From the turmeric treatments to staying out of the sun, the elder aunties and grandma’s we grew up with may have often advised remedies and tricks to prevent our skin from darkening. They may have made comments such as ‘Aren’t you so fair?’ with a knowing smile and relieved glint in their eye that you will one day win a husband based on your supposed attractive light skin alone. You don’t want to hear the words ‘You’ve gone so dark.’ From your mum, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with it, but your mum’s implication is that you look unclean. Lesser than. Uglier. It was indoctrinated in you that you shouldn’t go past a certain shade of brown in the Dulux paint collection or your worth diminishes.
Fair skin in India and amongst the Indian diaspora at large is often synonymous with beauty, a higher caste, and as being superior. Casteism has always been interlinked with skin colour, as traditionally lower castes would do agricultural or manual work outdoors and therefore be darker due continued sun exposure. This colourism was further fueled under British colonial rule as preferential treatment was given to lighter skinned Indians in the form of education, employment and status. It exacerbates the geographical divide as North Indians are typically lighter than South Indians. This colourism still pervades throughout India and amongst Indian’s in the present day.
Cosmetic companies have capitalized on this concept of lighter being more beautiful, more virtuous and broken the self-esteem of many brown girls in order to perpetuate this myth and become multi-billionaire industries along the way. The most popular of these is the infamous Fair and Lovely brand that sells dreams of being happy, successful, married and liked. It is relatively affordable and markets to predominantly women but men too, with Bollywood royalty giving the brand their blessing, so of course in a country where being lighter and whiter can hold the key to all of your hearts desires, people flock in droves to buy the skin lightening products.
Women (and some men) whiten, lighten, bleach and pray for this lighter skin that will rid them of the stigma that comes with being dark-skinned of ‘wheatish’ as some call it. This colourism has permeated every corner of the globe as women aspire to have a complexion as close to
the skin colour of their former colonial oppressors Snow White as possible, be it Korea, America, China, Ghana or Jamaica. India are simply the biggest consumers of these skin lightening products, in part because of how normalised this prejudice and dark skin stigma has become.
I myself have a light skin privilege. My own grandma has complemented me by calling me fair, not realising she is participating in a notion ingrained into her by white supremacy. I acknowledge I sit in that place, where my name and ethnicity on the disclosure form could potentially be a draw back in England, but my skin colour is associated with beauty within my Indian community (except for those summers where I have been told I have caught the sun ‘too much’). I could choose to relish in the complements that make me feel simultaneously pretty yet uneasy. It’s the latte feeling that wins in making me want to stand up with my fellow females.
These seemingly innocuous complements to fairer skinned individuals and sharp-tongued put downs towards darker skinner people, both uphold colourism and propagate this in their progeny. It will then be internalised as ‘I’m more worthy/attractive because of my shade’ or ‘I’m worthless/less attractive because of my shade’ and neither should have a place in 2020. This societal conditioning has to be reversed and it will only be broken down if we all fight together and have these conversations in our family. It is our grandmothers, aunties, mothers, siblings and friends that we have the power to reach out to, and open their eyes to the beauty of every shade. Whilst it can be easier said than done, simply by starting the conversation can have someone do a double take before they make that biting comment behind someone’s back one day or reduce someone’s value to the colour of their skin.
After all, women have enough superficial problems society makes us feel insecure about and constantly buy a cosmetic ‘fix’ for. Ironically, buying these lightening creams can be damaging for the skin as some of them remove an entire layer of skin, causing itching or burning, others use acid to lighten and others inhibit melanin production. This means money will likely be spent to remedy some of these horrid side effects and further economically disadvantage women. In India, this is likely on top of the promotion they didn’t get, because they are darker skinned. Of course, no one in the office will say anything, because of just how indoctrinated this is in the culture. No one bats an eyelid when the lighter woman receives twice as many marriage proposals than the darker woman because it’s ‘just the way things are’.
It’s an issue that has reduced many females around the world to tears, and burnt holes in many south Asian pockets especially. We could all be buying a beautiful Fenty foundation that suits are skin tone instead of masquerading in a cream that scorches off our skin and a foundation three shades lighter than it should be. Even the introduction of Fenty showed just how behind the beauty industry was as its popularity inspired many other household make up brands to release shades more representative of all women.
Of course things are slowly changing as anti-colourism movements are gaining momentum. The clever social media campaign #UnfairAndLovely invites women around the world to share their beautiful selfies in a bid for them to embrace their darker skin. It has taken off on social media and similar tags have sprouted. As more women gain an education, enter the workforce and unlearn this societal normalisation of ‘white/light is the ideal’ in India, more learn to celebrate their melanin selves, freeing themselves from the shackles of colourism.
In the west, the creators of the #UnfairandLovely campaign (from the University of Texas) noticed many online advocates in the black and brown communities tended to have a higher number of followers if they were lighter skinned, showed how this biased can manifest even if subconsciously. Sharan Dhaliwal, editor-in-chief of the UK based magazine Burnt Roti, had noticed Asian people chose lighter filters but that is something which is now changing. Her publication and website is one of the places enabling and opening up the conversation around issues affecting brown girls, with colourism being one of them. Social media and online publications are allowing people to build supportive communities to elevate and celebrate all skin shades and we can help this to trickle further by sharing these posts, and advocating against colourism in our own communities.