“Don’t stand outside too long”, “Face your back towards the sun”, “Come into the shade beta” – classic phrases used by Nanis and Dadis all over the world. Despite being brought up in a relatively progressive modern world, I still find myself having subconscious colour biases because of the way I’ve seen and heard things (from family and the media). However, I do get triggered when I see particularly damaging actions which reinforces the fair skin privilege, especially in the last five years where colourism criticism has become more commonplace.
The more recent example that shocked me was the brown-facing (darkening your face to play people of colour) of Bhumi Pednekar in Bala, a 2020 Bollywood film about a man who struggles to comes to terms with going bald. The ironic tragedy of this situation is the character actually advocates for skin colour equality and speaks up against discrimination. Unfortunately, the actress they chose to cast is a very fair skinned Indian, which detracts from the positive messages. Instead, it makes the audience think that a dark skinned girl can’t get a leading role in a Bollywood film despite more than half the nation being darker than “dusky”. I don’t blame the actress entirely for accepting the role as it is the job of the casting team to be aware of the implications but her reasoning when battling Twitter was weak. She claimed that the logic of her accepting this role despite her fair skin is the same as her accepting a role of an overweight lady despite being skinny. There’s two issues with this excuse; for her other role she gained/lost the weight whereas one can’t naturally tan oneself that many shades darker. Being overweight is not as engrained as much as a social stigma as being dark and does not link back to harmful colonial prejudices. You still see many roles where actors change their body dimensions to adapt to the part e.g. Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Whereas roles that involve skin-tone changes face a barrage of criticism especially in Hollywood e.g. Zoe Saldana in Nina. There are many more examples of brownface in Bollywood too e.g. Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy, Hritik Roshan in Super 30 and Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab.
Some directors claim that they need these big stars to carry the film but this just reinforces the cycle of not hiring dark skinned actors for their break-through debut. Even the YouTube comment section is rife with uneducated opinions on this vicious cycle.
Nevertheless, the colourism seeps from the big screen to the everyday lives of women more than men, who are constantly fed the line that fair and lovely is the key to shaadi (=marriage), reinforcing this toxic thinking.
All these examples made me wonder why do we have this light skinned bias? And why do we have it more so for women? The former question comes back to colonialism. In the West, paler people were considered to hold a higher standing since they didn’t have to work in the sun or get dirty like chimney sweeps. Those of important stature would often cake their faces with white lead powder to achieve a stark white complexion. Therefore it was of no surprise that when the British, Portuguese and French colonised India, they began preaching the idea that those who had fairer skin were superior. They segregated them by building sperate clubs, restaurants and giving them preferential employment and education. I must note that the colourism probably began before the Europeans, with the Mughals, a fairer skinned race, ruling over the subcontinent but this was not institutionalised like with the British. The caste system in India, where the lower castes were involved in more outdoor tedious labour and therefore had deeper melanin, also could’ve contributed to skin-tone discrimination.
The later question comes back to the patriarchy – our other favourite reason for why the world is so messed up. Men have been in a position power since the beginning. Whether it is men being able to spread their seed to multiple women without becoming vulnerable/weak and procreate past the age of 40 (more of a factor in the cave days), or men accounting for 94% of FTSE 100 CEOs in 2021. This financial security that men achieve, allows them to be more superficial in the choosing of their female counterparts since they don’t need to depend on them for anything, ultimately reducing women to sex objects. This no doubt heightens the beauty pressures on women in society.
There’s been a lot of pressure recently on companies to stop promoting skin bleaching and incorporate all skin tones – L’Oreal will no longer use words like “whitening” and “fair” on the packaging of its skin care products. Johnson & Johnson this week also discontinued two skincare lines that use the word “fairness” on its labels. But there’s still a long way to go with the market leader Unilever announcing it will only rebrand its bestselling skin-lightening cream, Fair & Lovely.