seven men.
It is time for women to stop measuring their value based on their appearance, because our lives go well beyond being worthy of ‘swipe right’.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)