When my younger sister was born, the primary concern wasn’t her health, but the fact that she was darker skinned than either of our parents. It didn’t matter as much that she was alive and well after a difficult birth—all that mattered was her complexion. So much that, at only a few days old, our main worry was how to ‘lighten’ her up with an astonishingly liberal amount of baby powder. It was bad enough that my mother had had a second girl, but a less fairer one just added insult to injury.
It might have been more than seventy years since the departure of the British, but that doesn’t mean that their influence has waned at all.
Colonisation has affected us in more ways than economic or political—it is a wound on our collective psyche, influencing how we as a culture think about ourselves, both internationally and nationally. The proliferation of ‘fair and lovely’ in a country of dark-skinned individuals is confounding—how can a nation of brown people agree that the most beautiful amongst them are those that share a resemblance to their former oppressors?
This is now an unconscious thing in our society, to equate fairer skin and straight hair to good breeding and wealth. And never is this idealisation more prevalent than in the massive film industry that India now boasts.
For such a diverse and colourful country, it is ironic to see how monochromatic Indian films are, with identical-looking actresses—all of them thin, fair-skinned and straight-haired. Not only is this misrepresentative of the average Indian woman, but it also creates a series of artificial notions regarding what people should consider attractive. It’s not difficult to realise that these traits (the fair skin, straight hair, the thin figure) are characteristic of Western women—so why are we accepting them as to whom our women should aspire?
Advertising, media, and film have served as mediums to create, establish, and perpetuate these foreign ideals in the modern age, but the glorification of Western beauty has been a part of the Indian psyche since the invasion of the British. This isn’t accidental. European colonists have their white skin to justify the abuse and violence of those they consider ‘lesser’—in other words, everyone with darker skin.
It is their “burden”, wrote British author Rudyard Kipling, to educate the non-white, uncivilised races of the world. (Ironically enough, Kipling made his success in exploiting the cultural and ecological diversity of ‘savage’ India in his book The Jungle Book—apparently European supremacy didn’t exclude hypocrisy.) The British used the propaganda of white desirability and beauty to not only establish a power dynamic but to also create doubt and self-hate in the minds of the colonised Hindustani.
The colonialist mindset is unfortunately still left over, affecting the way we as Indians treat one another. Colourism is regrettably prominent in mainstream media, with darker skinned women seen as less educated or worse off economically. Being darker has become synonymous with undesirable, and there is very little in Bollywood to counteract this thought-process. Why wouldn’t dark-skinned women (and men) feel the need to use beauty products that make them ‘fair and lovely’, or seek treatment to correct this apparent flaw?
And sadly, this concept of skin colour being a determinant of successful life for an Indian has become so deeply imbedded in our minds. It has become second nature to treat someone based on their skin—aren’t we simply repeating the way the British treated us? These micro aggressions can come from friends, family, and even strangers, and on a wider-scale, from the beauty and film industries. When popular make-up brands in India don’t have foundations in dark shades of brown (despite the fact that a majority of their consumer base is likely to have more pigmented skin), they are sending a message that only those with fairer skin have the right to self-expression. When big fashion labels exclusively use light-skinned, size zero models, it perpetuates the idea that any dark woman with an inch of fat is undesirable—I could go on and on.
This is a far cry from what has been valued in India historically. Indian mythology makes several references to “copper-skinned” maidens as the heavenly ideal, and a visit to any Hindu temple makes it clear that a voluptuous figure was by far the most desirable (and common). And one only has to read the Mahabharata to see that the most desirable and important woman in the epic was Princess Draupadi, the ‘dark-skinned beauty’.
So, why does this colonist mindset still persist? Why have we let this way of thinking continue to interfere with our perception of ourselves? By continuing this thought-process, we are simply allowing those from whom we won our independence, to win. We have to reclaim what Indian, and indeed, what brown beauty represents, and this means rejecting the beauty standards that make an average blonde, white woman more attractive than my beautiful, intelligent, and capable dark-skinned sister.
Written by Akankshya Bahinipaty
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