“Everyone wants to be the fairest of them all”: the reality of colourism for South Asian women

Written by Anchal Seda

In an exclusive extract from her book What Would The Aunties Say?Anchal Seda reflects on colourism in South Asian culture.

The following is an extract is from What Would The Aunties Say? by Anchal Seda.

I spent many years avoiding the sun.

I’d go on holiday with my white friends, and they’d all be so excited to get a tan. In fact, it’d be one of their central holiday goals: to get as dark as they possibly could. They would even seek out some time on sunbeds to get a tan before going, in order to get a better tan on the holiday. Tan squared.

I couldn’t fathom how much work they were putting in just to be closer to my skin tone, something I possessed naturally and effortlessly every single day. It seemed curious to me that they were so keen to get darker, when at the exact same time, getting darker was the number-one thing for me to steer clear of.

There went my friends, going to these extreme lengths to look even a little bit darker – and there I was doing the complete opposite. I would strive to avoid the sun, desperate not to get any darker than my natural skin colour at all costs. It got to the point where I’d even sit away from my friends on the beach, as I’d insist on finding a spot with some shade.

Why? Because in many brown cultures, looking ‘dark’ isn’t seen as beautiful.

It’s not just something that affects the women, either. When my brother was born, he was slightly darker skinned than my sisters and me. Although everyone was so excited to finally have a boy in our family, there was still something to pick at – his skin tone. The Aunties would make jokes that my mum might have had an affair with the milkman, because my brother looked so different to us. 

Continuing the dairy theme, my grandmother even suggested that my mum should make her son drink lots of milk, so his skin would get lighter. (I have to say, this method was tried and tested, and it was a certain failure. Please do not try this at home. Sure, cows are considered sacred in many Indian cultures, but milk isn’t that magical.)

While there is obviously bigger pressure on women than on men to look conventionally attractive, the bias against dark skin gets us all. Yay for equal opportunities, I guess?

This idea that brown people need to be lighter skinned to be considered beautiful and worthy has been the mantra for centuries. From what I understand, the roots of this mindset partly stem from slavery, classism and colonialism.

Now I’m not here to provide a full history lesson, but to perhaps help you understand in less than a minute:

Being lighter-skinned was a sign of wealth in our culture, because those Indians with darker skin were more likely to have been labourers, therefore darker-skinned due to spending more time doing work outdoors and in the sun. On the other hand, the richer and more privileged families spent time in their palaces, shielded from the sun, keeping their skin light. The difference was exaggerated by the divide between north India and south India. 

Politics, wealth and influence were concentrated in the north, leading to the south – where people were darker, due to the hotter climate – being seen as inferior. And finally, the idea was compounded during the British Raj, when the ruling class were all fair-skinned Westerners and there was an assumption that being paler was synonymous with having more power. In essence, society’s ‘better’ people were lighter-skinned – and it’s not hard to work out what that meant for everyone else.

There you go! The entirety of South Asian colourism in a few sentences. To sum it up, it’s basically a twisted take on Snow White: everyone wants to be the fairest of them all.

But the reality of colourism’s effects is nothing like a children’s fairy tale. The prejudice darker-skinned girls face causes a lot of harm, even today, when you’d hope we were past all those old-fashioned associations of skin colour with class and wealth.

The Bollywood film Bala, which came out as recently as 2019, was supposed to be a protest against colourism. But it cast a light-skinned actress and used makeup to darken her complexion, rather than casting a naturally darker woman, which would have been a much bolder statement in Bollywood’s almost entirely fair-skinned world. 

The film’s producers chose to conform to the very ideals they were supposed to be objecting to. The hypocrisy of choosing not to hire a darker-skinned woman sends a much stronger, and more worrying, message – and it overshadows anything positive that the film was supposed to say.

Worse still, many women are shunned, mocked and bullied for having darker skin. There are cruel nicknames slung at victims, and sometimes even physical attacks. When a girl has darker skin than the rest of her family, in many cases she’s denounced as an outcast, and a financial burden who will never get married off. In such cases, girls may not be safe from abuse in their own homes.

“I spent many years avoiding the sun,” says author Anchal Seda.

Darker-skinned girls face so many problems in brown communities. Due to societal stigma, they have reduced chances of friendships, romantic relationships, employment and sometimes even basic safety. It’s no wonder many women feel compelled to turn to dangerous methods of whitening their skin.

At a young, impressionable age when I was just starting to care about how I looked, adverts for products such as Fair and Lovely really stood out to me. Firstly, I was seeing a product that was aimed towards South Asian women – something I wasn’t used to seeing at all. And secondly, it was rare that I ever saw anyone with my skin complexion in mainstream adverts or on TV and in magazines. The only people that we did have representing us young brown girls were Bollywood actresses, many of whom were already fair-skinned, and even they were promoting this brand. Because of that, I was even more interested in it and its messaging.

Because, fundamentally, who doesn’t want to be fair and lovely?

But when you look into what products like these actually do, it’s suddenly a lot more sinister than a fairy tale. Fair and Lovely (Unilever changed the name of this product to ‘Glow & Lovely’ in 2020 following criticism) and its competitors are skin whiteners, which means they lighten the skin in order to make it a fairer shade. This involves the use of harmful and toxic chemicals. Many of these kinds of creams, sprays, pills and injections are illegal in some countries – and the ones that aren’t are still flagged for potentially causing irreversible damage to the skin.

Suddenly, being fair doesn’t seem so lovely.

Despite the dangers, these products are very popular in South Asia, and with brown people across the world. And it’s no wonder. Imagine a young, darker-skinned brown girl who loves the Bollywood stars. Of course she does – they’re the only women who are successful and look anything like her. They’re her idols, and her inspiration; she wants to be just like them when she’s older. Then those same women appear in adverts for a whitening cream.

What does that tell this young girl, and all young girls? That a brown woman can only guarantee admiration and popularity if she has a lighter complexion? Are our talents, skills or education not enough to be successful, if we’re not also fair-skinned?

You can see why women and girls decide to take the risk of damaging their healthy skin for ever.

It’s not just us – Auntie is looking in her magic mirror and also wishing she was the fairest of them all. Maybe poor Auntie isn’t actually such a wicked witch; she’s just unhappy with how she sees herself. So she takes her bitterness out on the fair Snow White, by telling her not to go in the sun.

Like I said earlier, it gets us all.

What Would the Aunties Say is out now, published by Gallery UK.

With all these messages coming at us every day, learning to accept and love your natural complexion is incredibly tough. When you’re a girl, it’s pretty much impossible to block out – it creeps in subtly, and informs how you view the world and yourself. My skin colour is something I and probably most brown girls or women have battled with all our lives. Wondering if it’s too dark, whether that mild tan you accidentally got in the summer is acceptable or not, and even wondering whether your natural tone is good enough to make you marriage material.

It took me a long time to realise how being tanned, brown, Indian, or whatever else you want to call it, makes me unique and different in the most beautiful way.

This extract is taken from What Would The Aunties Say? by Anchal Seda (£12.99, Gallery UK), out now.

Images: Getty/Gallery UK

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