My name is Megha Nair, and I am your average Malayali girl living and studying in the United States. Like many other Indian women, I love to indulge in my culture. Whether it’s listening to South Indian music, dancing Bharatanatyam (an art form I have been learning for the past twelve years), or eating food from Kerala, I can’t get enough of it. Despite the many aspects of my culture that I deeply cherish, I have always noticed how upsetting it is that colorism has become a tool for social prejudice against women within India.
The Oxford Dictionary defines colorism as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” In my personal experience, I happen to have a lighter skin tone and have, therefore, had certain privileges. Never have I ever had Indian aunties that I know tell me some recipe for fairness involving turmeric powder, yogurt, or lemon juice. Never have I been told that I am too dark for someone else’s taste. Never have I ever been told to use Fair & Lovely; never have I ever not found a matching shade of foundation, etc. Yet, I have still been affected by the toxic nature of colorism. If I had a dime for every time someone was surprised to find out that I was South Indian, I would probably have paid off my tuition already. I distinctly remember how once, when I was in the sixth grade, a North Indian boy decided to argue with me that I could not possibly be from Kerala if my skin was not dark. Needless to say, when I angrily started speaking Malayalam, he was surprised. I also remember being told that I looked more like a South Indian when I began to tan more after playing softball in the blisteringly hot spring sun. These experiences caused me to doubt my sense of belonging to the South Indian community. Colorism within the Indian community impacts every single Indian woman of every single shade. Colorism has made India blind to the fact that all women are valid.
The sad reality is that the ideologies of colorism have been passed down from generation to generation in India due to British colonization. Dark skin has been considered an abominable trait, something to hide in fear of being demeaned. On the contrary, light skin is a key part of surviving the harsh realities of living under the rule of the British. In those moments of colonialism, the Indian woman: with her raven hair, chocolate eyes, brown skin, wide hips, curvy figure, and prominent facial features, was scorned in favor of Eurocentric standards of beauty (lighter hair, colored eyes, lighter skin, a slimmer figure, and dainty facial features). Since those times, many Indian women have been trying to meet these Eurocentric standards of beauty and have associated original Desi beauty with inadequacy.
Perhaps what is even more unfortunate is that often, the very people who go on to push these standards upon Indian women are Indian women themselves. However, they cannot be blamed: they have been conditioned with the obsession for fair skin from a very young age onwards. Sadly, these beliefs have been circulating for so long, that it has not been seen for what it truly is: a dehumanization of desi women. It has become a dehumanization of Desi women that’s been passed down from mother to daughter, sister to sister, aunt to niece, grandmother to granddaughter, etc., for too long. It has perpetuated the false idea that the value and beauty of a woman are determined by how fair her skin is.
There are plenty of Indian women who are told, “Who will marry you if your skin is this dark?” or “Your future husband won’t want his bride to be of such a dark complexion.” These statements do nothing more than to strip all women of their humanity and label them as simple, empty vessels to be married off, living only to serve to please their husband or as a baby-making machine. The true value of beauty for any woman is determined by her heart and her character, not by any superficial nonsense. This obsession with fair skin has led to serious self-doubt, a lack of confidence, and low self-esteem in many Indian women. These issues are the mental monsters created by colorism that only serve to deteriorate and destroy; these are just a few of the enemies that women face head-on in the battle against colorism.
So the question then becomes what the battle strategy to fight against colorism involves? The first step would be to inform the general public about the harm that colorism causes. We must be able to detach the association of colorism to a standard of beauty and re-associate it to a form of prejudice and discrimination. People must be made aware of the unfair happenings that come along with dark skin being stigmatized. Simultaneously people also need to be able to comprehend the damage that fetishizing light-skin truly does.
The best way to get through to the public would be through the media. Advertisements for skin-bleaching creams (e.g., Fair & Lovely) should no longer be allowed, and such harmful products should be exposed for the damage that they truly cause, both physically and emotionally. Little, dark-skinned Indian girls should not be watching television only to be made to feel that they are uglier due to a dusky complexion.
At the same time, little, lighter-skinned Indian girls should not develop a superiority complex over other girls simply because of the fairness of their skin. For if they do, it will only be a continuation of the toxic cycle of colorism. Rather than hold fair skin as a standard to be met to be considered beautiful, the media should acknowledge that beauty comes in all colors. Right now, there is an over-representation of fair-skinned heroes and heroines, whereas there are very few darker-skinned actors and actresses with significant roles. Even if darker-skinned folks are cast, they often only play the roles of villains. This further fuels the ideologies of colorism and also falsely advertises all dark-skinned people to be somehow inherently bad. While light-skinned actors and actresses are talented, others are even more talented and qualified who get rejected simply due to the color of their skin.
It goes without saying, but India’s obsession with fair skin has gone too far. It has come to the point where some Indian women tear others down to feel better about themselves, and it has left little girls questioning their self-worth all over the color of their skin. We, as a whole society, must remember that hatred of any sort is not an inherent trait but is rather taught; we, as a society, must stand together to recognize the hatred within colorism.