Colourism: Can Celebrities Cure Our Ugly Obsession With Fair Skin?

"It started when I was about seven years old. It was my birthday, and someone at the party said, ‘If she were fair, she would’ve looked beautiful.’"

“Look at that,” said my friend, pointing to a billboard advertisement as we waded our way through the crowded streets of Mumbai. “I’m going to try the cream. I really need to lighten this tan,” she said, looking visibly annoyed at the deep brown skin colour she’d acquired over the summer of 2018.

I didn’t think much of this exchange until a couple of months ago, when Indian actor Akshay Kumar apologized for endorsing harmful tobacco products after a severe public backlash.

Kumar’s apology reminded me of that billboard advertisement. It featured actor Yami Gautam turning several shades lighter after using Glow & Lovely, then known as Fair & Lovely, a skin-lightening cream manufactured and sold in India. Ever since Gautam has been appointed as the brand ambassador for the company, she’s been accused of colourism.

Roots of colourism

Colourism is discrimination based on skin colour, in which lighter skin tones are favoured over darker ones. In India, it possibly dates back to 1500 BC, when fair-skinned Aryan invaders from Greece and Central Asia banished dark-skinned Dravidian race people living in north India back to the south.

India’s colonial history further reinforced the fair-skin bias, deeply embedding the desperate desire for fair skin. Since then, fair-skinned people have been perceived as socially elite, beautiful, confident and successful.

As of today, India stands divided on the issue of colourism. On the one hand, celebrities like Nandita Das are actively working to eradicate the skin-colour bias. Yet, market studies predict India’s fairness cream and bleach segment will reach INR 5,000 crores (USD 645 million) by 2023.

Do celebrities have a role?

Can we attribute this blatant disparity to celebrity influence? Do celebrities really have the power to dismantle or perpetuate colourism?

I asked three people who’ve battled this bias: Shraddha believes India needs robust anti-discrimination laws; Ashwini wants to see more education for parents; and Aldo thinks faith leaders in India could change the game.

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Despite different approaches, they all concede that celebrities and their influence hardly make a difference. So, have we been barking up the wrong tree?

It is laws, not celebrities, who can make a difference

“It started when I was about seven years old. It was my birthday, and someone at the party said, ‘If she [Shraddha] were fair, she would’ve looked beautiful.’”

“That’s when I started feeling something was wrong with me, and it’s remained ingrained in my psyche,” Shraddha recalls. Even a progressive and supportive mother couldn’t shake off her feelings of inadequacy.

“Although my mother insisted that skin colour made no difference, I was still treated differently everywhere else. My teachers favoured fair-skinned girls. I was made to stand behind them [the fair-skinned girls] at school productions.”

Shraddha’s battle worsened when she started interning at an advertising firm. Ambitious and driven, Shraddha was keen to explore a client-facing role, but her manager dissuaded her.

“Yes, you’d be great, but we need someone attractive,” implying Shraddha wasn’t pretty enough for the job.

There have to be legal consequences for meaningful social changes to happen, Shraddha asserts. She believes her experiences at school or work could’ve been different if there were strict anti-discrimination laws in India.

“Would my teacher or boss treat me the same way if they knew their behaviour had legal implications?” she asks matter-of-factly.

Although The Constitution of India prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, caste, sex, or birthplace, there are no legislations to penalize perpetrators of colourism.

Shraddha’s experience highlights the systemic discrimination against people with dark skin in India’s education system and workplaces.

So limiting the accountability check only to celebrities, when other key members of society may be equally responsible for discriminatory behaviour, won’t result in favourable outcomes for India.

On the other hand, systematic laws can promote social changes by enforcing equal accountability for all stakeholders and addressing such issues at all levels.

It is parents, not celebrities, who can make a difference

Ashwini’s struggle with skin-colour bias started at home.

Honestly, I wasn’t unhappy with my skin colour. But when I reached adolescence, my mother was concerned, and that affected me more. She’d always ask me to look after my skin and wished that I’d taken after my father, who was on the fairer side.”

Ashwini knows her mother meant well. But she also believes that people from her parents’ generation  —  the ones who grew up in post-colonial India (1947 onwards)  —  often perceived westerners and their values as superior.

So western culture became a hallmark of success in India. She points out that these perceptions then led to Indians “blindly aping” the ways of the west: eating, dressing and, of course, desiring their skin colour too.

Today, as a mother of a 10-year-old, Ashwini is clear about the values she wants to pass on to her daughter, who has a lighter skin tone.

“My husband and I ensure that Dia doesn’t feel superior or inferior because of her skin colour. When she was about seven years old, she started name-calling her friends who had dark skin. We scolded her and explained that judging someone based on their colour, looks or body type is wrong. She’s learned over time and now reprimands anyone who does it – including us.”

Ashwini believes character development starts at home, and parents play a pivotal role in shaping their children’s thought processes. She affirms that decades of deep-rooted social conditioning cannot be unlearnt without targeted educational programmes.

While studies support Ashwini’s viewpoint, a quick internet search shows a significant dearth of such programmes for parents in India.

So, perhaps, India’s focus needs to shift from condemning celebrities to educating parents about social biases, which could eventually transform society’s views at large.

It is faith leaders, not celebrities, who can make a difference

“My friends called me kaala kauwa and kaala idli,” says Aldo.

“I don’t think they knew or understood what they were saying,” he clarifies. Regardless, these mindless slurs affected his self-confidence, especially in his early teens.

However, unlike Shraddha and Ashwini’s experience with colourism, Aldo’s trajectory took a positive turn since attending university: he found more acceptance and less judgement from his peers.

Aldo attributes his contrasting experience to different social expectations from men and women. “In India, there is a checklist to follow: men must earn well, and women must look pretty to be eligible for marriage. Hence, there’s more pressure on them [women] in this context.”

The current market share of women’s fairness products in India support Aldo’s assertion. For example, Glow & Lovely – which mainly caters to women  —  occupies a whopping 70 per cent share in the fairness cream and bleach segment.

These figures highlight the extreme pressure on women to acquire fair skin. That said, the launch of new products such as Fair & Handsome and Glow & Handsome now show a growing demand for men’s fairness products in India.

To tackle this, Aldo believes that social messages should be propagated through faith leaders, not celebrities. “Religion, god and faith leaders hold an elevated status in Indian homes,” he reasons.

The 2011 census of India revealed that 99.78 per cent of Indians practised some form of religion. These numbers indicate that faith leaders could be more influential, relevant and accessible than celebrities.

Hence, there may be a higher chance of successfully increasing social awareness through faith leaders.

Lastly, each story proposes a unique solution to combat colourism. But interestingly, none of them points to celebrities. Instead, they recommend engaging and partnering with legal systems, educational programmes and community leaders.

We are overestimating celebrities

While a celebrity’s influence in India cannot be denied, their overall role may be overestimated within the context of perpetuating social biases or triggering social reforms.

Perhaps, changemakers need to consider a more strategic and sustainable approach to create long-term social changes.

So hopefully, as modern India becomes more aware and challenges the status quo, billboards across the country will someday only advertise products that celebrate  — not reject  —  diverse skin colours.

Image Source: Still from Glow & Lovely Ad, via Canva Pro

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About the Author

Deepti Sur

A feline worshiper, beach bum, and book chomper, who loves to eat, write, and travel. I spend my time writing, studying publishing and communication, cuddling my fur children, watching the sunset, and trying to make read more...

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