How many times have you been mesmerised by the beauty of the ravishing Bollywood celebrities while watching a movie? Almost every single time? How many times have you seen your favourite Bollywood actor promote skin whitening products and immediately felt insecure about your own appearance? Far too many times.
It is an age-old vice in our Indian culture to judge and measure the beauty of our fellow members of society on the basis of how light their skin tone is. People with fairer skin are put on the pedestal and are hailed as the pinnacle of beauty standards. It all started back in the time when India was one of the foremost important colonies of the British. The British had a great tact for making our countrymen feel like they were meant to be governed by this foreign power. They fuelled the roots of a strong inferiority complex in dark skin Indians by favouring the lighter skin Indians. The colonialists coached the natives to remember that any skin tone that is darker than those that most resemble their Caucasian skin tone, is low-grade and inferior. As the attitude of adhering to the foreign powers has subsided over time, looking up to that set beauty standard has not come to an end. This discrimination based on the belief that fair skin is the "better" or "preferable" skin tone, has continued through the ages and has had far-reaching consequences.
Colourism, also called shadeism, can be defined as discrimination based on skin colour. It is a bias against darker skin tones. It is a kind of discrimination against members belonging to the same race but are treated differently based on the social implications which are attached to skin colour. Colourism has spread like an infection throughout India and South Asian countries. Most people residing in these parts of the world are conditioned to believe that lighter skin is the worthier skin tone, whereas almost all of these people belong to the races that are genetically brown-skinned. We always hear older women of the family suggesting methods to the youth to 'improvise' their skin colour if they have darker skin. The fair-skinned members of the family are always praised for their colour as though it is an achievement of some sort. It all begins from a young age where the fair skin is constantly complimented and dark skin treated as though it desperately needs refinement.
This element of our culture is thus passed down through generations, without ever being revolted. Each one of us are accustomed to looking at fair skin as the ultimate virtue one can possess, without realising the true nature of the ‘brown’ skin we are born with. The consequences of such a belief system affect all the darker, brown skin-toned members of the society, especially in women. The illogical prejudices that lead to a dark skinned actress losing roles in a film because she is ‘too black’ and how they only accepting fair skinned celebrities as potential glamour symbols is discussed in a BBC article. This preference for lighter skin invariably causes a low self esteem and a lack of confidence in them, believing that they must do something to be accepted as attractive individuals. Brown-skinned women are seen to have trouble getting jobs and opportunities in mostly fields such as film, beauty and the fashion industry. Bipasha Basu recently opened up about when she started off as an actor, she was known as the only ‘unconventional’ heroine due to her skin colour. If they are given the chance, their videos and photographs captured are edited beyond recognition. In a recent New York Times article, the experiences of a dark skin tonned Indian woman were discussed to reflect how colourism in India is highly influenced by the altered media content. Topnotch actresses like Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra are seen to have a lighter skin shade specifically in Bollywood movies, unlike how they appear true to their colour in their respective Hollywood movies. As a result, almost all actresses we see on the silver screen in India are seen to have a ‘flawless’ fair complexion. The skin tone of these heroes and heroines is altered to be lighter, or is "whitewashed" and to make it look more desirable. This casts an impression on the audience to accept only fair skin as glamorous.
Dark skinned folks are often treated as though they are 'dirty' or 'unhygienic' by the narrow minded folk, which is highly offensive and inhumane. As far as arranged marriage proposals are concerned, women having dark skin are particularly insulted for not being 'deserving enough' to even be counted. The matrimonial advertisements or online matrimonial sites are often seen with copies requesting 'only fair skin-toned women' to apply. The commodification of Indian brides is a harsh truth seen in the latest Netflix series ‘Indian Matchmaking’ that exposes the unfair criteria set by people for marriage. These betrothed women are made to apply all sorts of homemade concoctions and skin lightening creams so that they can grow a skin that is captivating enough. Thanks to the normalisation of such practices, the misogynistic ideology gets a plausible stance as women unknowingly accept this demeaning behaviour. It unfortunately doesn't end there.
Many actions we ignorantly take further promote the orthodox thinking that has plagued the minds of all members of the South Asian community. The systemic racism, that is the normalising of general racist practices in society and several institutions, is embedded in the thinking of people since the time that they started to consider another being's quality to be more elite than their own. The patronising approach to fix the darker complexion of people is a devious practice in itself, let alone the multinational companies that make sure to capitalise on it. When the influential everyday media feeds us with fairness cream ads endorsed by famous Bollywood stars, we indulge by purchasing the products because of this unrealistic goal we strive to achieve. What we don't realise is that we are contributing towards not only these unethical brands and products but also the unethical mindset that approves of the skin colour bias.
Several known celebrities are paid to be the brand ambassadors of these skin lightening products. There is a wide range of skin whitening creams, face masks and face washes that are readily available for both men and women in the market. The backing these brands have is a primary cause in propagating racial stereotypes. Indian actors like Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Deepika Padukone, Kareena Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Priyanka Chopra, Yami Gautam, Ranveer Singh and many others are roped in to promote the skin lightening products for brands like L'Oréal, Fair and Lovely, Garnier, Olay, Ponds and more. The masses idolise and emulate such celebrated personalities who declare their support for these brands, never really understanding the detrimental repercussions favouring such media content and products have. Not only do these products encourage a dogmatic stance on the supremacy of the lighter skin, but also erode layers of your body to lighten it, causing harmful skin problems in the long run.
In recent years, many social activists stood up for the acceptance and equal treatment of darker complexion. Women of Worth (WOW) joined by Indian actress-filmmaker Nandita Das’ anti-colourism campaign ‘Dark is Beautiful’ clocked 10 years in 2019, which was celebrated with the release of a powerful video named India’s Got Colour. These activists' objective is to reject these existing products that encourage this skin colour bias by spreading awareness about this discriminating thought process. There are a number of campaigns launched on platforms like, Change.org and Postforchange that push citizens to sign petitions and take pledges to change the current irrational and quixotic beauty standards. Recently, Hindustan Unilever Limited has announced that it has renamed the brand 'Fair and Lovely' to 'Glow and Lovely'. The giant said that it will drop words like 'fair,' 'white/whitening,' light/lightening' from all its packs and marketing. The men's product range will be called 'Glow & Handsome'. Fellow brands like J&J and L'Oréal have removed the concept of "fairness" from their whitening products, but is that really enough?
India's obsession with skin whitening products has so far lasted for decades, but even with a change coming about, are adequate efforts being taken to really scrutinise this issue? In retrospect, it takes opinionated individuals sometimes an entire lifetime to move out of their bigotry. Residents of India are barely coming to accept the caste and religious intolerance, where so much is being done to spread awareness. Everyday we see a number of crimes committed against the minorities and Dalits (the people belonging to the ‘lower’ or ‘backward’ class in India) that go unnoticed. Thousands of Indians have protested all the injustice faced by these marginalised communities, but have seen barely any improvement. In the move made by renaming these product lines, the root issue and the underlying intention of people feeling the need to look 'fairer' or 'whiter' is still not being addressed. Countless commoners who are gifted artists and craftsmen have not gained their due accreditation owing to this prejudice held against them. “People seem to have a mental block about those with dark complexion. Their achievements or accolades almost become invalid,” comments Chennai-based artist Rohini Mani in an article. All sectors and organisations have to aim at becoming fundamentally tolerant to banish any such form of racism.
A large number of changes in the way we speak, express and refer to individuals must be made by each one and all. Racist slurs like "kaala" and "kaali" used against darker skin coloured men and women, sometimes even depending on their caste, need to be penalised. All content material of these individuals shall remain raw and free from improvisations to the preferred skin tone. Colourism is a challenge faced by the inhabitants of many nations. The ideology that the white skin/ white skinned race is superior (white supremacy) to all other races is an immoral and inexcusable obstacle that has stopped humans of colour to be treated as equals. The murder of George Floyd in May, 2020 is still fresh in people's minds. It charged up the Black Lives Matter movement that reminds us of the poisonous and evil racist acts committed against the beings that belong to the black race. It fights against the years of police brutality and injustice against the black lives.
Similarly, it is necessary for all forms of advertising, art, literature and media in general to shun any propaganda that glorifies lighter skin tones over the rest. It is important to speak up and express the support and normalcy of every ethnicity and the skin colour they are born with. It is when more people will start to defy the revamped display of every dark skinned Indian actor or actress, reject the use of disdainful skin lightening products and proudly own up to the beauty of the body they are born in, will the unjust colourist perspective start to fade away.