Colorism: seeking fairness in Southeast Asian communities

Tuesday, May 12, 2020 - 9:28pm

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Graphic by Cara Jhang

When I was little, I never understood why my mom used to bathe me with warm milk and honey. Or why her friends (the aunties) would often remark on how light my skin is. Or why Fair and Lovely whitening cream was always in high demand at the Indian grocery store. As I grew older, my friends and I began to spend more time outside — joining after school sports clubs and biking around our suburbs. As a result, we became more tan and more and more aunties would comment on how I had become so kala, which means dark. It’s become a mark of beauty, especially in North Indian communities, to be light-skinned, meaning that becoming darker made us seem less attractive. 

Recently, Netflix released the first season of the show “Never Have I Ever,” the story of the high school sophomore Devi Vishwakumar who must navigate her life after her father dies and seeks to rebrand herself. Despite the truth, Devi is not marketed as attractive or charming. Instead, she is made to seem like a moderately attractive awkward nerd who is desperate for approval from a boy — putting effort into outfits that clearly do not match and being clumsy in almost any scene where she seems attractive. In contrast to her characterization, her cousin, Kamala, is fair and has glowing light skin, and is always depicted to be naturally beautiful and talented, having men fall all over her for her beauty. 

This show, while an extremely beautiful stride in representation in media for young Southeast Asian Americans, easily plays into this age-old notion that light skin tends to equate to beauty. This is not a new practice — when famous Bollywood Actresses became well known in American pop cultures, such as Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra, they were notably made to look lighter with their makeup. Even in Bollywood, actors and actresses such as Kajol, Bipasha Basu, and Rekha are all darker in person. However, on TV and in movies, they are made to seem much lighter through the use of makeup. 

The origin of this notion associated with fair skin can be traced back to Euro-centric beauty standards. A dissertation written by a University of Massachusetts-Boston graduate explains these standards as praising “fair skin, long straight hair, thin lips, [and a] small nose,” comparing people to the most prominent physical traits of a white woman. This comparison is unfair, considering that these traits are not normal for so many different ethnic communities. Several Indian women are blessed with rich, dark skin, but are constantly rejected by the Indian public, modeling agencies and Bollywood casting groups. Rising models like Nidhi Sunil, Rikee Chatterjee and Renee Kujjur are considered to have darker skin than most Southeastern Asian celebrities, and are just as beautiful, but have faced endless comments on the pigment of their skin and how they should use makeup to fit the brown beauty standard. 

This notion is harmful in several ways — the two most prominent effects being the psyche of these women and the physical ramifications of skin lightening products. This common association of light skin with beauty and the underrepresentation of naturally dark skin in the media can lead to self-confidence issues for anyone with skin darker than the average celebrity or model. Though their skin color has nothing to do with their inner or outer beauty, this constant cultural mindset, especially perpetuated by older generations berating their children, can be exhausting for anyone to deal with. To constantly be told that your skin color makes you less beautiful is a result of decades of colorism and is a notion that must be reversed. Additionally, skin lightening products can be very harmful to the skin you are applying it to: strong fairness creams like Fair and Lovely contain chemicals intended to bleach the skin, like hydroquinone, and steroids that should only be used at a dermatologist’s discretion. These unfortunate chemicals can lead to disfigurations of the skin and its color, an increase in acne, skin sensitivity, allergies and can even lead the skin to be darker than before. 

To future generations, please never forget, no matter what an auntie tells you or what you see in the media, your skin tone has nothing to do with your inner or outer beauty. Everyone is beautiful in their own ways and no one can tell you otherwise. You do not need to use lightening face masks or wash yourself with honey and warm milk to become fair — your skin is a mark of ethnicity and of your beauty — wear it proudly. 

 
Prisha Grover can be contacted at prishag@umich.edu