Yes–they are bullshit standards, not beauty standards.
Like many others, I was outraged when I read this article from the CBC, published on June 1, 2019: “Snapshot of Miss India finalists renews debate over fair skin infatuation“.
As you can see, there is no diversity of beauty represented in a nation of over 1 billion people. Fairness, thinness and having long, straight hair are considered the hallmarks of desirability. If you want to be reductive, you can sum it up in three words: Thin and White. I have seen this my entire life: The hyper-valuation of light-skinned people and the devaluation of dark-skinned ones. People who are fairer are given preferential treatment, and women more than men are penalized by this discriminatory judgement. This is because in cultures all over the world, we are taught that a woman’s value lies in her looks and her age; ‘LIES’ indeed! Men are less likely to be penalized for having darker-skin, because they are primarily valued for their earning capacity and education. Indian matrimonial ads are the perfect testament to this, as there is a preponderance of demand for fair-skinned brides, but not fair-skinned grooms. Academic research about the use of skin-lightening creams in Mumbai, further supports this notion: It reports that “men were significantly more likely than women to endorse beliefs about fairness being more attractive and were more likely to perceive family and peers as viewing fairness as beneficial for cultural capital.” (Cultural capital refers to social and cultural assets including education, style of speech, dress, intellect and appearance, which have the ability to influence an individual’s social mobility in stratified societies)
This fallacy is promoted by a profit-driven, racist beauty industry, which cares not for promoting human wellness and genuine happiness. It creates the illusion that people must not accept themselves as they are. It magnifies and exacerbates human insecurities, related to skin-colour, acne, stretch-marks, facial features and body size. It convinces people that in order to augment their social value, they need to institute cosmetic changes which will render them more attractive and acceptable. Instead of developing one’s character and interests, one is encouraged to conform to a standardized model which is inherently unnatural.
Artificially constructed and propagated beauty standards, play on human fears of isolation and lack of success. They have been astoundingly successful in eliciting conformity. How do you react when you’re not of the mould? How do you begin to accept and love yourself, when the prevalent messaging from mass media and others, is that you’re not good enough as you are? It takes an amazing amount of intelligence and resilience, because societal acceptance might not be immediately forthcoming.
Deep psychic distortion
The family is not necessarily a zone of comfort in this matter. I was raised to be close to my maternal relatives, who were of varying hues and hair-textures, due to the presence of Spanish blood in my grandfather. His mother was Venezuelan, and his father was primarily Indian, with traces of Nepalese and Amerindian ancestry. My mother Rosetta was the lightest-skinned daughter, and a source of pride for my grandfather. She looked a lot like his mother. Her elder sister Jessica was dark-skinned, and once received a compliment on how beautiful she was, from a visiting American Evangelical pastor. My grandfather commented “If he thinks Jessica is pretty, wait until he sees Rosetta!” My aunt always felt that my mother was valued more in his eyes, because of her lighter skin-colour.
I didn’t turn out too dark-skinned, so did not feel the brunt of colourism. However, as a young child, I was distinctly made to feel that a lighter-skin complexion was more desirable, and would guarantee you love and affection. My maternal relatives, the same ones who would occasionally complain about being devalued for their darker-skin tones, once thought it was good fun to try to make me cry. When I was about 5 years old, there was a half-White, half-Indian girl living not too far from my grandparents’ home. My aunts all said “We don’t like you, because you’re not pretty like her. She’s White and you’re not.” I was a strong and badass personality even back then. I replied, “I don’t care. My daddy loves me and you’re not important. My daddy loves me and I don’t care about you!” I was angrier about the taunting than the message, because I knew what their intentions were. But I did reply very honestly: Once I had the approval of my father, I did not give a flying fuck about who liked me or not. I know I owe the force of my earliest confidence to his love.
That episode, however, was buttressed by a societal reality. My mother signed me up for dance-classes when I was 6, and I remember a pretty, White girl called Tanya dancing with us. She was universally loved and fawned upon, and treated with a special kind of reverence: It was very noticeable. I wanted to be White for a while, for the duration of those classes. But when they ended about 2 years later, I did not want to be White anymore: Other things filled my mind.
Life was more difficult for two friends of mine, both of whom have dark-skin. I met Althea Oliver and Nirmala Sesnarayan when we were in primary school together, and we ended up going to the same secondary school. We were in different classes and we drifted apart, but when we reconnected again as adults, honesty, vulnerability and love bound us together. They were kind enough to speak openly about their experiences with colourism as children and as adults. Here are their stories.
I’m mixed. My father is Afro-Trinidadian and my mother Indo-Trinidadian. Although growing up I never knew what racism was (it was never talked about), I did feel it. It was understood that persons of lighter skin are better looking, more desirable, and this was portrayed within both races.
I attended a predominantly East Indian primary school and most times if you’re darker skinned the other kids tease you. The go-to taunt was that “You’re black and ugly.”
One main incident that stood out for me was when I was going into a maxi-taxi (minibus) after school, and a boy, very light skinned, who I had a huge crush on, was sitting to the front of where I wanted to sit. I went past him and he turned and said “Move you Black piece of shit!” I can’t remember what was my reaction. All I remember is that I felt insignificant and confused. Getting teased and silly banter from other kids was one thing, but the hate that came from his comment made me feel so worthless. I have never in my life felt that way before.
I learnt to love myself through maturity and learning about racism and what it was. Even discovering what my mistakes were when it came to stereotyping etc. Listening to others who said I was beautiful played a huge role as well. At times I wouldn’t believe it, but when it’s repeated over and over by different persons, you then do start to think, “Maybe I am.” Then I began to look at myself differently. Representation in the media was also important. When I think back on the TV shows I looked at growing up, my favourite characters were the ones who looked like me: Rudy Huxtable and Storm from the Xmen, lol!
Combatting discrimination is simple for me: Talking about it, expressing it from the victims’ perspective, and having diversity in the media, communities and in schools etc.
Althea wrote a children’s book about her experiences called ‘Mindy in the Middle‘. “Mindy is a 5-year-old who began to question why she looks different and why she was called names at school. She opens up to her grandfather after looking at album photos and seeing the different races within her family. Mindy’s grandfather reassures her that she is beautiful and that no two persons are the same… The book incorporates expository writing where the reader can engage with the child with questions so as to open up a discussion about the topic.” Althea has a B.A. in Media and Communications and currently works as a Web Administrator. Her book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1534679200/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_Ems.CbA8GC2HF
Nirmala currently works as a Secondary School Teacher of English Language and English Literature. Her undergraduate degree is in Education, with specializations in English Language and English Literature. She also has a Master’s Degree in Public Sector Management. She is a prolific singer and harmonium player in the local East Indian, Trinidadian Music scene. Her talents have also taken her to perform in North America, England and India. However, she was always stigmatized as a child and as an adult for her dark-skin: Something which continues to this day. However, she has evolved into acceptance, self-love and confidence. For readers to understand her story, it is imperative that I mention that her father was senselessly murdered in 2010. Nirmala became the sole breadwinner of her family, and the definition of grace under fire. I am proud to know her, because she is one of those rare people who chooses to remain kind despite the injustices of her circumstances. Here is her story.
In addition to being dark-skinned, I was also fat as a child. One incident that stands out in my memory, is my exclusion from a game which included a teacher’s child as the ringleader. I must have been 7 or 8 years old, and wanted to join in, but the teacher’s child told me “There are no fat people allowed in this game and no dark-people allowed in this game.” There was a dark-skinned girl of African descent who was allowed to play, so I wondered why I was excluded. Why was I different? I was not consciously bothered by it at the time, but it stayed with me. All throughout my primary school years, I was treated differently by both children and teachers alike, because of my skin-colour, size, and socio-economic status. Even in secondary school, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, a couple of boys in my class would casually shout at me “Aye! Black girl!” When I went to university, I attracted disdain from people who thought I was too black and “Coolie” to be talking “White”. (Coolie is a derogatory term for East Indians, in the same way the N-word is for Blacks. For more on how I was subject to ridicule as well for talking with an “accent” when speaking in proper English, read the article ‘Real Talk’ ) They thought because I was poor and from the countryside, I should speak in a particular way. However, I’d had elocution classes in primary school and was studying English Language and Literature. My parents had instilled in me the importance of communicating in proper English and conducting myself with dignity. I was taught that class was not something that you could buy with money, and I was accused of putting on airs beyond my station in life. When I started working at a bank as well, I was the only dark-skinned Indian woman there. My manager was a light-skinned Indian woman with 35 years of experience, and from the old-school mentality that banking positions should just be for light-skinned, white-looking, “pretty” girls. (Something the local Black Power movement of 1968-1970 fought against) She treated me badly until she realised that I was one of her top daily performers. Even when I visited India about 10 years ago, and met a top female official, I encountered the same prejudice in the way I was received: I was not treated the same way as the other guests. Confidence was always something that I struggled with because of my weight, skin-colour and socio-economic status. In my mind, I had everything going against me. However, I learned to love myself and I am happy to be standing in my own power now. It was a gradual process and it started happening before my father died. But after he died and I realised how strong I was, I totally accepted the fact that there was nothing that I could do about my skin, and that nothing was wrong with me: This is how God made me. I lost weight through a stringent diet and exercise program, and started attracting compliments from other ethnic groups. People of other races would tell me that I was pretty and had gorgeous skin. I was complimented on its velvet appearance. I had never experienced that growing up. Those compliments made me realise that my life was not confined to the East Indian community nor its mentality. I still encounter discrimination sometimes, but I don’t let it get to me: Those people don’t pay my bills. I am educated, cultured and respect myself. I am confident and this confidence makes people respect me. How do you change this prejudiced mentality in people? I don’t know if you can. It’s up to people to learn not to be judgemental. I think it’s about propagating in young minds, acceptance of people for who they are, regardless of colour, caste, creed and appearance. We preach it all the time but we don’t live it. In some people’s homes it’s still going to be about caste, creed, race and who is a suitable bride for their son: Who is fair-skinned enough to make beautiful babies, uphold the family name and be a good trophy? It’s not about personality, even though you think that would be the case in this day and age, when women are really blazing trails. If young people continue to grow up in families like this, things won’t change. We can only try to counteract this mindset in schools.
No, you aren’t better because you look WHITE!
Colourism is not just prevalent in Black or South Asian Communities. All across the World in non-European nations, it is common for those with darker skin to be devalued. This article by C.N. Le from June 4, 2014, discusses the homogenization of East Asian beauty which includes the desirability of white skin. It features a montage of 18 Miss South Korea contestants from 2013, eerily similar to the one of the Miss India contestants in 2019. However, according to Le, in East Asia, the valuation of light skin has less to do with trying to emulate Whites as a racial group, and more to do with denoting wealth and privilege. Upper class people could and can hire others to perform manual labour. Those in the sun develop darker skin, and those indoors remain light-skinned. Hence, there is “…a distinct difference between the fair skin of the upper classes and the sun-baked visages of laborers.”
In an article entitled “Being dark-skinned in Beirut”, a Canadian woman of Sri Lankan origin (Priya Guns) writes about her unease inhabiting both spheres: The sphere of privilege due to her North American passport and Arabic-Speaking White husband, and the sphere of disdain due to her dark-skin which connects her to the maids of the wealthy Lebanese women. These maids come from countries like Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines. When she is not with her husband, she is sometimes mistaken for a maid and approached for sex. Even when she is with him, some people avoid speaking to her. “My maid’s stupid. She knows nothing. She can’t do anything. She’s useless,” confides a Lebanese woman to Priya. This is perhaps how some people are judging Priya, without really knowing her as well. “They don’t treat us like women. We’re slaves…We really suffer here,” confides an Ethiopian woman. Some of the maids are forced to perform sexual acts on men in authority, because they’ve had their passports confiscated by their employers. These men know that the women don’t have their papers, hence, they exploit them. “They see us as bitches. That’s what we are to them.” And a double divide is formed: A divide between women who are ‘smart’ and rich (the light-skinned Lebanese), and those who are not (the dark-skinned maids). And, a divide between women who are acceptable to be wives (the light-skinned, rich, ‘smart’ and hence ‘beautiful’ ones), and those who are deemed just good enough to fuck: The poor, dark-skinned, ‘less intelligent’, ‘less beautiful’ ones.
It is very easy to see how racism develops in this and other contexts. When skin-colour is correlated with wealth and intelligence, poor and dark-skinned people will suffer disproportionately, since they have been shut out of human development opportunities for centuries. They have not been permitted to advance en masse. Some lighter-skinned folks from within these populations were given the opportunity to advance, because of the perception that they were of a higher intelligence and more attractive than their darker-skinned compatriots. Many Indians and lighter-skinned people from other non-White communities, consciously and positively identify with White skin: They believe it renders them superior by association. I saw this in action most recently in Japan, when I walked behind three youths: A lighter-skinned Indian male and female, and a White woman. I sensed in the Indian woman, a superiority complex: A pomposity that I attributed to her pride in her skin-colour. I had grown up witnessing this disgusting attitude until I was 20 years old, and 15 years in Canada had not dulled my instincts. I was right: As we were crossing a busy street, she raised her arm and placed it next to the White woman’s arm and triumphantly exclaimed, “They’re almost the same in colour!” She was smiling. I was not. The White woman seemed like she did not give a rat’s ass. She was neither pleased nor displeased; just uninterested.
In this day and age, if you think that this man,
is less intelligent, capable, evolved and handsome than this man,
then you are spectacularly dumb. And racist. And hopefully, not voting in the next American presidential election. Why do non-White people all over the world, continue to buy into the bullshit myth of White supremacy? How ingrained is the self-hate and non-acceptance of self? What needs to be done to counteract this nonsensical and harmful stupidity? Education, empowerment of the citizenry and the enactment of public policies.
What is wrong with India?
A lot, but when it comes to colourism and anti-Black racism, Indians seem to possess a special kind of ignorance and intransigence. Not all of them, but large swathes of them. The same Indians who loudly decry violence and discrimination against their compatriots in White-majority countries, including Australia, will turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of African students and workers, who are the victims of mob violence in India. I don’t understand how these Africans can tolerate this: I would not continue living in a country where the inhabitants treat me as sub-human. I would promptly leave and tell everyone how barbaric they are. In an article for the Hindustan Times, a White American called Harry Stevens discusses how “India is open to foreigners if they are White”. He is acutely aware of the discrepancy between his privileged treatment and that of the Blacks. They are not the recipients of the famous Indian hospitality, unless they are rich, famous and hold power, like Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Barack and Michelle Obama. He hilariously posits:
“When was the collective decision made to be so accommodating to us white people? A study of the long annals of white people’s exploration of foreign lands reveals a clear and resounding pattern: people who look like me are bad news. Not individually, perhaps — lots of us are perfectly harmless. But the history of white people abroad is one of exploitation, violence, and destruction. If the past provides any lesson at all, it’s that if you let enough of us in, we’re liable to steal your biggest diamond and redraw your borders. You welcome us at your peril… Where India’s interactions with the West have often been marked by conflict, India and most African nations have enjoyed friendly relations throughout recent history. India and Africa both suffered under European colonialism, and both continue to struggle to shed themselves of that terrible legacy.
If I, a white man who has done so little to earn the privilege of your kindness, can return home and gush about Indian hospitality, then black foreigners ought to be given reason to do so, too. “
It is ironic that Mindy Kaling, a chubby, dark-skinned woman of Indian ancestry, is now rich, famous and successful in the United States of America; She would not have been permitted to accomplish the same thing in India. She would have been told “You’re too ugly, go do something else.”
Kaling is not unaware of the perception that she is ugly. In an interview with CNBC on November 12, 2018, she reveals:
“I didn’t have to worry so much, ‘Oh what would the boys think of me?’ because the answer was, well they think I’m ugly. When you are ignored in that way, one of the things that happens is confidence and asking for things based on your professional career — they come a little bit more easily for you. At least that was the case with me, because I felt like, you know, this is my only path.”
Kaling benefitted from the consciousness raising and the victories of the Black Liberation movements of the past, and the agitation for diversity and representation in the North American mass media. She got her breakthrough gig as a writer for “The Office” from a diversity hiring program. She works very hard and is supremely talented, but she wouldn’t have gotten to where she is, if somebody did not give her the opportunity to shine, and open the door for her. In India, “brownface” has become very common. That is, where lighter-skinned actors are using deeper shades of brown, to play characters from lower class and caste backgrounds. The colouring assumptions feed on prevailing caste, class and skin-colour associations, but deny persons actually possessing those complexions to play “themselves”. My feeling is that in India, there are many sparks of light which are being extinguished, by a society which stubbornly resists self-examination and change. A society which can be characterised by this internet meme:
It highlights the hypocrisy of a society where people proclaim to accept certain ideas on principle, but then act to preserve the long-standing, stifling social order. They convince themselves that they are heroic, because they are pleasing their parents and communities. In India, conformity is rewarded and free-thinking not applauded. Being disowned or killed is a real risk in some families and communities. However, mass cowardice never created any lasting change, nor true peace.
Call out the culprits!
Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood’s biggest star, has shamelessly endorsed skin-lightening products.
Khan has never hidden the fact that many directors thought that he was ugly when he was first starting out, due to his facial features and skin tone. Yet, after becoming a successful actor, he chose to endorse products which purvey the idea that people who look like him, are not good enough as they are. They need to lighten their skin in order to attract success, admiration and love from similar light-skinned people. You don’t need to speak Hindi in order to understand this ad: The message is perfectly clear.
Khan had a very weak and somewhat nonsensical defence of his actions, which in this day and age can only be described as Trump-esque. He said that endorsing skin-bleaching products was legal, that he would not encourage women to use them, and that he certainly would not use them on himself. Then, he claimed:
“I’m not selling fairness being better, I cannot sell beauty.”
What the fuck, Shah Rukh Khan! WTF! When told that that was exactly what he was doing, he reasoned:
But then you can ask about so many things I endorse. There are 27 of them and there will be a lot of contradictions. Suppose I’m selling luxury items, Louis Vuitton or Tag Heuer, would you ask me about selling products that are only unaffordable and against the poor? Now you and I are talking about it, if they don’t extend the campaigns, fine. But I am a walking, talking case in point: you don’t need to be good-looking. You don’t need to be fair, or tall, or have a special voice.
It’s the most hypocritical and purposefully evasive bullshit I have ever seen. It is disappointing but not surprising: Khan attracted a lot of unquestioned admiration for his statement “Don’t become a philosopher before you become rich.” He might as well have said “Greed is good, and FUCK the consequences!” Magnanimously stating in an interview that skin-lightening creams are unnecessary for love and success, does not nullify the damage done to the Indian psyche every day by ads like this:
It is false advertising, by the way, which should be banned: Khan’s skin tone has been dramatically lightened to match that of the model on the box. It is sickening to see how Indian self-hate and the hatred of Black skin is being sold and devoured. Khan is selling racism, even though he might not want to admit that. You’d never see Idris Elba, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson or Denzel Washington selling this shit. Khan would be better off trying to be a philosopher than an unscrupulous capitalist, who participates in inculcating an inferiority complex in his countrymen. At this point, the British have left the country. The worship of White skin is now self-inflicted.
To be fair, not all Indian celebrities are ignorantly or ruthlessly profiteering off of this racism. While some big names have and are, including Hrithik Roshan, John Abraham and Deepika Padukone, others like Abhay Deol are calling them out. In a series of sarcastic tweets, Deol skewered his fellow actors and cosmetic giants for promoting this inane racism. Nandita Das is one of the faces of the “Dark is beautiful” campaign, an advocacy initiative created by Women of Worth.
Priyanka Chopra, currently the most famous Indian woman in the West, has publicly expressed regret over her past endorsements of skin-lightening products. In an interview with Vogue India she said:
…When I was an actor, around my early twenties, I did a commercial for a skin-lightening cream. I was playing that girl with insecurities. And when I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh shit. What did I do?’ I started talking about being proud of the way I looked. I actually like my skin tone.
However, in 2008, Chopra starred in an award-winning movie called “Fashion” . It featured a highly racist and very disturbing scene, which underlined Indian attitudes towards Black people. In the movie, Chopra plays “…a high-strung supermodel who is unable to cope with the rigours of fame and becomes an alcohol and a drug addict. But the turning point for her comes only when she wakes up to find herself next to a black man. It’s only then that she realises the horror that her life has become.”
Okay, Mrs. Priyanka Chopra Jonas: What the fuck were you thinking when you agreed to do that scene? Loving Tupac, the Obamas and your Black friends isn’t going to get you out of this one. You were already aware of the anti-Black racism within the Indian community, and bias against dark skin in general. “Mississippi Masala” was released in 1991. What Mira Nair explored and examined, your movie simply touched upon and perpetuated: The idea that Africans are inferiors, and that fucking one or marrying one is a ‘step down’. We all know that fucking and marrying a White person is seen as a ‘step up’. I suppose you did well in the eyes of most Indians. How do you feel now about that scene, in light of all the sustained discrimination and violence that Africans living in India face? Does this quote by Mahesh Shantaram apply to you:
We like to think of ourselves as the victims of racism, but there is not an understanding that we are also perpetrators of racism.
I would like to know.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
In August 2015, K. Chaathu, a then 65 year old man from one of Kerala’s remotest areas, took the Indulekha company to court along with its star ambassador, Mammootty. He successfully argued that Indulekha falsely advertised skin-lightening capabilities in its “White Soap.” The company settled out of court with Chaathu for $30,000 rupees, or approximately $430 USD. For Chaathu, the issue wasn’t about money. It was about consistent corporate lying: How could a company make such misleading claims?
We have all seen a series of advertisements by Indulekha white soap. Their claim seemed very convincing and Mammootty’s appearance increased their credibility. But even a fraction of their claim is not true, I have experienced it I thought the soap can make me fair. We tried it for the past year but could not even find a slight change. The soap is not special and it should be a warning to all products in the market that cheat consumers. I don’t understand why these celebrities support these people. Maybe because of immense star worship most of my villagers believe what celebrities say. I have heard them saying may be that product is good otherwise Mammootty or Mohanlal will not act in the ad. I think many fans trust their celebrities, so they (celebrities) should be more responsible to society. Indulekha is just an example. I am sure that there are hundreds of products which do the same. People should react.
Yes, people should react, and taking these companies to court over their erroneous claims could be a very effective strategy. Skin-lightening products can contain some ingredients which are toxic, and governments should be regulating them more stringently. In the absence of these regulations, people should be very aware of what they are putting on their skin. This is where public health and awareness campaigns come in: To counter the narrative established by these companies.
The “Dark is beautiful” campaign is very uplifting and empowering. It teaches people to love themselves and accept themselves as they are. It teaches people that they are WORTHY of love. One of the most important messages that needs to be spread, is what my friend Nirmala said: Money cannot buy class. True class, that is, which is defined as excellence, magnificence and virtuosity. That is entirely up to you to develop, and is not a quality stemming from skin-colour. Barack Obama was and is the definition of class. Donald Trump is the definition of ass.
Cultural capital is not determined by your race: It is determined by who you choose to become, and you have no limitations. Success can be yours if you work for it. Not everyone is going to love you: Haters will hate, as Mindy Kaling and Michelle Obama know. It is human to want love, and to experience romantic love. But if someone doesn’t want to love you for who you are, and see the beauty in your physical appearance, they are not for you. You should not kill yourself on the inside, because of what people reject on the outside. Their mindset is up to them, your mindset is up to you. Take your power back, surround yourself with enlightened beings, and be happy with who you are. Love and be loved; that is what is important. And if that is contingent upon you being a certain skin-colour for some people, then they do not have a true willingness to love.
My hope in writing this article was to make people conscious of how these racial stereotypes affect us all: Those of us who benefit from them, and those of us who are disadvantaged by them. I would like only to promote equality amongst us. Everyone here is more than enough.