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Beauty Standards: Decolonised (Part 2)

This piece is a continuation of

Beauty Standards: Decolonised (Part 1)

Written By: Masuma Ali

Edited By: Anna Mohan


The colonial-era heavily influenced the definition of beauty in India. The colonial period in India saw the insemination of the ‘fair is beautiful’ ideal in all levels of society. British colonisers intentionally ascribed fair-skinned Indians to the higher class and caste and the darker Indians as low-class and caste. A patriarchal culture was imposed, and women’s social status, education level and class was dependent on the fairness of their skin, instilling in Indian women a strong desire to be fair-skinned in order to achieve the status that came with it. Social bias against dark skin in modern India still exists from the colonial era’s imposition of a fair-skinned ruling class: the dominating caste of the Aryans from North India who had lighter skin compared to the lower caste members of the Dravidian community. The caste difference further engrained the fair skin privileges because lower caste members like the Bahujans and Dalits were consistently involved in outdoor manual labour. This implanted a cultural association of dark skin with lower social status – a societal norm that is ingrained as a deciding factor for most choices within India.

‘Fair is beautiful’ runs India’s beauty industries, demonstrating a stark example of colourism. In a country where a majority of the population has dark skin, being fair-skinned is seen as beautiful, intelligent and an ideal for all to aspire towards. This highlights how significant the impact of colonialism, imperialism and globalisation has been in deeply embedding this belief within India’s modern culture. Skin colour plays a vital role in the lives of Hindu-Indian women because it strongly influences their ‘feelings related to beauty, attractiveness, and marriage marketability’. Due to this deeply entrenched ideal, beauty industries profit from skin lightening creams like ‘Fair and Lovely’, which provides 24 billion rupees ($317m; £256m) in annual revenue. A famous Fair and Lovely advertisement depicts a distraught daughter when she hears her father say ‘Kaash beta hota’ (‘If only I had a son’) because she doesn’t have a well-paid job or any marriage proposals and is considered low class. Her mother offers her a tube of ‘Fair and Lovely’ cream and her life immediately transforms – she gets a promotion, receives marriage proposals, her clothes turn Western and she takes her parents to a fancy restaurant for dinner. This advertisement strongly suggests that ‘whiteness’ can uplift your life in all aspects – socially, economically and on a personal level.

Fair skin privilege runs rampant within India’s film industry too. Bollywood actresses symbolise the definition of beauty for Indian women and most of the famous actresses are those with light skin and European features. An example is Aishwarya Rai, who has light skin, a slim body, light hair and eyes representing Indian women in the 1994 Miss World contest which she won. Furthermore, Bollywood casts light-skinned actors and paints them dark, rather than simply casting darker-skinned actors for roles. An example being the casting of Bhumi Pedneker in the movie ‘Bala’, where she has painted a much darker skin tone in a movie that ironically is supposed to address India’s fixation with fair skin and the discrimination that darker-skinned people face. This can be seen as brownface and is an extension of the racist blackface that has been widely shunned since the rise of the BLM movement earlier in 2020.

Images courtesy of HerZindagi

Recent years have seen campaigns like Dark is Beautiful and #unfairandlovely which questions the fair skin ideals that dominate India. Many have also called out Bollywood stars on social media for endorsing colourism. We must work to decolonise our beauty standards and that involves questioning and not succumbing to the depictions that mainstream media defines beauty as. If we look at pre-colonial times, we can see how beauty standards were not bound to Western ideals.

For instance, during the Sunga period (first century BC) in India, being beautiful meant having wide hips. Furthermore, another representation is that of the goddess Parvati who possessed wide hips, elaborate lips, and a nose like the beak of a parrot. An alternative example that detracts from the typical white beauty standards would be that of Zahra Khanom Tadj es-Salataneh, who was the Persian symbol of beauty in the 19th century. Masculine features on women were deemed attractive during that era – heavy eyebrows and moustaches and bulkier bodies. Indeed, it would be fascinating to see how different cultural beauty standards would have looked like today without Western colonial influences.

By remembering, referencing and acknowledging these pre-colonial definitions of beauty, we can slowly work to crush the Western beauty standards that dominate societies today. Using these examples as role models to form a resistance coupled with the Afrocentric/standpoint theoretical matrix referred to earlier, women of colour can overcome the beauty standards that have owned them for many years, allowing all women to proudly wear their own decolonised definitions of beauty without hierarchies or marginalisation.

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