“You’re really pretty for a brown girl.”
I was 12 when I heard those words. While the backhanded compliment fazed me just a little bit, I did not really understand what was being implied.
At 14, I noticed three bottles of Fair & Lovely, a skin whitening cream, on my best friend’s vanity at a sleepover. As we gently rubbed the cream onto our skins, a single thought ran through our heads: I hope this works. I hope this makes me whiter.
When at 16 I finally discovered makeup (I was a little bit of a late bloomer, I’m afraid), I walked the aisles of Sephora only to find that the darkest shade I could buy was three shades lighter than my actual skin color.
The indoctrination of the concept of darker skin tones being unattractive starts early, as laid out by the early 20th century children’s nursery rhyme: “if you’re black, stay back; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re yellow, you’re mellow; if you’re white, you’re all right.” (It was later made into a song by Big Bill Broonzy about the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the United States based on the “separate but equal” doctrine of the U.S. Supreme Court.)
At the tender age of eight, I was told to slather on sunscreen when I went to play football. God forbid I get darker than I already was. There were negative connotations that were intrinsically related to being dark. Today we call it colorism.
The Oxford dictionary defines colorism as “prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” Discrimination based on one’s skin tone manifests itself in several ways, ranging from offensive casual conversations to institutional discrimination.
India’s love for fair skin can be traced back a millennia. Gods were light-skinned and, obviously, good. Asuras, or demons, were dark-skinned. Even now, art depicting gods in Hinduism show them to be fair-skinned. India’s elaborate caste system also played a role in solidifying colorism. Those of the upper caste remained indoors for a large part of their day, and those of the lower castes worked outdoors in the sun and had darker skin color. While there was no intrinsic relationship between caste and color, eventually a strong perception developed that caste and color were linked and that fairer skin meant higher caste, according to Radhika Parmeswaran, editor of the academic journal, Communication, Culture, & Critique. Even within the Indian community, the distinctions between shades of brown are rampant. British colonialism only further enforced the system: women with light skin were preferred as nannies for the children of British couples, while women with dark skin were vilified. Even within the Indian community, the distinctions between shades of brown are rampant.
Entertainment media plays a major role in this perception as well. Bollywood songs emphasize the need for white skin in women. In fact in the movie “Udta Punjab,” actress Alia Bhatt was put in blackface, where a fair-skinned actor puts dark makeup on their face to play a dark-skinned character, often to caricaturize them. In the film, Bhatt plays a village girl who is a farm laborer. This raises two questions: one, why was there a need to portray the girl as dark skinned in the first place? Is the film trying to say that dark skin equal backwards? And two, why put a fair-skinned actress in blackface? Why not just hire a darker-skinned actress?
In one of the most beloved films of Indian cinema, “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge,” the lead actress is shown steaming her face to whiten her skin (which, by the way, does not work in real life). Advertisements for the Fair & Lovely cream portray young women who are failures because of their dark skin. But using the cream lightens their skin and becomes their saving grace. The message: all your problems will be solved if your skin is the right color, playing on a woman’s insecurities to make profit.
Even today, matrimonial ads in India feature words like “fair and beautiful,” before talking about a girl’s education or background, conveying the message that dark is simply not beautiful.
Despite societal constraints, colorism is being fought on various levels. Pax Jones, a student at University of Texas, created a photo series based on the campaign #unfairandlovely. Its focus was to empower dark-skinned women to accept, love and appreciate their skin color. As the campaign went viral on social media, women from all over the world posted photos on Instagram with the hashtag #unfairandlovely in support of the campaign.
Another campaign launched in India by Kavitha Emmanuel in 2009 called Dark Is Beautiful, celebrates diversity in skin color and was created to “challenge the notion that the value and beauty of people is determined by the fairness of their skin.”
There have been positive changes. Make-up brand Fenty Beauty, launched by Rihanna, released a record 40 shades to cater to a variety of skin tones. My Instagram feed features pictures of unapologetic brown and black women owning their color, and I am empowered.
But then there are days I find myself looking into the mirror wishing my shade was just a little lighter and my complexion just a little fairer. I find myself using filters that brighten my tone up ever so slightly, trying to reach a beauty standard I can never attain.
And then I stop myself. I think about what I’m doing and the consequences those thoughts have. Instead, I go out into the sun, bright and warm, and I remind myself of the brilliant words of Indian spoken-word poet Aranya Johar: “Forget snow white, say hello to chocolate brown.”