By Nisha Umesh:
Growing up in the United States, I would walk into my mother’s bathroom and sitting on the counter would be a tube of the cream “Fair and Lovely.” The cream is normally found in my birth country, India, where I saw TV ads positing the gained “beauty” of lighter skin. But here it was, transplanted across several oceans and continents. For the longest time I was baffled as to what the purpose of this product was, only learning later that it was a skin lightening agent designed for people of colour, particularly women with darker skin. In India skin lightening creams are the most popular among all skincare products.
My mother has always been fairer than me, a bothersome realization, which in time affected how I perceived myself and my dark skin. I never felt good enough. Growing up in the U.S., I was surrounded by primarily white women, who were celebrated for their beauty, while I was not. For instance, Barbie dolls sold in stores were almost always white, and as a young girl this taught me that ideas of beauty were constructed in opposition to my body. Instead, beauty was white, slim, straight hair, thin lips, and a small pointed nose. I was constantly striving to emulate these dolls through my adolescence, an impossible feat.
Beauty standards in India predate its colonization by European imperial forces. The tradition of glorifying light skin and demonizing melanin is not new. In 1858, Indian poet Kalyan Mall wrote the Ananga Ranga, “an important work of Indian erotology,” around the 16th century. Mall describes the ideal woman with skin as “light as the surface of polished gold.”
Furthermore, Rebecca Gelles, author of a sociological study, “Fair And Lovely: Standards Of Beauty, Globalization, And The Modern Indian Woman,” described the influence of Hindu Goddesses on the standards and resulting perceptions of beauty within India. The Goddesses glorified the “perfect” woman as “fair or medium-complexioned, has a narrow waist but wider hips and breasts, and has large eyes, full red lips, and long black hair that is either straight or wavy.”
However, in light of the global economy of Western media, colonialism has played a fundamental role in structuring notions of beauty across widely different geographic regions. Indians are now consuming movies, music, and TV shows that are increasingly foreign; this transnational flow of media has further unified beauty norms to reflect those same standards that I saw on my Barbie dolls.
This has especially affected Bollywood, where further emphasis has been placed upon featuring actors who uphold the norms of fair skin, and a slim figure, among other Eurocentric norms.
Indian women venerate Bollywood actors, who reflect the “ideal” Indian woman, and adhere to the Eurocentric value of fairness and thinness. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a writer for The Independent, speaks about the time when Kareena Kapoor became drastically thinner over the span of her films. Yasmin stated that “size zero has arrived in India,” a disturbing result of post-colonial westernization.
Women of colour must constantly keep up with evolving beauty standards, which idolize white women. So I have to ask: What does it mean when your idea of beauty exists outside of your own body?
Living under the idea that you’re undesirable because you fail to meet white, cisgender, Eurocentric beauty standards has material, economic, and psychological consequences for women of color, such as lower pay, sexual violence, eating disorders, depression, anxiety etc.
Women of colour, especially trans women, are already considered disposable and more deserving of violence by society at large. In particular, Black women face heightened levels of racialized and gendered violence, as they are oftentimes placed on the bottom of the global hierarchy. This violence is mediated by patriarchy and white supremacy, the same forces that say we cannot conform to Eurocentric cisgender standards of beauty.
It is not the responsibility of women of colour to reject Eurocentric white beauty standards. Instead, let us dismantle the oppressive systems of patriarchy, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, colourism, and capitalism. This is not an easy task, because it requires a radical shift in the consciousness of all people and how our institutions operate.
For starters, I do not want to see a tube of Fair and Lovely on my mother’s bathroom countertop in the near future. But to accomplish this we need to have more critical conversations around gender, race, colour and beauty. Still this isn’t enough, for we must organize collectively and demand companies like Unilever to discontinue selling products that contribute to warped ideas of beauty. By preventing companies from profiting from oppression, we can seek the liberation of women of colour across the globe.