Whether we identify as Black, Asian, Latina, or a little bit of everything, women of color are no strangers to the controversies surrounding skin tone. India is the latest country to bring the color debate front and center with Indian models and entertainers speaking out against a nation’s preference for lighter skin.
For century’s India has been guided by a caste system in which darker skinned people were believed to be from a lower caste; and while the onset of colonial rule did nothing to improve India’s state of mind, the root of India’s love affair with lighter skin stems from a divide between upper and lower class citizens. Here upper class Indians view themselves as superior because of their alleged Aryan roots. “Indians in general have that inferiority complex, we have had a hangover about fair skin, since the British left India. It is an inherent thing in Indians to see white as beautiful and black as ugly,” Pranab Awasti, owner of Glitz Modeling agency, told the Telegraph.
The magazine industry in India is no stranger to the skin tone controversy. Caucasian or fairer skinned models appear more readily on the cover of India’s top fashion magazines, and get paid thousands of dollars more than their darker skinned counterparts. When Indian actress Aishwarya Rai graced the cover of Elle India, a frenzy began over the magazines decision to lighten her skin. The Elle India debacle became so heated that Rai allegedly considered seeking legal action against the magazine for the creative license they took over her appearance. Sound familiar? As recently as 2010 the US version of Elle magazine was accused of lightening Gabourey Sidibe’s complexion on their October cover. Cosmetic companies like L’Oreal have also added to the light is right myth by perpetuating stereotypes in their ad campaigns. In 2008 L’Oreal was accused of lightening Beyoncé’s skin tone in their ad campaign, and it was also the same year that Aishwarya Rai was abruptly dropped from her contract with L’Oreal for refusing to endorse their skin-lightening cream.
With India’s newfound economic power, citizens are experiencing a rise in their buying power, and ultimately a new accessibility to fashionable luxuries. For many who have failed to reap the benefits of India’s budding economic success, skin-whitening products are seen as an affordable luxury. Companies like Vaseline and Nivea unabashedly promote their skin-whitening products to play into a nation’s insecurity by promising cheap and affective ways to appear lighter. Indian society is so obsessed with fair skin, that skin tone can also affect a person’s marriage prospects. India’s popular match making site, Shaadi, conducted a poll in which skin tone was considered to be the most important attribute when choosing a partner in the northern states. It is also common to find a preference for lighter skin placed in personal ads.
As long as the average person in Indian society continues to condone an apparent bias, real change in India’s fashion industry and society may never be attainable. The boldness of Indian models to speak out against a “cultural norm” brings hope to an issue that has plagued almost every corner of the earth. The United States is far from perfect, but an openness to discuss societal issues surrounding skin tone have often led to citizens leading the rallying cry against preferences for lighter skin or at least sparking the debate.
Although Indian celebrities are using their popularity to influence media stereotypes, there are still many models and actresses who endorse skin-whitening products. Indian models Dipannita Sharma and Carol Gracias are making it clear that this issue is more than just industry deep, “It’s not just the fashion industry, India per se is obsessed with white skin. We will take another hundred years to completely get over it,” Sharma told the Telegraph. Perhaps when all models, actresses, and singers of color speak up against the preferences for lightness, the media will be forced to realize that true beauty is diverse and comes in many shades of brown.
– Abiola Fasehun