Fair and Lovely — the highly sought after skin lightening cream sold in nearly every store and marketplace I visited as a child in my hometown of Bangalore. I often found myself examining the models featured on every product, positioned in order from lightest to darkest; the fairest-skinned model being the focal point of the image. Commercial breaks advertised the brand religiously, using famous Indian actors and actresses to endorse their products. I didn’t think too much of it then, but those advertisements were extremely transparent in the way they portrayed dark skin as something that needed “fixing.” They almost always depicted dark-skinned women staring at their reflection with resentment, criticizing themselves for not being able to get married or make a name for themselves; but as soon as they used the “magical cream” meant to beautify them, they’d instantly appear more confident and fulfilled.
Growing up, I was always praised for my fair complexion — constantly complimented and envied by middle-aged women who whispered in hushed voices about how I’d “never have a problem getting married someday.” My skin tone, they told me, was “rare” and something to “preserve” and that I should feel “grateful for being born this way.” Even as a child, I thought it odd and uncomfortable that I was treated so differently from my own relatives and friends, whose dark skin was used against them from day one. In the innocence of youth, however, I didn’t realize just how much of an impact these hurtful and demeaning sentiments could actually have.
Colorism, a term coined by American novelist Alice Walker, has been deeply ingrained in South Asian communities for generations. Lighter skin has been equated to a greater standard as something to strive and attain for, while darker skin is degraded and shamed, made out to be some kind of “curse” for those who “are forced to live with it.”
This prejudice against individuals with dark skin tones is prevalent to this day, with origins going back far before Europeans began to colonize the Indian subcontinent.
The caste system, though caste discrimination has been outlawed by the Indian government; still plays a tremendous role in shaping Indian society and the social hierarchy throughout South Asia. The system divides Hindus into different categories based on their status and privilege; granting rights to the upper castes (Brahmin) over the lower castes (Sudras). The wealthy in pre-colonial times were likely to spend more time indoors among their valuable possessions, unlike the less fortunate — the peasants and servants who worked tirelessly under the blazing hot sun. This essentially led to lighter skin being associated with the upper class; a symbol of wealth and prosperity. European colonization and influence, of course, only helped reinforce the idea that lighter skin and “whitewashed features” were more desirable and widely accepted.
Colorism is an issue affecting both men and women, but is definitely more pervasive toward the latter. Teaching young girls society’s idea of “perfection and beauty” and using that to raise them is so disgustingly toxic — spoonfeeding concepts about “risk factors” involved in exposing oneself to the sun or making habits of using skin lightening regiments only leads to widespread discrimination that women are likely to face for the rest of their lives. There’s already so much negativity and sexism thrown at them from day one for simply being a girl, but add the color of their skin to the mix, and they face rejection and discrimination on a much larger scale.
Though most of the South Asian population is dark skinned, film industries and modeling agencies constantly look for the lightest possible person to feature in their work. They’re given starring roles, applauded for their beautiful complexion; while darker skinned models and actors (perhaps those even more talented than their counterparts) are shoved into the background, left with short and meaningless roles. I grew up an avid fan of Bollywood films, but looking back now it is undoubtedly evident that there was a lack of true and honest representation within the casts.
Representation matters — that feeling of belonging and confidence in one’s potential is worth fighting for.
Recently, there’s been an upsurge in campaigns seeking to eradicate the concept of colorism and bring about change for more inclusive societies. Nandita Das, an Indian actress and film director, became an activist for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign against racism in the Indian media after being told to “lighten her skin” if she wanted to play upper-class roles. Though many argue that a mere campaign will not bring about the change she desires, Das says, “Prejudice or conditioning is not a habit; it’s much deeper than that. But we have to be hopeful and optimistic and believe that this can change within a generation.”
Sabyasachi Mukherji, Indian fashion designer from Kolkata, has also gained widespread attention for hiring dark skinned models to pose in his elaborate and intricate designs; previously very uncommon in the modeling agency. More recently, a global campaign against colorism on social media launched by three students from the University of Texas at Austin sought to combat the under-representation of people of color in the media. The campaign, entitled “Unfair and Lovely“, asked dark-skinned South Asians to post their photos online and show that they stood in solidarity with the essential message of the campaign.
Most of the millennial generation seems to have mastered the idea of celebrating diversity, but that does not mean colorism has been completely wiped off the slate. There are still growing stigmas against dark skin within South Asian families, both abroad and in our home countries. I had a conversation with a close friend not too long ago where we shared our concerns about this issue; about how we did not want our children, especially our daughters, to grow up hearing the anti-melanin sentiments we did. Young girls are especially prone to succumb to society’s standards and are more impressionable to the negative and unrealistic expectations forced upon them.
If we’re to see change in the coming generations, it’s our job as future parents or role models to step up and do our part in reminding our children that they are beautiful whether they’re light or dark, that their worth is never determined by what others deem to be ‘perfect’, that it’s okay to be unfair and lovely, and that beauty is never skin deep. We’re not about that life. And we never will be.