Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Anika Thota
Image retrieved from The Peak
Growing up in America as a dark-skinned, frizzy-haired, crooked-nosed girl resulted in a series of insecurities, all of which stemmed from the subtle racism prevalent in both American and South Asian culture. During our annual trips to India, I would be reprimanded by my grandmother for staying out in the sun too long and not using skin bleaching products. She would place me next to my beautiful, fair-skinned cousin and say, “Look at Shivani Didi. Look how fair her complexion is.” The concept that “fair is beautiful” was instilled in me at such a young age that it remained a constant focal point in my childhood. I refused to go to beaches and pools for the fear of becoming “too dark” and tried to spend the least amount of time as possible outside during the summertime. Viewing dark-skinned individuals as “ugly” or “undesirable” is a result of developed colorism; unfortunately, my experience in dealing with colorism was not unique. Colorist beauty standards are not only prevalent in South Asian communities, but also in East Asian and black communities as well.
Colorism in India routes back to the caste system; prior to the British invasion, the Aryans of North India were idolized for their light skin while the Dravidians of South India were demeaned for having a darker complexion. Although colorism existed before British colonization, the commercialization and branding of fair skin as a result of British influence. The British considered themselves a representation of status, power, wealth, and beauty in Indian society. Although Indian citizens may not have agreed with the British presence in India, aspects of British culture still managed to seep into India. Schools developed an English-medium education system, crops were specifically grown for British imports, and Western beauty standards were adopted, promoted, and put into practice. The Indian people viewed Europeans as superior, which resulted in viewing their behavior, mannerisms, and appearance as superior as well. Even though aspects of colorism were present before the British, their colonization of India initiated a cultural shift in how Indian society (film industry, music industry, ethnic groups, etc) viewed beauty.
This construct of beauty is a result of eurocentric beauty standards that are integrated within the South-Asian community. The South Asian cosmetic industry is dominated by skin bleaching products, and young girls are encouraged to start using them before even hitting puberty. The most renowned skin bleaching brand, Fair and Lovely, has become a staple in many South Asian households and has been heavily marketed towards females with darker skin tones. Additionally, Bollywood’s most successful films promote fair-skinned actors and actresses, while darker-skinned men and women rarely make it to the same level of fame and success as celebrities with lighter skin.
Eurocentric beauty promotes fair skin, angular features, delicate noses, and straight hair. People with these features are praised because they represent the socially acceptable standard of beauty. The South Asian community has a blatant preference for Western beauty which directly results in toxic self-esteem issues in young girls. Children should not be applying harmful bleaching chemicals to their skin, feel concerned about getting darker in the sun, or feel ashamed of having a deep complexion. European beauty standards do not define the value of South Asian men and women; South Asian features are something to be celebrated, not hidden.
Written by Anika Thota