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Mayuravarshini Mohana
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On her Instagram page about a year ago, Mindy Kaling shared a video of a Sri Lankan girl saying that she won’t grow up to be beautiful because of her dark skin. The sensible adult beside her stepped in to tell her gently that skin colour has no bearing on beauty. A smile and a good heart will make her radiant. It was indeed heart-warming late into the video, when the little girl repeated ‘I am Beautiful’.

In many South –Asian societies, there is a specific image of beauty. Beauty is still pretty much in the eyes of the beholder, except that it is a coloured perception (pun intended). A lighter skin tone is the first requirement for anybody, irrespective of gender, to be considered good looking. The colourism is so extensive that even the paintings of Indian Gods are light skinned.

We internalise this prejudice from a very young age, especially through media. The ‘beautiful’ women in matrimonial ads, movies, soaps are invariably light-skinned, reaffirming that ‘white is beautiful’. Give a child a colouring book and she will reach out to a peach crayon (often offensively labelled as skin- colour) to paint the princess. The association of the binary light/dark with beautiful/ugly and good/evil does much damage to collective psyche and the confidence of a community. The associations was first made with the arrival of the Mughals and later extensively reinforced during colonisation. Light-skin was matched to power, superiority and civilised behaviour. This association continued even after Independence with the onset of globalisation, which is simply a euphemism for a movement reinforcing Euro-centric ideas. Consequently, beauty standards in India became more westernised, pairing light-skin with red lips and a deceptively slim waist.

Colourism plays an important role in India’s ‘marriage market’. The extreme emphasis on light-skinned brides shatters the confidence and self-image of women at large, who in turn might even seek medical intervention to alter their bodies. Colourism has also integrated in to class and caste system. A prevalent social perception is that the economically weaker section is dark-skinned and are discriminated against in terms of opportunities and access to educational resources.

It would be far-fetched to claim that such standards still hold complete authority in Indian minds. Celebrities such as Nandita Das, Priyanka Chopra and Radhika Apte have been vocal against colourism and this is slowly taking root in our collective conscious. There is a lot more discussion among people, especially the younger generation, on overthrowing colourist beauty standards. At this juncture, it is fitting to remember the renaming of the popular skin cream ‘Fair and Lovely’ to ‘Glow and Lovely’. ‘Fair’ is itself quite a twisted term. To call a light skinned person ‘fair’ suggests that people of other skin tones are ‘unfair’ (in the English sense, and thus inferior) and is an example of a hidden prejudice.

Yet, as a society we have miles to travel. The discussion against colourism is limited to an exclusive population- the urban educated youth. Unless it extends to the silver screen, the papers, the large billboards on highways, children’s text books and other forms of media, a collective change in perception is hard to achieve. India has indeed begun unlearning colourism. As of now, it is only a small part of reality and not reality itself.