The subject of colorism in India is vast, and its prevalence, both within different regions of the country and in society on the whole is extensive. Color inequality has ensued from historical views of privilege as well as contemporary discrimination, with light-skin and fairness having held (and still holding) symbolic meanings and associations with feminine beauty, class privilege, spiritual purity and cultural superiority, and dark-skin with primitiveness, inferiority, and unattractiveness.
As a consequence of beliefs about skin color determining one’s status and value, and individuals with darker skin tones having experienced persistent disadvantages (with regard to education, income, opportunity, health, and marriageability), many people have taken recourse to “whiten” their skin over the centuries. The formulation of skin-lightening practices draw ascendancy from notions of skin color as being a form of capital, such that fair-skin is garnered as economic capital, social capital, and even symbolic capital. Colorism and the stratification affiliated with it have been further complicated by the influence of ideas about light-skin, success and better life outcomes, and the aesthetic model transplanted by the skin-lightening and cosmetic industry. Fairness and light-skin have since been commodities that are acquired for a price and traded for access to goods and services, such as social forums, romantic partners, education, and employment.
The acquisition of capital and status through such practices elucidate the acuity with which colorism continues to affect people and the rhetoric of whiteness that the multibillion-dollar skin lightening industry capitalises on in exchange for monstrous profits. Colorism and racial prejudice, as well as shaming and ‘individual preferences’ for light-skin have long been displayed in Indian advertisements – ranging through hair removal creams, intimate washes, facial creams and cleansers, matrimonial features, ‘white’ electric lights and bulbs endorsed by esteemed personalities, and indoctrination at the grade school level with images of fair(er) people to explain ‘beauty’ and of dark(er) ones ‘unattractiveness’.
The fallacy of color is evident in lands like India – which have great regional heterogeneity and whose people are culturally diverse – impacting almost all the public. The fact that ‘color’ remains relevant for advertising agencies to influence sales – whether in their branding, in the chemicals utilized, in their story-telling, or in them all – has only reinforced misconceptions and distortions of, what should have been, an authentic self-concept amongst consumers (and non-consumers). Impacting young girls and adults alike regardless of how “educated”, “successful” and “accomplished” they may (have) be(come), skin tone biases have also been imposed on men over the years with the introduction of similar lightening and fairness products in India – with light-skin signifying “attractiveness” and dark-skin “manliness” and “muscle”.
The systems from which colorism originates in India are those that explicate some of its fundamental religious, cultural, and social features – namely, the concepts of caste, class, (arranged) marriage, and status. The divisionary models that found their genesis in fear (of unworthiness and (social) ostracisation), erroneous scriptural and mythical interpretations, patriarchal structures, dowry systems, classism, division of labor, colonialism, gender roles, cultural conditioning, and shame, have played principal functions in systematising colorism across regions and communities. The practice of applying homemade ‘uptans’ (beauty packs) – with turmeric, milk malai (cream), egg, besan (gram flour) and other natural ingredients – to retain fairness or lighten skin has moreover solidified these perceptions in place. Such arbitrary conceptions that (have) give(n) base to, and are entangled in stratification, are correspondingly iterated in like advertisements that obscure the dynamism of one’s being – whether in the form of colorism, sexism, objectification, ageism, ableism or other analogous prejudices.
The hierarchical ordering of human differences through these contrived categorizations of color have propelled activists in the nation-state over the past several decades to cogently protest against and dismantle the inequitable system. The Black Lives Matter movement in the West has of late catalysed the issue in the Indian context, with Hindustan Unilever having renamed its prominent fairness brand ‘Fair and Lovely’, Johnson and Johnson deciding to cease sales of all fairness products in India, and Matrimonial website ‘Shaadi.com’ removing its skin color filter owing to public outcry. These changes, while could have been (seen as) a sign of progress(ion) in one sense, now raise the question about what it means for brands to revise their messaging and story-telling, and what dogmas they represent.
With ‘Fair and Lovely’ historically and thus far showcasing women as achieving success and happiness only when turned fairer, it has become crucial to explore whether such rebranding is an admittance at the end of large corporations that skin lightening products were and are a falsity, and that dark-skin is not something to be repaired or corrected, and if so, why they are not discontinued altogether; and how rebranding would absolve the colorism that underlies it. Strategic changes in messaging being (and having been) adopted by the now, ‘Glow and Lovely’ and by other beauty brands with substitute terminologies such as ‘brightening’ and ‘radiance’, may alter the rhetoric but retain the same overtones and meanings, providing marginal changes in the schema.
At the same time, disputes arise as to why brands require such an outcry from the public to amend their practices – and why even then these amendments are merely cosmetic; why at this stage, multinational corporations and brands not only ‘be’ better, but also take responsibility for how the ideology embodying their advertising and products furthers and perpetuates problematic beauty ideals, fostering insecurity, emotional turmoil, and in some cases mental trauma. More so, why profit generation not be based on unfeigned values in place of deceptive and misleading premises, and sensitivity consultants involving activists not share space with their advisory boards to direct reform?
Though the problem of colorism and the exploitative business model that has flourished on its basis is so compounded that an adequate understanding of it will require the synthesis of a number of concepts and disquisitions in diverse fields, historical conditions do unveil how densely tied colorism is – and continues to be – with our traditional practices and ideologies. The neoteric developments and calls for social change that have been prompted into our conventions by activists and citizens, and through social media, have been proving influential in collapsing (and reformulating) systems that inhibit the diversity and equity inherent to life, but a shift in economic, cultural and emotional ethos remain particularly limited in the country.
Much less is still realised about how the commodification of beauty and color is deployed to, and by men, and the degree to which they serve as consequential in their lifestyle. The chronic ‘preferences’ for light skin will require closer studies to interpret the contemporary interplay and meanings of skin color with(in) psycho-social, spatial and global contexts, and to observe whether the changes in branding, while strategic ploys at present, will gradually play any notable part in moving toward more inclusive story-telling and truthful representation of who we are.
We collaborated with model and illustrator Namita Sunil for the illustrations in this thought piece.