Mumbai, India. Horns are blaring and dirt roads cloud up the air. Priya, a college student, walks through a busy street, umbrella and tiffin in hand, to meet her father, a makeup artist, at his workplace for lunch. As she approaches his studio, she overhears her father’s client yell at him for his unsatisfactory makeup job. Upset, Priya decides to take matters into her own hands. That night, she declares she wants to be a celebrity so that her dad no longer has to tolerate difficult clients. “Make me a star,” she says with tears in her eyes while handing a makeup brush to her father. As she stares into her reflection she hears him say “makeup won’t make you a star.” Rather, the only way to achieve “lifelong beauty,” he says, is with a shiny new tube of Unilever’s Fair and Lovely, India’s most popular skin lightening cream.
This is just one of many problematic skin lightening product commercials that play on a loop in Indian households around the world. Whether it’s a girl trying to score the lead in a musical production or a woman preparing to meet her suitors, the message is the same: You get what you want when your skin is whiter. On the flip side, you suffer a loveless, jobless existence when your skin is too brown. After using the cream, Priya gets a modeling contract, her face is on billboards across the city, and she wins an award.
The skin-lightening industry is a multimillion-dollar phenomenon in countries around the world such as India, Korea, Haiti and Nigeria. Mothers gift these products to their tan, preteen daughters as a rite of passage to set their soon-to-be adult children up for success. It is a custom built on a false pretense that lighter skin will get their daughters married into a good families and adopted into prestigious professions. Movie stars promise fans popularity and prosperity with the use of skin lighteners. And women encourage each other to try out the creams and face washes to improve their appearance. India is a particularly interesting case because it has one of the largest market shares of skin lightening products in the world. Fifty percent of its skincare market is dominated by these products, and it is a $450 to $535 million business. In a recent survey, a majority of Indian women who reported using these products indicated they did so either to look more beautiful and attractive, or to look more fair.
As someone of Indian descent, I find it hard not to notice the light-skin preference that exists within my community. Many people, including my friends, have asked why I’m several shades browner than my sister — questions I have mostly been unaffected by thanks to the confidence my family has instilled in me. And while I usually just shrug off the questions or roll my eyes, I grew up hyper aware of my skin color as a result of people’s comments. I’m also reminded of it at Indian markets where I see claims like “proven to make skin three shades lighter after just one week of use” on the backs of soap boxes and face washes. So when I visit India and see countless artificially light-skinned celebrities on everything from a bag of chips to movie posters, I question the origin of this mindset. Why is India so obsessed, so infatuated with white skin? Is it a result of the influence of Persian, Mughal and British colonialism over centuries? Certainly, India’s familiarity with light-skinned oppressors has contributed to the institutionalized belief that light skin represents power, fortune and high caste, while dark skin represents physical labor, poverty and low caste. While the English physically left India in 1947, the ideas of light-skinned superiority have lingered. India’s astronomical skin-lightening sales clearly prove these beliefs are still embedded in the minds of millions, and have led to the continued presence of internalized racism: “Indoctrination and mental colonization. These phrases draw attention to the historical context of colonialism being used to create and maintain a system of white superiority.” A prime example of this thinking appears in the thousands of matrimonial ads in the daily newspaper, which specify the desired skin color of a potential mate. One post might read “looking for a beautiful, slim, highly qualified Hindu girl of a wheat-ish complexion for our fair-skinned, highly-educated (basically perfect) son.” To reiterate: A woman’s skin tone is a major factor in her marriage eligibility. If that’s not superficial, I’m not sure what is.
Regardless of the reason for its existence, the light-skin movement has had detrimental consequences on India’s youth, who risk their physical and mental health and develop prejudices against their darker counterparts. Dark-toned adolescents walk around with low levels of confidence as they look up at the thousands of faces of fair celebrities that are plastered around the walls of the city. Their parents name them after their complexion, calling them words like Layla, which means “dark beauty,” or Shyama, which means “black as night.” This level of negative attention and recognition for darker skin often leads brown-toned youth and their parents to look for ways to rid themselves of the burden. Out of fear for unsuccessful marriage proposals or being viewed as a member of a lower caste, Indians advise one another to stay out of the sun, drink less chai (not kidding) and of course, rub magical fairness creams on their cheeks — the solution commonly seen as the most effective and inexpensive. White skin is more than a beauty standard for these people, rather it is a ticket to the caste up, a chance to finally be accepted. And the change from dark to light skin is not as simple as getting a nose piercing or a new pair of jeans. It is forever changing your natural appearance in order to be acknowledged and respected. Perhaps, as humans, we’re scared of embracing any shade of darkness, even if it literally presents itself in the faces of our own children. Just because some are worried about the social implications that come with darker skin, continuing down this road is not okay.
Growing up, I didn’t really understand the extent of this mentality until I experienced it first-hand in a New Delhi salon. While visiting India for a wedding, my sister and I decided to get our makeup done. Expecting to come out with a smoky eye and a twisted braid bun, I walked out looking like Casper “the fuming” Ghost. Despite several attempts to tell the makeup artist that “ivory” was not my color, she continued to lather on the cream-colored foundation, saying “you’ll look better this way.” The salon lady was well-intentioned, but didn’t know any better because she was used to working with customers who wanted to cover up their darker tones. By the end, all I could wonder was why Indians have such a hard time accepting their brown bodies (and how to dodge the photographer at the wedding).
Maybe the infatuation results from the human archetype that favors light over dark. Since the beginning of time, light has suggested hope, renewal and goodness, while darkness has implied grief, the unknown and evil. Just look at Disney. Characters with darker tones such as Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” and Scar in “The Lion King,” are evil and unredeemable, while characters like Snow White are pure and innocent. Although, Disney wasn’t the first to perpetuate this archetype. In fact, skin lightening can be traced all the way back to the Victorian era, when women used lead paint to achieve a ghostly look (sometimes white just isn’t white enough). The poison of choice has since changed from lead paint to fairness creams, but the goal remains the same. The concept is ingrained into the Desi psyche as evidenced by commonly used words in various Indian languages. For example, the word gori in Hindi means “white woman” but has also come to mean “pretty.” The Sanskrit word asuryasparsh which translates to “someone that is pure,” is also defined as “someone who has light skin” (talk about a double entendre). Through their use, both words echo the idea that light skin is superior to dark, without anyone realizing. People go so far as to lighten the skin of many deities in portraits, even when they are described as dark-skinned in religious scriptures. Krishna, the god of compassion, for example, has dark blue skin, but is popularly shown in baby blue.
In addition to archetypal influence, Bollywood movies have had a fair hand in furthering the obsession. Actors, but more so actresses with lighter skin tones are given more screen time and better roles. A student from India once told me he thought Rani Mukerji, an actress who appears less frequently in movies than her lighter counterparts, was ugly because she was “too dark.” This conversation opened my eyes to how prevalent and problematic this mindset is, even in current times.
In line with this thinking, filmmakers edit the skin color of actors and actresses because they know audiences will respond better. Though the average Indian cannot physically relate to these lighter-toned actors, they aspire to look like them. The fact that so many Indians loathe their brown tones and that all their role models and celebrities are light-skinned are not mutually exclusive. If all your favorite actors and actresses are light-skinned, you aren’t likely to be satisfied with your darker complexion. It’s also important to note how much Bollywood is a part of daily life. People eat, breath and sleep Bollywood in India. Every snack, juice, clothing and beauty brand is endorsed by a big-screen celebrity. Every song on the radio is from a movie. Products in every shop, from large chain stores to small market stands, have printed images of actors or actresses. Some globally-renowned Bollywood stars (i.e. Priyanka Chopra) have even taken on the roles of brand ambassadors for Ponds, Fair and Lovely, Fair and Handsome and Olay, to name a few. And these advertisements not only appear on TV, but also on every wall, billboard and shop counter. Being constantly surrounded by images of fair and successful movie stars has had a deep-rooted impact on the way people perceive skin color.
Further, Indians take in messages of light-skin superiority subconsciously through movies and songs. Take Bollywood hit pop song “Chittiyan Kalaiyan,” which has 332 million views on YouTube. Throughout the video, the actress shakes her wrists in the air while lip-syncing “chittiyan kalaiyan ve,” which translates to “look at my white wrists.” The song even has a rap that explicitly says, “white kalaiyan (wrists) drive me crazy.” The lyrics imply that white skin is favored — quite obviously a troubling theme, especially in a country where a majority of the population does not have white skin. And just for kicks, the song features a Confederate Flag on one of the instruments (but not going to open that can of worms today).
There are many reasons for why the skin lightening industry is booming in India such as the long-lasting effects of colonialism, archetypal beliefs, or the influence of mass media and entertainment on the general population. Despite these explanations for this behavior, the solution is really quite obvious — put the creams away. If someone asks you to bleach your skin to get married, question whether or not that’s a relationship you want to be in. End the cycle of mothers passing down tubes of Fair and Lovely, and speak up against Bollywood’s skin-lightening endorsements. Parents: let your children know it’s okay to be the color they are. That finding success is not dependent on skin complexion. Bollywood celebrities: call out filmmakers for lightening your skin, and give up your enterprising fairness cream campaigns. P&G, Unilever: you have a corporate social responsibility to do what’s right, so stop profiting off internalized racism.
I get how these shifts in thinking are ambitious, but recognizing the problem and taking steps now will churn progress for the future. Advancement is slow, but not out of reach. There are already movements in India (i.e. Unfair and Lovely, Dark is Divine) working towards ending the cycle.
Skin lightening is an issue of empowerment for those who are unhappy simply because of their pigment. It’s an issue of material gain for Bollywood celebrities and the beauty industry. It’s an issue of societal pressures related to marriage and success in the workplace. It’s an issue of internalized racism.
White is not better than brown.