Beauty standards, as promoters of mass consumerism and objectification, universally tend to be harmful. Add problematic racial dynamics, and they become destructive. This rings particularly true for beauty standards in both India and the West. StyleCraze, a webzine that advertises itself as the “World’s Largest Beauty Community,” published an article titled “Top 30 Most Beautiful Girls in India in 2017.” This listicle exclusively features light-skinned Indian women. The Western colonisation of the Indian subcontinent has heavily impacted both nations’ standard perceptions of beauty.
Given that India had only recently abolished its infamously harsh caste system, social class still pervades every aspect of society. Beauty, which Westerners perceive to exist independent of status, is intertwined with one’s social status in India. An oped in the Hindustan Times describes how dark skin is associated with working in the sun, an occupation of the rural, lower classes. Skin color is also often interpreted as a regional difference as well as a class difference. When Indians from the agrarian South migrate to industrial urban areas, the dark skin tones that they develop from working in fields serve as a signifier of their rural, and consequently less educated status. The classism that comes from regional disparities feeds into the consequent colorism. Salman Rushdie, one of the best selling Indian authors of all time, wrote Midnight’s Children, a novel that serves as a literary critique of post-Partition India. He describes one of his female characters in the novel as “the blackie whom [her mother] had never been able to love because of her skin of a South Indian fisherwoman.” This demonstrates how prejudice towards class and region combine to form a misinformed colorism in Indian society.
India doesn’t consume Western media on an extreme scale, yet light skinned beauty standards are being emphasised through its own media system – Bollywood. Looking at India’s most popular movies and seeing light skinned actors like Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor and Aamir Khan encourages the eurocentric perception of beauty that has become almost native to India. The so-called ‘King of Bollywood,’ Shahrukh Khan, promoted skin-lightening creams for men. In 2010, skin-lightening creams experienced revenues of $432 million. Indians were spending more on whitening creams than on Coca-Cola.
“Beauty standards in India and in the West seem like opposing phenomena, when they are in fact manifestations of the same institution.”
The association of light skin color and wealth compounds with the standards created through the colonial presence of Britain. The Hindustan Times op-ed mentioned earlier describes how “white is the dominant colour of today’s superpowers, black we associate with a poverty-stricken wilderness.” The imperialist institutions have fed into Indian perception of skin color, reinforcing this construct within the explicit power dynamic of colonial subjugation heightened through physical and cultural differences rather than an implicit dichotomy structured merely by class differences. This perception results in a culture in which a company can make the convoluted claim that producing skin-lightening cream is empowering darker women by giving them opportunities like ‘higher education’ and ‘entrepreneurship.’ Colorism is an institution that not only is a consequence of, but sustains, imperialism through its degradation of ‘darkness’ and romanticisation of ‘whiteness.’ This phenomenon depicts the complexly self-perpetuating nature of cultural imperialism, a construct deeply internalised in India. A survey done at Washington University contains anecdotal evidence to the general feeling of inferiority that dark-skinned women have in India. A woman testifies: “[I] was a smart kid, and whatever I did I did much better as I worked harder; but the first impression about me didn’t go really well with most people I had to meet. Because visually when people met me, skin color mattered.” The mass media perpetuation of these standards impacts women’s lives on a daily basis.
In juxtaposition to Indian beauty standards, the West is currently romanticising slightly darker skin. When Coco Chanel came back from her vacation at the French Riviera with a tan, the fashion of the Western world tried to emulate her. In the 90 years that have passed, there has been a romanticisation of slightly darker complexions on naturally white people. The Kardashian/Jenners, who continuously adopt darker skin tones for photos, have particularly popularised this image. Yet, this particular look can be found across social media, where white girls look ethnically ambiguous due to copious amounts of tanning. This fetishisation of darker skin occurs in part due to the implications of higher social class that come from having an ‘exotic’ tan, but it is mostly reliant upon orientalism, the Western glamorisation of ‘foreign’ cultural practices and commodities.
The problematic racial dynamic of this beauty trend lies in that darker skin is appreciated only when it unnaturally occurs on a white person, and it is disparaged when it occurs due to being ethnically non-white. The fetishisation of darker tones in the West comes in part from the fact that exposure to predominantly non-white cultures occurred through colonialism, thus distorting the Western interpretation of certain cultural facets. Consequently, white Westerners feel subconsciously superior to these cultures, and thus do not feel reservations in adopting cultural traditions. Having a darker complexion fits into this scheme. Orientalism is especially harmful in that it doesn’t condemn certain cultural practices as ‘uncivilised,’ instead it steals from cultures and thus dilutes the significance and meaning of these cultures. The perpetuation of cultural misappropriation, down to adopting darker skin colors in order to mimic ‘exoticism’ is itself a form of imperialism, where white Westerners are exploiting foreign cultures for their personal benefit instead of foreign land and labour. Beauty standards in India and in the West seem like opposing phenomena, when they are in fact manifestations of the same institution.
Addressing colorism and orientalism but not other remnants of white supremacist structures is akin to treating a symptom, not the disease. Ending colorism may come about via different methods, whether that be awareness programs such as Indian Nandita Das’s campaign against colorism or Kim Kardashian positively responding to backlash she’s received for blackface. An overhaul of deeply internalised systems of imperialism is the only solution.