Those of us who grew up in South Asia or within a South Asian community know that skin tone is one of the hallmarks of beauty within our society. The lighter your complexion, the more beautiful you are, and by extension the more beautiful your children will be. Any physical beauty that you may have is automatically excluded if your skin is even a bit dusky. And if your skin is any darker than that, then that so-called physical beauty never existed in the first place.
This desire for light skin is just one of many remnants of the brainwashing done by British colonization. That being said, this does not mean that the mentality was nonexistent previously; the caste system from the Hindus put those who had lighter skin much above those who had darker skin. This was because those belonging to the highest caste (Brahmin, the class of priests) held the highest place in society. They were the purest and most revered, and also logistically this meant that they were far less likely to be doing manual labor or any other type of work which would darken their skin. Consequently, one of the trademarks of a Brahmin was their extremely fair skin tone. In essence, a Brahmin girl was most desirable not just because of her skin tone but also because of her caste and the purity that comes along with it. Meanwhile at the very bottom of the caste system were what are called Dalits (untouchables). These people were (and sadly still are) at the very bottom of society. Being of the lowest caste, they were seen as impure. Many were laborers and had other undesirable jobs such as cleaning toilets and streets; because of this their skin tone was almost always dark and therefore undesirable.Many Dalits and people from other lower castes converted to Islam when the Mughals invaded. However, a change in religion does not equate a change in mentality.
While this mentality that fair skin is more desirable did exist somewhat before the colonization of the British, it was not as significant as it became when the British took over. I do not think this mindset would have persisted and ingrained itself as strongly had we not been colonized. Their rule over us ripped apart the very roots of our identity and trampled upon every ounce of our self-esteem. The British impressed upon us that caste didn’t matter, complexion did and being British did. So no matter what caste or religion you were, you were automatically inferior because your skin was dark. The lighter your skin, the more “British” you looked. The more British you looked, the more attractive you automatically were. They exacerbated ten-fold an already existent racism in our society, throwing gasoline on a small flame which may have otherwise burned out on its own.
In case you haven’t already guessed, I am one of those “unlucky” girls who has a very dark complexion. However, I am not writing this article to give myself validation or consolation; I am genuinely pained when I see the struggles that people who aren’t fair have to endure. And it frustrates me that this mindset has become so embedded within our identities, and that we still have to endure the sense inferiority that should have been eradicated the day the British left us. Like the countless dark-skinned people within our subcontinent, I have my own experience with the prevalence of this attitude. When I was around 15 or 16, I went to visit an extended family member. This individual, with earnest eyes, gave me a small gift bag with a bottle of Fair & Lovely, a popular fairness cream used to lighten one’s complexion, underneath the tissue paper. And as I looked at the bottle later on, I realized I could not be angry with her, nor could I be offended. Because she gave it to me with so much sincerity and with such an innocence that I knew she would never deliberately try and offend me. She grew up in the same society I did, which dictated that dark skin is undesirable, so she felt that this would help me. Her intentions were never malicious, or to degrade me, but to aid me in making myself “better” in the eyes of society. Why would she question the very notion that Fair & Lovely would improve me? She was operating within the context of our mutual culture. It is very difficult for adults to change a mentality that is so deeply rooted within themselves and the culture that they grew up in. The idea that people within our generation are trying to preach, that all shades are beautiful and worthy of respect and that there is nothing flawed in having a dusky complexion, is extremely modern and difficult for people who have been taught the exact opposite to understand. For these reasons, I could not bring myself to feel resentment or offense at the gift she gave me. Instead, all I felt was pity and melancholy at the lack of self-worth that we as a people have for ourselves.
With the exception of the aforementioned incident, I have been lucky enough to not have severe experiences with the inferiority of my skin tone, even though I am extremely dark, as many of my companions and family members have had. I did not grow up with my mother putting white powder to my face to lighten me up, nor was I discouraged from playing outside or being in the sun. I was lucky enough to be raised in a household where my dark skin color was not as emphasized upon, by both my immediate and extended family.
But that didn't mean I wasn't exposed to it at a young age. I regularly saw bottles of Fair & Lovely in the homes of certain friends and family, along with white skin powder, and I regularly saw obvious preference for light skin over the dusky tones, both in my own personal life and even more so in the media. I can’t count the number of dark skinned brides I’ve seen who looked white as chalk on their wedding days because of all the lightening creams and powders that they had on their faces (I remember as a child not even recognizing a few brides on their wedding days because they looked so white and I couldn’t distinguish them from many of the guests). Don’t get me wrong, I know you’re supposed to look beautiful on your wedding day, but shouldn’t you also be able to recognize yourself? Our society regards a dark complexion as a flaw that must be covered up and hidden, much like a scar or blemish.
I was still ingrained with the mentality that my dark skin was at the very least a small hindrance to my overall physical appearance; I knew that the reason people with my skin tone weren't showcased in the media was because it wasn't within the standards of beauty. Despite this, I don't remember feeling inferior or upset by these beauty standards. For the most part, I was indifferent to them because I accepted that was just the way things were. It was nothing personal. But I didn't dwell on the darkness of my skin negatively because I knew that it couldn't be changed. It wasn't something I had any control over.
Our Urdu and Hindi languages have also been manipulated show preference for fair skin as well. A subtlety I have always noticed is that when describing a girl, people often say, “Ladki pyaari hai.” (Translation: The girl is pretty.), using the word “pyaari” as subtly synonymous with “gori” (light). A “pyaari” girl is usually a light girl. The alternative I have heard (when describing a girl) is “Thodi saanwali hai, magar pyaari hai.” (Translation: “She is a little dark, but she is pretty.”). While the literal translation here does somewhat imply that beauty does transcend the color of the skin, the implication here is that the darkness of the girl subtly and slightly diminishes her beauty, as if it is a flaw amongst other strengths and assets she has (both physical and/or in terms of personality)...but yet still a flaw, nonetheless.
As I grew older, I further questioned both the logic and logistics behind this. The logic I did understand for the most part: Lighter = More beautiful. And this came from a combination of being colonized by the British and also because of the caste system amongst Hindus. But logistically it still confuses me. For the mass majority of the 1.7 billion men and women on our Indian subcontinent, our natural skin tone is at least somewhat dark and has been for centuries, with varying shades. Very few people are truly “gori” (light/white) in complexion. So essentially we are saying that only a small percentage of the population is physically desirable and attractive? That despite being the dominant majority in skin tone, we are the unalluring mavericks? That the mass majority of us have a genetic flaw and handicap that can only be remedied by fairness creams and staying out of the sun?
You know how in the west many criticize the media, Hollywood, advertising, and the fashion industry for only promoting a certain type of female? They’re always extremely attractive, size 0, and set the standards for how women should aspire to look like. This is, of course, wrong and must be censured, but at the very least they (to a certain extent) promote people of different shades and complexions (yes, I know that the preference for white models and actresses is still dominant, but it is not as rigid as that within the entertainment and fashion industries in South Asia). Well, I assert that we must actively crack down on our own industries (Bollywood, Lollywood, Tollywood, along with others) and call them out for their unabashed preference for “gori” (light skinned South Asian girl) models and actresses. Truly, I can hardly remember a mainstream actress (besides, perhaps, Nandita Das) who was even a little bit dusky (for those who point out Priyanka Chopra and Bipasha Basu, go back and watch their earlier films and notice how considerably lighter they have become, and even then I wouldn’t have considered them to be dark actresses…at least, not half as dark as most South Asians). To me, this is absolutely absurd since such actresses and models are not only representing a small fraction of what the majority looks like, but also because they are setting beauty standards that only that small fraction could hope to live up to. We have the dominant skin tone, and yet we are still inferior. When I was growing up, I never once saw a famous actress who I could even pretend I wanted to look like. No one even came close to my complexion. If we were talking about Hollywood, that is to be expected, since there is an underrepresentation of minorities there as it is. But in Bollywood? That is both bizarre and disgraceful, since the industry doesn’t represent much of its population at all. Heck, even the ethnic Indian Barbie dolls are fair skinned! I remember wanting to have light skin so that I could at least look like the Indian Barbie doll. It is sad that even our toys reinforce the standards of beauty and the fact that most of us don’t fit the most basic criteria, and that the minority skin tone is automatically superior to all of ours.
Nowadays, in the effort to be politically correct and “progressive”, many people whom I have encountered seldom say that dark-skinned people are less attractive than fair-skinned people. But the inferior mentality is still there, whether they say it or not. They will always show subconscious and subtle preferences for those with fairer skin. Many now take the stance that if you are lucky enough to have fair skin, wonderful! If you are not, then it's alright, all of God’s creatures are beautiful, and whatever complexion he has graced you with, you must be grateful and never speak ill of it. As progressive as it sounds, still it implies that those who have lighter skin were born lucky, while the rest of us who weren’t should feel beautiful on the inside. Some might even say we’re beautiful on the outside just as a consolation prize, and many would tell those with light skin they are lucky but not say so out loud so as not to make those who are dark skinned feel bad about their complexion. What we instead should be promoting is that those with fairer skin are no more lucky or unlucky than those who dusky, that our physical beauty lies not in how little pigment we have in our skin, but in how comfortable we actually are in our own skin.
We have seen many long-term repercussions due to the desirability of fair skin, but they can have even more negative impacts on our youth. To the parents of South Asian youths living abroad in the west: Don’t be surprised or upset when, after years of teaching and showing your sons (and daughters too, of course, but sons in particular) that fair girls are the definition of ideal beauty, your sons are only attracted to Caucasian girls and decide to marry actual “gori” girls (non-South Asians) instead of the Desi (South Asian) girl that you wanted. You’re the ones who have emphasized on the beauty of fair skin along with the undesirability of dark skin, and have constantly promoted the idea of having a “gori bahu” (fair-skinned/white daughter-in-law”, a South Asian girl with light skin) and “gore bache” (fair-skinned children). This goes for girls as well; as parents you stress upon the priority and preference for light skin, and then the dark girls who constantly hear this are surprised and relieved to find “gora” boys (non-South Asian boys, usually Caucasian) who not only find their skin tone beautiful, but don’t see it as a flaw or a defect. Even the fair skinned South Asian girls, who’ve been fawned and praised over their light complexion, are aware of the power and advantages that come with their skin tone. Like the boys, they know that lighter is more attractive. So why would they go for the South Asian boys that you like, when they have the “gora” (Caucasian) boys that you’ve always said were more desirable? Throughout all of these scenarios, you as parents are not only conditioning your children to be more attracted to people with lighter complexions, you’re also (both advertently and inadvertently) steering them away from having attraction to people within their own racial and ethnic identity and community.
Much of this idolization of the colonizer has persisted on many fronts despite the fact that we have been free for 70 years...colonization didn’t just leave economic and political scars, but psychological ones as well, along with an inferiority complex. Our society shows a preference for western clothes, music, and overall culture. English is given higher regard than our native languages. I have observed among urban youth that modern fashion trends have embedded the idea that traditional wear (saris, lehengas, shalwar kameezes, etc.) should be reserved for only “Desi” (South Asian) occassions, like weddings, Diwali, Eid, etc. instead of regular everyday wear. Everyday wear must be jeans, t-shirts, and other western clothing. And even if we say that we still respect our roots, the fact of the matter is that our own culture, traditions, and customs will always come second to those of the west, and this deeply saddens me. Ironically, however, when it comes to our practice of idolizing the colonizers, the beauty standards have not adopted the western desire for darker and more “exotic” looking skin. We haven’t opened up tanning salons or creams or bronzers. Slowly we are losing traditions and culture to westernization, but one of the most dehumanizing mentalities that needs to be lost has still lingered. We still harbor the same self-loathing we’ve had since the day the British left our shores 70 years ago. We are ashamed of our own skin, and are likely to continue this way if we don’t take action against this poisonous narrative.
Thankfully, I am not alone in this frustration with this problem which plagues our society. Slowly, many are coming out and calling out the hypocrisy and racism in our society towards the mass majority of its population: Those who are dark skinned. In 2016, three students from the University Of Texas started a campaign to fight this prejudice using the hashtag #UnfairAndLovely, showcasing confident and beautiful women with dark complexions. Even the entertainment industry has made attempts to be progressive, showing ads with dark actresses and models, but nothing has been mainstream. In March of 2016, renowned social activist Ram Subramanian started a campaign against the fairness cream Fair & Lovely, for crippling us into believing that our dark skin tone makes us inferior beings. His video has over 2.9 million views and counting, showing us that even one person can change this pervasive narrative and make a difference.
We must reclaim our identity and be proud of who we are. We have been dark for centuries, and now in a few short decades we’ve decided that those who aren’t fair are second class citizens and ugly ducklings in need of our pity? If we don’t stand up for ourselves and show that we actually care about ourselves and our dignity, how can we expect anyone else to? We mustn't shy away from what makes up the very fabric of our identity and our legacy.
I am not fair. I never was, and I never will be. Will I face hurdles because of it? Absolutely. But this is a battle that must be fought and won, and we must start healing our wounds and fixing our insecurities that have built up over all these decades, so that no one ever has to see their skin tone as a defect or blemish. I want future generations of dark skinned girls to be able to look in the mirror and smile, something many before them were unable to do. I want them to look upon themselves with pride and dignity.
I want them to reclaim the beauty that was stolen from them, from all of us.
A short poem I that I wrote several weeks ago regarding this issue:
May the darkness of your skin continue to hold a thousand secrets,
as you are mocked.
The empty bottles of Fair & Lovely are strewn on the floor,
cream all over your face.
The dark pigment overpowers it,
seeps into your skin,
and your skin soaks it up
like a thirsty desert.
They call it poison,
a strange name
for your essence.
Break the mirror,
as it only reveals an illusion.
Your color is a deep and dark mystery,
the deeper it goes
the more allure you have.
Your shades captivate the eyes...
your spirit perseveres.
May you be the mother of a thousand suns,
may you bathe in milk....
and may your darkness endure.
Your prosperity lies in your confidence,
your color is warm.
Lie after lie broke you,invaded your soul.
Decades of colonization stole your beauty;
it is time for you to reclaim it.