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Deepi Harish Headshot

Why Are India's Beauty Standards So Messed Up?

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Image courtesy of Jezebel.com

Scenario 1: A friend of mine called me out of frustration last week. He owns a South Asian bridal boutique. Shopping season for South Asian brides takes place now for weddings that will happen in the summer of 2017 and beyond. He told me that too many times he sees the following scene unfold:

Glowing brides-to-be peruse through racks of hand embroidered wedding sarees and lenghas, their eyes light up as they envision walking into the reception hall as Mr and Mrs for the first time. As these future brides pick out their colour and hold the outfits against their bodies, the bride's Indian friend, sister, cousin, mother or mother-in-law would comment with; "are you sure about that colour, it'll make you look dark." These soon-to-be brides now become half hearted and are back to square one.

Scenario 2: In the documentary Shadeism, we are introduced to a four year old Tamil girl who already feels the need not to be dark. She recognizes that society perceives light skin as beautiful and dark as the opposite. The little girl admits she doesn't like her skin colour because it's brown and she needs to become white.

Scenario 3: I lived in Shanghai a decade ago, I clearly remember the day I went into a pharmacy looking for over-the-counter drugs to nurse my hangover. The second I walked in, two sales associates approached me and assumed I was looking for a skin whitening mask. Before I could respond, they proceeded to point me to the aisle where I would find it. It's not only a South Asian issue; it's a Chinese, Latin America, African and Caribbean one.

This post could go in many directions, however I want to explore the issue of shadeism and India's fetish with fairness.

Shadeism is the discrimination that exists between the lighter-skinned and darker-skinned members of the same community. Lighter skin tones are considered more beautiful, desirable and are rank higher within the community.

India is obsessed with skin colour. India's skin bleaching business racks in over 450 million a year! Fair & Lovely, a skin whitening brand that launched in the seventies is still one of the more profitable brands under Unilever's portfolio. In fact, it's the largest skin whitening cream in the world.

Skin whitening creams have always been marketed towards women. According to India Ink by The New York Times "India has 37 million more men than women," and they too want in on this fairness craze.

Not only are men jumping on the bleaching bandwagon, so are other beauty product giants like Garnier, Neutrogena, L'Oreal, even Vaseline got in on the action, launching a skin whitening app on Facebook in India. The app promotes whitening Facebook profile pictures to boost men's dating life. "A poll of nearly 12,000 people by online dating site Shaadi.com, revealed that skin tone was considered the most important criteria when choosing a partner in three northern Indian states." (Anna North, jezebel.com)

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Image courtesy of democraticunderground.com

The most outrageous example of skin bleaching comes from the company Clean and Dry. This commercial supports bleaching a brown skinned vagina, so her lover will find her attractive and will have sex with her. 

Evidence below:

And it's not just commercial products that are available, there are thousands of DIY natural skin whitening methods found on YouTube.  

Where did Indians adopt this 'light skinned is better' mentally?
Indians never questioned colour when the British colonized India back in the eighteen hundreds. They just accepted the idea that the lighter you are, the more of a connection they had with the lighter skinned race. Essentially, power was associated with lighter skin. Pre-colonialism, Rajas and Ranis (King and Queens) were depicted as light skinned mughals on murals. Going back even earlier, around 100 B.C., the caste system existed in India, meaning shadeism existed well before the Brits got there.

Who is calling the shots on beauty standards today?
The media, for one. The biggest Bollywood actors and actresses endorse skin whitening products. Dark skinned people are presented much lighter in glossy magazines, TV shows and films. Today there are Instagram filters, Snapchat beautification filters and an abundance of apps that offer "better lighting."

Shadeism is inherent in the realm of Indian beauty standards. At this stage, I can't change my Indian grandma's awareness of colour discrimination, but I can certainly try to shape the mentality of my present day cousins, aunts and friends who still favour light skin over dark. The glorification of fair skin within Indian societies goes far beyond simply vanity, it's associated with self worth, intelligence and privileges. 

This needs to stop.

It's time to shift the conversation and question why so much of our mental energy feeds into bullsh*t beauty standards, defined by present day media. It's not a good use of our time. 

Can you imagine having your dark skinned beloved niece or daughter feeling flawed simply because she doesn't look like the girls on magazine stands or on TV? Can you imagine how that would screw with her confidence or how she views herself in the world? Being misinformed about colour discrimination can f*uck with you on a psychological level.

This needs to stop.

The Indian community believes the paler you are, the more beautiful you are. Yet, this is where things get confusing. You have people from cold countries (like myself) intentionally going to tropical destinations to bath in the sun and attract colour. In this case, having colour implies having the wealth to travel. On the flip side, those living in hot countries that are naturally born with a tan imply that they can't afford luxuries and occupy low ranking jobs. How does this make any sense?  

This needs to stop.

We need to advocate that beauty has no colour. Skin whitening is just as silly as fake tanning, and that flawlessness is a dangerous, expensive myth.

We need to unlearn what society, media and our own community members believe. We need to take the silence away from the topic of shadeism and have open discussions on how this discrimination based on skin tone cuts deep.

We need to tell all the younger women in our lives that all women are queens regardless of their shade.

And on a final note, I ask; remember when Lil' Kim was black?

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