Why is there such an obsession with fair skin being the beauty benchmark and the resulting denigration of people with darker hued skin? It’s absurd this fair-skin obsession in a country where the majority of people are brown, it’s a lifelong training in self-loathing and discrimination. Being someone who has dark skin I’ve been on the receiving end of this, so I speak from experience. I’ve never had an issue with the color of my skin, in fact I love it, especially with a sun-kissed tan taking it to an even darker tone, but I believe I’m unfortunately in the minority. The generational thinking that has trickled down to today that somehow if you’re not fair you can’t possibly be lovely, sadly shows no real sign of changing.
Skin color bias has spawned a global, multibillion-dollar industry in cosmetic creams and invasive procedures and is thriving here in Sri Lanka. The perfect life from perfect skin, but only for those of the right shade, is the message and mindset that’s being passed down. This has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry in cosmetic creams and invasive procedures such as skin bleaching, steroid cocktails, “whitening” pills and intravenous injections; all with varying effectiveness and some with severe health risks. It’s more than a bias, it’s a dangerous cultural obsession that in its essence is about deep-rooted internalized racism. Colorism is a form of intra-racial discrimination based on skin color. What seems to sting the most is that while we acknowledge discrimination against us from those outside of our communities, we are in denial about the discrimination we inflict upon our own community.
India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances - Nehra Mishra says that “colorism was exacerbated by British Colonialism.” Mishra notes that “lighter skin Indians were given preference over their darker counterparts and hired more frequently.” Over time, British discrimination shaped South Asian “association of white colored skin with the ruling class, with power, with desirability, and also with beauty.” South Asians started attaching greater societal superiority and power to the fairer skinned, which in turn dictated and shaped the desire for a westernized concept of beauty with lighter skin. This discrimination continues and is used as the basis for a lot of skin whitening adverts.
Apart from the brands that sell skin lightening products, for them this is just about cold hard profit, there are so many other brands that perpetuate this thinking. Take a good, hard look at advertising, T.V. and film and you’ll soon find that quite a number only feature fair skinned people contributing to generations of dark women and men feeling unworthy because of the color of their skin.
In 2020, Unilever whose brand Fair & Lovely played a large part in the perpetuation of color bias realized or was prompted by the introspection in America of ways by which apparently neutral cultural ideals of success and beauty perpetuate systemic bias, stated, “we recognize that the use of the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right,” while announcing its decision to drop “fair” from the brand name, and assured us that it is committed to “a global, inclusive portfolio of skin care brands.” In 2021 they dropped the word “normal” from all their beauty products to create a more inclusive and progressive idea of beauty. Merely cosmetic change you might think but a step in the right direction nonetheless.
Once you start to notice it, you almost can’t switch it off, take the much talked about Mrs. Sri Lanka pageant: yes, the whole crowning, de-crowning debacle was both disgusting and hilarious in equal measure (for those with a sense of humor), throughout all that drama I couldn’t help but notice that the crowned women on stage were all of a certain hue. For a moment I wondered whether that was what Chulapadmendra was protesting with the “Wakanda Forever” pose, had it been I think quite a few people would have been onboard! Unfortunately it wasn’t.
The absurdity of our deep-rooted dislike of dark skin and our eager participation in erasing brown-ness can been seen in everything from matrimonial advertisements (which are ridiculous anyway) where the bridegroom always seeks a fair girl to brands that only use light skinned models. This shady business needs to stop. It needs to change as the rest of the world is beginning to wake up and evolve, we should too. Beauty is not static; it’s endlessly evolving, shifting and embracing, it’s old and young, dark and light and somewhere in between; it’s never just possessed one face and now more than ever, inclusivity is key.
To all my dark-skinned sisters and brothers remember we’re underappreciated and underrepresented in the media which will change and if you haven’t heard it recently, you’re gorgeous. You’re melanin rich, it's a gift and there’s nothing wrong with the skin you’re in!