We are entering week 6 in India, and I can hardly believe how much time has passed. This past month has been a whirlwind of adjustments, new experiences, and realizations. I find myself more attuned than ever to the value society places on physical appearance and, more specifically, color.
Particularly for women, the idealization of Western expectations of beauty are everywhere you turn. Billboards, posters and tv ads market whitening treatments. “Tan removal” facials and scrubs are widely advertised at spas. We’ve walked into several beauty stores, both at malls and stand-alone locations, and the emphasis on “fair” skin tones is impossible to ignore. In Bollywood movies, television shows, and commercials, actresses (and many actors) appear whiter because of lightening techniques. And those with preexisting lighter complexions are given preference in the industry over their darken skinned counterparts.
There is constant pressure to meet the unrealistic beauty standards set forth by society. I fall victim to it in the United States, but it must be understood in a different context here because of where the standards are derived. That I, as a Western woman with lighter skin, am treated with extra care is for a reason long preceding me. The impact of colonialism manifests itself in a subsisting inferiority complex within Indian society. Despite the physical removal of such authority, the undertones of white, Western superiority are deeply ingrained after nearly a century of British rule. These themes are unfortunately recurring in society today, especially for women, and it would be wrong from me to ignore it.
The perpetuated notion that being lighter skinned equates to enhanced beauty, and self-worth, is toxic. But there are those who are actively working to counteract wrongful degradation. The founders and supporters of campaigns like “Dark is Beautiful” and “Unfair and Lovely” aim to combat the underrepresentation of people based on color and strip away various systems that perpetuate oppression. These empowerment campaigns send the message that any given person is enough. Regardless of where you come from, what you choose to believe in, who you love, what you look like, differences should never be reason for disparagement. Differences should always be embraced for what they truly are: beautiful.
I am a white, upper middle class, American. I acknowledge my inherent privilege in this world and people absolutely have the right to say I will never truly understand what it means to be marginalized in this manner. But I know that despite this, I want to play my part in preventing the so-called “drivers” of societal standards and norms from dictating any given human’s value. I want to be part of a society in which everyone is safe to accept, encourage, and embrace their diversity…a society in which we are not “fair and lovely” or “unfair and lovely” but just human, and lovely.