In this blog, we wanted to inquire deeper into the impacts of colourism in India, so we reached out to Anuja Premika, who answers our burning questions below. Anuja is a PhD student studying online beauty culture at the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad. She was part of a three-person team (along with Desiree D’Souza and Neha Joshi) that created the documentary “Un-Fair” that explores skin colour bias in the Indian beauty and media industries.
ALSO READ: PART 1 OF OUR COLOURISM IN INDIA SERIES, WRITTEN BY BEAUMARK'S FOUNDER, SHIKHA.
Based on your analysis of colourism and after interviewing so many people on the topic, what were the main effects of the prejudice and discrimination of those with darker skin tones?
The common theme that emerged from our interviews was that women were exposed to colourist attitudes from a very young, impressionable age. You’re more likely to accept and internalise the values that you’re exposed to as a child, and so young girls with darker skin grew up believing that there was something inherently inferior about the way they look.
It’s heartening to see that a lot of them grew out of that belief as adults, but you can’t discount the damage that those formative experiences can have. Some lost out on opportunities to be on stage in school programmes, some were compared to fairer-skinned relatives in the family, some felt unlucky in love as teenagers, and almost all of them were called names like “kaali” (black) in school. Of course, the problem doesn’t end when you’re an adult—you’re still inundated with images that equate fairness with beauty.
How big of a role do you think brands have on the colourism we see today in India?
Advertisers certainly weren’t the first to suggest that fair skin is more beautiful than dark skin, but they’ve done much to spread that message far and wide. Advertising simply picks out the attitudes that make them money—and anything that makes women feel inadequate is an opportunity for a brand to step in and offer a solution. The skin lightening business is the most obvious example of this; they’ve invented a lucrative industry feeding off of Indian (and broadly, Asian) women’s fear that their complexion needs “fixing”. Even when we’re not explicitly talking about lightening, the language of skincare marketing betrays their ideology—words like “glow” and “bright” and used to allude to fairness without saying as much.
Colour cosmetics (i.e. makeup) is one place we don’t examine enough, but the signs are there. If you take one look at the foundation and concealer ranges sold in the market today, you’ll see 50 shades of beige, and one or two tokenistic darker shades. The only brands that sell enough options for a variety of dark skin tones are luxury brands that not everyone can afford. So, brands are essentially telling women with darker skin that there’s no room for them in the beauty business, unless they can afford to buy products that sell at a premium.
Even in products that have nothing to do with the colour of your skin—say, mascara— you’d be hard pressed to find a dark-skinned woman as a model in marketing material. Simply put, dark-skinned women don’t get to see anyone that looks like them in the beauty industry. In one way or another, brands are giving women a narrow view of what beauty looks like, and leaving a whole range of Indian women out in the process.
Do social media filters play a role in instigating colourism?
Filters and editing apps are a telling sign of how society defines beauty—light complexion, no blemishes or scars, a narrow nose, accentuated cheek bones, structured jawline, big eyes, and plump lips. Obviously, nobody looks like that naturally. It’s a mix-and-match of features that you could only achieve with makeup (or cosmetic surgery, for that matter). You could say that it’s harmless, that people only use it to enhance their photos to post on social media. But if that’s how you want to see yourself (and be seen), you’re never going to like the face you see in the mirror. Although this pertains to a broader question of beauty ideals, colourism is certainly part of the problem—beauty apps will let you lighten your skin to any extent, and even in-built filters on Instagram tend to make your skin tone look ambiguously even-toned. If you select the default “beautify” settings on most apps, it’ll inevitably make your skin lighter by a shade or two.
Ultimately, we end up with one singular idea of “beauty” across the globe, and it largely stems from a Euro-centric ideal with racist histories attached to it.
Your final thoughts… do you think that it is possible to stop colourism? If we put in the time and effort to change people’s opinion of skin colour
Well, we always have to believe that things can and will get better. And although the situation is still bleak, there have been small improvements. In some ways, advertisements are now less blatant about the glorification of light skin than they were, say, 20 years ago. For instance, older advertisements that endorsed skin lightening for babies aren’t around anymore. But these aren’t great strides. Skin lightening is still a massive industry. Films still have only fair-skinned leading ladies for the most part.
Representation in beauty marketing is still largely tokenistic rather than being normalised. And although some women feel empowered enough to own the colour of their skin, these women belong to a thin slice of (most often) upper-middle class women with a degree of privilege. If we want to declare that colourism is over one day, that has to include women and men across the socio-economic spectrum.
Thank you again Anuja for speaking to us and bringing light to other aspects of colourism in India. We recommend everyone watch the YouTube video Anuja has also created on Unfair Beauty standards, which can be found here.