South Asia’s skin-lightening industry is booming. Industries such as Pond’s and Fair and Lovely exploit beauty standards by promising young women a “fair,” “glowing,” and “radiant” complexion. The most popular skin lightening cream “Fair and Lovely” is a $200 million business plus industry in India alone. Moreover, some of South Asia’s most loved and eminent actors endorse this industry. A 2008 Pond’s ad starring Priyanka Chopra, Neha Dhupia, and Saif Ali Khan shows Priyanka’s boyfriend leaving her for her fairer and more attractive counterpart. The ad casts “darkness” as “unlovely” and “undesirable.”
Media including television shows, movies, ads, and Bollywood circulate images of young, fair, and beautiful women casting a pervasive subliminal message that “whiteness” is the epitome of beauty.
South Asia’s long obsession with fair skin can be traced in a variety of directions, but its colonial past may be the strongest correlate. The Persians, Mughals, and the British – “the light-skinned oppressors” conquered and colonized India extensively. This speared the systemic credence that light skin is superior to dark skin.
Thus, society began to associate light skin with power. British civilizing missions in India embarked on the spread of “superior” values, ideas, and culture in contrast to that of the “barbaric” natives. This contrast between native barbarism and European civility allowed the British to justify their colonial practices. While white superiority is simply a fabrication of alleged phenotypical hierarchy, the world internalized it.
During the colonial era, society came to link fair skin to class and privilege. While the British upper-class leisured in the shade, Indians worked in the sweltering summer heat. Indians came to associate dark skin with labor and the working-class, and white skin with high-status, upper-class, and privilege. The desire to rid oneself of indigenous culture, language, and characteristics to emulate the European is rooted in internalized white supremacy and colonialism.
Remnants of White Supremacy
Skin tones are a result of basic science. Through evolution, bodies have adapted different skin colors based on geographical location. Where the sun shines the strongest, our bodies produce more melanin to protect us from the sun’s harsh rays. In areas with weak solar radiation, our bodies produce less melanin to absorb more sunlight and Vitamin D.
But colonial structures fixated whiteness as genetically superior. These forms of white supremacy are still deeply crystallized in societal structures. The beauty industry exploits colonial beauty standards that placeswhiteness on a pedestal. Europeans demonized curly, drier African hair as ugly, coarse, and untamable. Long, curly blonde hair became the epitome of beauty in Africa following European colonialism. The late-nineteenth century in Africa saw many advertisements of chemical hair straighteners. Whitening cosmetics and hair-straightening products that assist in erasing Indigenous features and emulate European features are simply traces of the world’s dark colonial past, internalized white supremacy, and anti-blackness.
In order to dismantle white supremacy and anti-blackness, we must dive deeper to address how colonial structures still manifest themselves in society. Anti-racism does not stop at signing petitions and reposting “woke” Instagram posts. It requires an overturn of deep systematic structures imbued in white supremacy.