The beauty standard for fairer and lighter skin in India has grown deep and unfair

Illustration and photo by Waseka Nahar and Zainab Anwar, images compiled/edited by Sanya Jain / NDTV

Written by: Jasleen Bains, SFU Student

I grew up watching light-skinned Indian actresses and models on television, believing that my darker skin made me subordinate. Comments I received throughout those years — don’t play outside in the sun too much; lather up with sunscreen so you don’t get a tan — seemed harmless. However, I see now that many of these comments were deeply rooted in the cultural norm of colour shaming.

The preference for light skin is one that numerous women internalize, especially in India. There, skin-lightening products such as Fair and Lovely, designed to whiten one’s skin, form the make-up of a thriving industry worth over 400 million dollars.

The fruits of this industry teach us to desire fair skin, to treat it as superior, and we learn these underlying lessons at a young age. It’s hard for us to do otherwise when the advertisements play continuously, writing a narrative of successful light-skinned women who navigate and succeed in a harsh, Indian society.

I was neither born nor raised in India. But I’ve felt the impacts of this colourism thousands of miles away, and I’m frustrated at how it continues to be enforced. It’s become an obsession, and India considers success to be unattainable without a pale complexion.

These false notions of beauty are not just a marketing ploy; they tie into India’s colonial legacy and British imperial rule. Historically, lighter-skinned Indians were viewed as closer to the white elite and therefore more valuable. Over the years, this notion became an evident, lasting trend in Indian society, and now, lighter-skinned women dominate the socio-economic sphere while those with darker skin are shamed as inferior.

This issue is often unnervingly subtle, and it’s encouraged by the childhood comments, the advertising campaigns, and the endless light skin on television. It pushes the myth of light-skinned superiority as reality, while pushing consumerism as the solution. It’s nothing short of disheartening.

Recently though, a wave of body-positive messages and activism has spread across the globe. A Bangladesh-based artist, Waseka Nahar, recently released a piece of artwork depicting a darker-skinned woman with a tube of face cream that read Dark and Lovely, a play on Fair and Lovely. The digital art was a reinterpretation of an Instagram photo taken by Pakistani-Canadian artist Zainab Anwar. This illustration, a captivating and empowering commentary on colourism in India, went viral.

Anwar and Nahar have both described their negative experience with this skin-lightening industry, stating how their relatives would push fairness creams onto them continuously. They hope that their work pushes back against the obsession with light skin. The new generation is, as Zainab puts it, “fed up of illogical beauty standards.”

The narrative that fair skin is more desirable needs to be eradicated, and establishing this is part of the ongoing process of decolonization. Throughout history, colonization has programmed societal structures to assimilate groups of people and remove any sense of individuality one may have. Now, we need to fight and erase oppressive Eurocentric ideals of beauty.

Do not conform. Honour your skin. Celebrate it with every fibre of your being. I plan to do this through unapologetically hitting the beach to enjoy the sun soon as summer rolls around, and disregarding any person or company people who want me to feel guilty