People who regularly tune into any Indian television channel are greeted with an oddly homogenous yet familiar sight. Nearly every single Indian commercial or television show portrays its main characters with purely fair features—pale skin, often lighter hair complemented with dazzlingly pearly grins. India’s dominating Bollywood film industry can attest to that as well.
In fact, trying to prove otherwise will reveal an arduous task.
South Asia, which covers close to five million square feet within the largest continent in the world, is home to people whose visage comes in a variety of features. In India itself, a wide range of complexions exist, and the word “typical” is hardly relevant when it comes to describing the average appearance of over one billion people.
An unhealthy obsession with having fair skin has long prevailed in countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The popularity of this mindset has mounted enormously in recent decades thanks to marketing of products like Fair and Lovely, a lotion that promises the user lighter pigmented skin with continued use, lemon juice lightening recipes, and other skin-bleaching items that have gained a massive following.
While having light skin is promoted because apparently that enables more positive experiences such as better marriage prospects, having a darker complexion has led to vastly negative stigma that can follow throughout life. Dark-skinned South Asians forcefully confront a malicious cultural complex, leading them to be viewed as less desirable. It has become extremely common to judge a person’s value for this superficial trait. In fact, this stigma engrains itself in South Asian society to the point where actors who play the villain or antagonist in South Asian TV are usually people with far darker than the heroes or protagonist.
A quick search on the web on this topic will reveal countless testimony from South Asian women, not just from South Asia but from all around the world, confirming unhappy memories and experiences that stem from having dark skin. What drives this shameful social stigma in this day and age?
According to Urvashi Butalia, the co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist magazine, it can be attributed to two factors.
“Firstly there’s the invasions, the idea that the Aryans are superior to the Dravidians; secondly the caste system, the upper castes supposedly being fairer skinned than their lowlier fellows. India’s rulers have often been white, from the Aryans to British colonialists. A pale skin is associated with the exercise of power,” Butalia said in an interview with The Guardian.
This deeply racist perspective exists in varied forms worldwide. The United States, for instance, is currently engulfed in a racial war because of the prevalence of police brutality against African- Americans, prompting movements like Black Lives Matter. However, this brand of racism runs so deep in South Asia’s veins that it has become completely normalized,
Only recently, people have begun to defy this stigma. One recent noteworthy event was the crowning of Nina Davaluri’s Miss America 2014 title. Davaluri, a young woman hailing from Syracuse, New York, faced criticism from the media in India as well as the west for not being “American” enough, and for being too dark to represent India. The talented Miss America dismissed the backlash, chalking it up to a win in the steps towards eradicating the discrimination against skin color.
Davaluri’s stance demonstrates how celebrities can affect change. Such continued efforts, as well as spreading awareness of the issue at hand are ways in which South Asian society can hope to create the strongest impacts on this detrimental cultural flaw.