Colorism & Skin Bleaching: a Focus on South Asia  

Saahithi Gaddipati, Copy Editor

Each community has its own standards of beauty, though over time and through cultural diffusion, these have bled together and morphed. For certain communities, they intensify, while others may see certain standards fading. In various communities across the globe, predominantly in areas with people of color, arguably one of the most prominent standards is that of having light skin. 

According to Oxford languages, colorism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” While colorism has foundations and roots in racism, they are not the same thing. 

Junior Arya Krishnamoorthy says, “There is a large emphasis in popular [Indian] culture that lighter skin is better and more attractive. Skin color also denotes socioeconomic class, with lighter skinned individuals being seen as of a higher class or richer.” This phenomenon is explained by Neha Dixit, an Indian journalist, who says, ‘’The British colonizers were able to build on India’s existing caste system. So the upper-caste people who were powerful had fairer skin. And the lower-caste people, when they would work outside, those castes started having darker skin [from prolonged sun exposure].” While casteism may be specific to India, the general trend of lighter skin as a status symbol generally maintains throughout communities that exhibit colorism. Although, in a world where we are working towards acceptance of all bodies and shades, is colorism truly still an issue? The answer is yes. The World Economic Forum writes, “Another study in 2018 extended to pay as well, finding that lighter-skinned young Black adults ‘attain a higher educational level, receive higher wages and enjoy better-quality jobs than their darker-skinned co-ethnics.’” And it is not just economics and financial impacts that colorism has – it consumes many parts of everyday life. Freshman Daphne Chen says, “The standard has been ingrained in me. Sometimes when I purchase makeup products or clothing, I often consider if the product makes me look ‘paler.’” This is not an uncommon mindset, and is perpetuated through popular media.

Sophomore Amogh Desai comments on Bollywood’s representation: “I am personally South Indian, so my skin tone is darker than what is reflected in the media that is pushed by Bollywood and the film industry in general. Darker characters are almost always only casted for comedic relief.” This categorizes people based on skin tones and perpetuates stereotypes that damage both external and internal perceptions of an individual. Krishnamoorthy elaborates on the cinema industry, stating, “[This standard] is also particularly harmful towards women, as [darker-skinned] actors such as Dhanush are really popular, and viewed as the main lead even if they have a darker skin tone. Having said this, fair skinned actors are still interpreted as desirable and rich. However, in the case of women, there are many non-south Indian actresses in south Indian media.” South India has a higher concentration of individuals with darker skin tone, and due to the negative perception of these tones, Bollywood will hire lighter skinned actors from North India to play the roles of South Indian women. This stereotypes what it means to be attractive, and ties women’s value as humans to skin tone. When combined with the strict necessity of female actors to have lighter skin, it ultimately reinforces misogynistic themes of a woman’s worth to be in their appearance.

 Ultimately, colorism is spread in numerous ways, and it is a sad reality that daily life is heavily entrenched in it. Colorism eventually becomes a boiling pot of insecurity, driving certain individuals to attempt and change the appearance of their skin tone. This happens in numerous ways, the most common being through makeup, and intentionally choosing shades that will make one’s skin appear lighter. Although this has reduced in recent years, the makeup industry often used to capitalize off titles that pointed to lighter skin – products like the “Fair and Lovely” cream, which has recently been rebranded to “Glow and Lovely,” insinuate that using a certain product will cause a reduction in darkness. Of course, with certain products, this is not true – according to BBC, Unilever, the company behind “Fair and Lovely” stated that “the brand has never been and is not a bleaching product.” Although “Fair and Lovely” may not have skin-lightening chemicals in it, its widespread popularity reveals the vast amounts of internalized colorism in society. Additionally, there are certain products that can chemically lighten an individual’s skin, though, according to Web MD, “This can be very risky. The active ingredient in some skin lighteners is mercury, so bleaching can lead to mercury poisoning.” Web MD continues, saying that skin bleaching is “a common cosmetic practice worldwide,” and poses numerous health risks to individuals who may partake in it. 

The warping of seeing only fair skin as beautiful, and the subsequent demonization of darker skin tones is a common occurrence throughout the world that is perpetuated through cinema, the beauty industry, and other means. As a result, many individuals force themselves to conform to this standard, and attempt to make their skin appear lighter, though this comes at a cost no matter the process. Whether it is from giving up a portion of yourself to incurring health risks, this is the legacy of colorism as a beauty standard.