Much ado about melanin
To this day, it isn’t unusual to walk in on or find yourself in the middle of a conversation where someone’s skin is commented upon as ‘an embarrassment’, ‘unsuitable for marriage’ or, and perhaps this is the most abhorrent of the lot, ‘dirty’. Or perhaps you’ve seen the countless advertisements on various media outlets boast about how their cosmetic products noticeably lighten one’s skin; it is inevitable that by the end of these commercials, individuals shown to be using the products and receiving the “benefit” of a fairer skin-tone are portrayed as considerably more successful or desirable than when they were darker-skinned.
This bias is referred to as shadeism or colourism, defined as “a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin colour” according to Wikipedia. True to the definition, the social implications of fairer skin are what perpetuate its continued preference, and the origin of these implications possibly dates quite far back in the subcontinent’s history. It is unsurprising that European-colonialism is brought to light most often when discussing shadeism in South Asia. It was a time when those ruling the country were almost all pale-skinned, resulting in strong associations being made between power, wealth and fair skin. Consequently, these associations were then internalised by the natives, and future generations were conditioned into the same mindset, ultimately leading to today’s lingering shadeism. However, experts have argued that shadeism existed in some form long before the colonial period, owing to the Mughals being depicted as primarily white-skinned in murals and other artwork of the time, and the portrayal of gods and royalty such as Rama in the Ramayana as fair, fighting the ‘dark’, evil forces of Ravana.
Needless to say, the concept of shadeism has been around for a while, and it is all the more alarming that the practice continues to thrive today. The beauty industry plays a crucial role in perpetrating the “lighter is better” stereotype with its plethora of skin-bleaching cosmetics. According to a 2016 article published in Quartz Africa, “A 2009 report from Global Industry Analysts declared skin-lightening a $10 billion industry; as of last year, GIA was projecting that number would hit $23 billion by 2020.” This deeply problematic marketing strategy - of creating an atmosphere in which people are made to feel inferior as a result of their skin colour, and then devising a line of products to cater specifically to this forced insecurity - nearly goes hand-in-hand with the entertainment industry which also promotes unattainable beauty ideals that are hazardous to health and equally problematic. Famous actors and actresses, many of whom are presented to be fair and flawless on screen, are revered and often imitated by the common populace. So when these beloved celebrities endorse multitudes of skin-whitening products, the number of people chasing after them is hardly surprising.
However, the blame cannot be shifted to these industries entirely. Toxic atmospheres are created deep within individual families, particularly by older generations who insist that a person’s skin-tone is directly linked to how they are perceived and treated within society. Both dark-skinned men and women often find themselves victims to teasing or bullying. While the men are expected and pressured to overshadow the shade of their skin by attaining highly-successful careers and lives, the women face even harsher consequences. From a young age, a darker skinned girl may repeatedly have to hear lamentations over her skin and comments such as “what a shame” followed by “you’re going to have a hard time finding her a good husband.” These expectations and pointed remarks are not only severe blows to one’s self-esteem and image; once these people are convinced that there is something wrong with them because of their skin tone, they are hardly to blame for rushing to all the readily available products which claim to make said problems disappear.
As such, a vicious cycle is developed and made seemingly inescapable by all sides involved.
Despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, shadeism is increasingly becoming an issue that is being spoken out about more and more. Los Angeles based Indian Photographer Arjun Kamath shot a series titled “Colour of Our Skin”, highlighting the obsession with fair-skin and the injustices that follow. Similarly, famed designer Ayush Kejriwal showcased the beauty of dark skin through his designs and dark-skinned models. There have been numerous reports and documentaries made on the adverse effects of skin-lightening products. Social media campaigns such as #unfairandlovely, referring to Fair and Lovely - one of the top skin-whitening brands, have further brought the issue into the spotlight.
This is only the first step, however. The fight for more tolerant and inclusive circumstances is far from over. This atmosphere which is gradually being established - of discarding harmful, age-old customs and embracing body positivity and self-acceptance - has been and will continue to be crucial if shadeism is to be combatted. It is imperative that people, as both groups and individuals, remain persistent in raising awareness and consistently speak about and discuss the issue.
If a reformed future is to be expected, it has to start here, now, and with us.