Or in this case, the eye of the media who influences beauty norms for not just an entire nation, but the entire world. In my most recent meeting with Geeta, head of Product Management here at Raj Impex, my view of the media’s control and influence over race and gender norms was further reinforced. During our 2 hour chat, we talked not only about other specific details regarding products carried here at Raj but also, what it means to be beautiful. For me to better understand why Indian women are sacrificing their hair, which is synonymous to their beauty, I had to first understand what made an Indian woman “beautiful”, and why her hair is tied to that beauty, since it is sacrificed for Lord Venkateswara after all.
So I will give a brief background on hair tonsuring, and the tiny bit of the legend of Lord Venkateswara that I know–when I say tiny, I mean TINY. Since I am still a little fuzzy on the details myself, I’ll just tell you what I know. You can also check Google or Wikipedia… Just saying… So, I think the story is something like this:
Lord Vishnu aka Lord Venkateswara (he has a lot of names btw, some of them include, Balaji, Govinda, and Srinivasa) got kicked in the face by some other Lord, then Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi (which happens to be the Goddess of wealth, and knowledge) was so embarrassed by this that she left Vishnu and their heavenly home and went to earth. Vishnu was so distraught that Laskhmi left him that he came to earth looking for her, and wound up isolating himself in an ant hill not eating or sleeping, but constantly praying that Lakshmi would return. Two other Gods took pity of Vishnu and came to him in the form of a cow and calf. The cow day after day put her udder in the ant hill for Vishnu to drink and be nourished so he wouldn’t die. One day, the cow herder followed the cow to the anthill because the cow was not producing milk for him. When the herder saw the cow emptying its milk into the ant hill, he was enraged, and took a bow and arrow and tried to shoot the cow. However, before the arrow reached the cow Vishnu rose up out of the anthill to protect the cow, but instead got shot in the head. The herder was so startled and shocked by this scene that he died on the spot. So the rest of the story I am a little shaky on, but all I know is that in the end Venkateswara ends up marrying this other woman because of some obligation, but the Goddess Lakshmi lives in Venkateswara’s heart forever since she and he are soul mates, and that is the end of the story. Again, I know I probably did a horrible job telling the story, but as I said earlier, check Google or Wikipedia to find out more. Don’t worry though, I will outline the rest of the legend when I understand the complete story better.
In the mean time, tonsuring the hair in Hinduism has huge significance. One of the underlying concepts of offering one’s hair is that it is a symbolic offering to the Gods that represents a real sacrifice. Hair is one of the significant bodily signifiers of human beauty. By sacrificing the hair, one is sacrificing one’s beauty, which is possibly one of the most ultimate sacrifices, besides one’s life. As well, by fully shaving one’s head it symbolizes that you are shedding yourself of your past, and ready to start with a new beginning; a clean slate. That is why children also have their heads tonsured at either age 1 or 3 because it is believed that a child must begin life in this world with a clean slate, therefore the hair they are born with comes from a past life, and that spirit can impact negatively their new life. That being said, when both men and women sacrifice their hair, they believe that they will be given the blessing they are asking for because of the proportion of the sacrifice they have made. For Indian women, this is even more significant because one of the two major tenants of her beauty rest on her hair. For an Indian woman to give up her hair signifies that she is asking for a huge blessing, ie the ability to get pregnant, to help a sick child become cured, to grant her family financial security, etc. For the majority of Indian people, the blessing from the Gods comes in proportion to their sacrifice. By “giving up” one’s hair, it humbles people, but it also represents something that everyone can give– their beauty.
Now having clarified why hair is sacrificed, I now turn to what is considered “beauty” for an Indian woman. According to dictionary.com beauty is: n. the quality present in a thing or person that gives intensepleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.) a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).
With a definition like this, to be considered physically beautiful, she must have long straight hair, and be fair skinned.
Yes, that’s right, long straight hair and light skin. Slimness is also considered attractive, but the first two are the most important. When Geeta told me that this is what is considered beautiful, I was semi shocked, but not as surprised as I thought I would be. Geeta, is the color of a fresh cup of coffee and has long, very curly hair. She told me that by Indian standards, she is not considered beautiful, and when looking for a husband, it was very difficult for her to be matched because many potential mates and their families told her that she was too dark for them. Hearing this I could not help but be as surprised by the similarity that skin color and hair texture play in both the Indian community and the Afro-American community here in the United States. In America, I believe there still exists, though not as prevalent as it has been in the past, the mentality that the lighter you are and the straighter/less nappy your hair is, the more beautiful, and “marketable” in the dating and professional world you are. This same philosophy still holds true here in India. I know that in the United States, our history of slavery and subjugation of Black people has influenced and created Black culture today, however I can’t help but wonder why do we still have the mentality that, ” if you’re light, you’re alright, if your black get back” ? Why does it seem that that world values light skin and long hair more than dark skin and nappy hair? Should it matter if your light skinned, high yellow, red bonned or dark skinned, black as night, or considered a Tar Baby? In todays day and age, don’t all shades of brown share the same social and economic opportunities? Shouldn’t they? In the end, we all have at least one drop, and each country used to be a part of Pangea, so aren’t we all Black in a sense? Since that is the case,why is it that people still believe that the more anglo you look the better off you are?
Why has this same mentality gripped the Indian people as well? As I ask myself these questions, I am brought back to my conversation with Geeta and the role the media plays in our every day lives.
When I asked her why she thinks there is this dislike for dark skinned Indian women, she said what I had been thinking, the media. She told me all the adds on the television, in the newspaper, magazines, and on billboards all showcase fair skinned, straight haired women. Even the female news anchors are all light skinned. She said, that she has never in her 30+ years seen a woman like her selling, reporting, or showcasing anything in the media. She said, even the women who are presented with curly hair are artificially curly. She said, show me someone who wake sup out of bed with curly hair that is not frizzy, or who’s ringlets are perfectly curled. the only time she sees darker skinned people in the news is usually when they have done something wrong, or are in trouble with the law; does this sound familiar African-American community? This global conspiracy to black ball Black people has reinforced the notion that dark skinned people are bad, and light skinned people are good. However how and why is the media doing thing? Who is controls the media? Who is in charge? Until people that look like us are running the show, I don’t think there will be any changes to the representation of dark people around the world.
After that conversation, I went back to my second floor cubicle shaking my head. I had no words for the feelings I felt, and could barely string together the thoughts racing through my mind. Maybe this entry is just my way of trying to make sense of an industry that seems superficial, but like a good weave, covers up the truth, or maybe this is a way to inspire open honest conversations about a difficult topic. Whatever it is, it feels good to get this out there.