Lindsay Bryan-Podvin is a biracial financial therapist, speaker, and Plutus-nominated author of the book "The Financial Anxiety Solution."

Colorism: An Indian Perspective

Colorism. 

Simply put, it is the prejudice and discrimination that people with darker skin face because of the color of their skin. Skin color is determined by how much melanin is present in one’s skin, and more melanin in skin has been proven to protect against UV rays, sunburn, and even skin cancer. Something as trivial as the presence of a skin pigment cell in your body that should, in fact, be celebrated, is the cause for so much hate. This is a global phenomenon, especially prevalent in South and East Asia, African and South American Countries. I want to discuss my perspective on colorism and how it has infiltrated and affected me personally.

Before I touch on my experiences with colorism, I want to discuss the history and origins of colorism in Indian society. Colorism first stemmed from the caste system. Simply put, the caste system is a class system based on birth in India. Though outlawed by the Indian Government, the caste system still remains in the background of every Indian person’s life. The caste system is said to have begun in 1500 BCE and groups people based on their generational occupations. The brahmins are the highest on the caste system, and they are the priests and the religious mentors, whereas the untouchables are the lowest on the caste system, and they do the ‘dirty work’ of the society such as cleaning the streets and bathrooms. The higher castes were associated with doing work indoors. They were wealthier, so they had ‘fairer’ or lighter skin while the lower castes did a lot of their work outdoors, so they had darker skin due to repeated sun exposure. Skin color was tied to status in society, hence the preference for lighter skin over darker skin.

Colorism only strengthened during the reign of the British Empire. The British Raj ruled over India for nearly 200 years. Eurocentric beauty standards became the new standard in India since then, and sadly when the British left India in 1947, they forgot to take their beauty standards with them. It has since been deeply ingrained in Indian society.

I was nine years old when I first saw an ad for Fair and Lovely (now renamed Glow and Lovely) on television. For anyone who doesn’t know what Fair and Lovely is, it is a “skin lightening cosmetic product” that appears in the form of lotions, BB creams, and face washes. This brand happens to be India’s #1 best selling fairness cream, bringing in 4100 crores or approximately $545 million a year. I remember seeing the same stereotypical ad of a woman who had dark skin and was unhappy with her skin. She was getting rejected by a man she liked or turned down from a potential job because of her skin color. Then, her lighter-skinned friend would hand her a tube of this magic cream, and suddenly this woman’s skin would get fifty shades lighter. Then would come a lovely montage of the woman with her ‘newfound beauty’ getting many marriage proposals from men and getting accepted to every job offer.

Like every nine-year-old, I’d stare at the TV in awe. How was it possible that a cream-that too a cream that was so accessible to the public with the cheapest sachets priced at 10 rupees or 13 US cents could be real? But I had no choice but to believe it. After all, only the biggest Bollywood stars endorsed this product. And the signs for colorism in India were everywhere. It was in the biggest of cities and the smallest of villages.

Soon, I began to buy in on this idea that I could lighten my skin too. I believed at nine years old that my self-worth was tied to my skin color. In my family, my mother and younger sister were considered to be ‘fair’ or light-skinned while I inherited my father’s ‘duskier’ skin. I wanted to look more like my sister and mother because I always felt like they got more compliments for being beautiful than I ever did. In fact, my best friend’s mother would call my sister Azhagi, or beauty every time she saw her. I would always feel jealous that my sister would get compliments like that, and I’d never get any compliments on my appearance. I’d somehow concluded that the reason for the ‘lack of compliments’ was because I wasn’t light-skinned like my mom or sister.

I decided that the logical solution was to buy a fairness cream. It was easily accessible to me as I lived in Chennai, India, at the time, and fairness creams could be found in any grocery store or pharmacy. However, I didn’t buy the popular Fair and Lovely brand. My nine-year-old self had somehow came to the conclusion that Fair and Lovely was a ‘cheap’ product (which it was, quite truthfully), and I wanted something that was a little more expensive so it wouldn’t harm my skin. So I decided to buy another brand’s fairness cream that was endorsed by one of my favorite stars at the time, Priyanka Chopra. This cream was called Pond’s White Beauty. Yes, I wanted to become a white beauty.

I remember the glass jar it came in. I remember applying the cream to my bare face, spreading it across my cheeks. After application, I could instantly tell that there was a white overcast on my face. On top of that, within two minutes of applying the cream, my face began to burn. I immediately washed the product off of my face and never touched another fairness cream ever. I decided that even if the world screamed at me that I wasn’t beautiful enough for them because of my skin color, it wouldn’t be worth it to use a product that could harm my skin. 

Yes, fairness creams do harm your skin. The harmful physical effects of using fairness creams aren’t well known to everyone. Increased usage of fairness creams leads to skin sensitivity to the sun, leading to skin cancer and skin damage. Fairness creams also contain harmful substances like mercury and lead that can damage the skin in the long run. Fairness creams also contain harmful parabens, excessive fragrances, and steroids. Need I say more? While this cream may be cheap and easily accessible in India, the true cost of using it is much higher.

How did a cream that was actually harmful to people physically and emotionally end up on the market? The bigger question is, how did Bollywood celebrities endorse such a toxic mentality? It’s because Bollywood itself is filled with colorism. If you take a close look at Bollywood, you’ll notice that there is little to no diversity in the skin colors of the actors and actresses represented. This, again, has to do with colorism. Actors and actresses, especially actresses with darker skin, play comical roles or roles that make their skin color the butt of the joke. It is rare for these dark-skinned actors/actresses to come in powerful lead or even supporting roles. In fact, there are films where they would rather put blackface on an existing light-skinned actress to play the role of a dark-skinned girl as opposed to actually letting a dark-skinned actress play the role. The most recent example of this was in the 2019 film Bala. What is the reason behind these deplorable actions? I could only conclude that the movie wouldn’t have done well in the box office because of the preference for actresses with lighter skin. Society would rather see a lighter-skinned woman in blackface than an actual darker-skinned woman. I never saw women with skin like me or darker than mine represented on television growing up.

I soon stopped caring about what people thought about me when it came to my skin color. I was never heavily ostracized for my skin color in the first place by people close to me, so I think it was easier for me to let go of that min
dset. Many women who have skin like mine or even darker skin like mine aren’t as lucky as I was. They face way more discrimination on a daily basis, whether from members of their family or unsolicited advice from random third-party people in their lives

My nine-year-old self managed to escape from this toxic ideology that my skin was not beautiful because it was darker than my mother or my sister’s skin, relatively unscathed. However, I must acknowledge that while my skin may not be considered ‘light,’ I am also not ‘dark.’ I fall somewhere in the middle, and because of this, I definitely believe and acknowledge that I have more privilege than my darker-hued sisters and brothers. 

How can we change these perceptions? It is absurd that even in 2020, people believe that ‘fair’ or lighter skin is beautiful and has better connotations than someone with darker skin. But things are changing in India. Influencers like Jovita George and Deepica Mutyala have contributed immensely to the movement that all shades of skin deserve acceptance no matter what. The newer generation of Indian people is speaking against colorism and shade discrimination. In February this year, the Indian Government proposed a $600,000 fine and a jail penalty for endorsing or promoting fairness products. In fact, the #1 fairness cream brand in India I mentioned before got renamed from Fair and Lovely to Glow and Lovely. However, that being said, the cream still has the same lightening agents in it that it had before and is still known as a fairness cream in the market. The rebrand does little in this movement towards acceptance of all hues. 

This fight towards acceptance of all skin colors will not be an easy one. It will be a slow and excruciating process, but we shouldn’t give up. So next time you see, hear or experience colorism in your life, call it out! After all, it’s the small steps that will lead to a big impact in this revolution.

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