White Skin as a Measure of Beauty: The Impact of the Eurocentric Beauty Standard on Indian Women.
When Indian-American Nina Davuluri won the Miss America title in 2013, there were many in India who said that it would have been impossible for her to win a similar beauty pageant in her home country. Not because Ms. Davuluri is not an exceptionally beautiful person, but because of her relatively dark skin. Almost all winners of the “Miss India” competition have a fair complexion, much fairer than the average Indian woman.
Indians have an obsession with the white skin, a deep rooted cultural bias that has made generations of Indian women feel inferior. As dermatologist Jamuna Pai says “Unfortunately, in our country, they think looking better means you have to look fairer.”
This imposition of a Eurocentric beauty standard on Indian women is visible in films, aviation and a number of white collared jobs. A few years ago, about 100 tribal girls from the state of Maharashtra were trained to be air-hostesses under a government scholarship program.
The goal was to empower them, as there is a feeling that many tribal girls in India are denied jobs because of their darker skin colour, especially in aviation. What happened next shocked many in the government – only 8 girls were able to land a job and that too as ground staff.
Dark skinned women find it more difficult to land a suitable match. Most matrimonial advertisements by matchmaking sites such as Shaadi.com and Bharat-Matrimony.com features fair skinned models.
This Eurocentric standard of beauty is particularly prevalent in Bollywood, where most of the leading actresses such as Katrina Kaif, Aishwarya Rai and Kareena Kapoor, are fair skinned.
The obsession with fair skin has led to Indian women resort to a number of skin whitening and skin bleaching treatments, with mixed results. Skin lightening creams such as “Fair and Lovely,” from Unilever, introduced in 1978, is one of the most successful consumer products of all time.
This spawned a number of skin bleaching products such as whitening face cleansers, shower gels and more. Indians buy 233 tonnes of skin lightening products each year. India’s whitening-cream market is a hugely successful one and was worth $432 million in 2010. It grows at 18% a year.
India’s cosmetics industry, which is completely dominated by skin lightening products, was worth $3.6 billion in 2014. India is the biggest market for the global skin whitening industry, which had sales of over $10 billion in 2015.
There is no question that the cosmetics business in India has latched on to the real fears and insecurities that many Indian women have about having a dark skin. This has led to irresponsible advertising, including ads that portray dark skinned individuals in a negative light and emphasize how achieving success in life and career was dependent on having a fair skin, more than any other factor.
It’s not that the Indian government or the opinion makers in the country encourage such thinking – in fact there are a number of popular campaigns such as “Dark is Beautiful” carried out by nonprofits that speak out against just advertising. The national advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Council of India, has done its best to rein in such advertising that perpetuate negative social stereotyping in the country on the basis of skin colour.
But there seems to be a hidden desire among the people fair skin whitening products and there isn’t much that either the government or nonprofits can do about the inherent bias for fair skin among a vast majority of Indians, for cultural, social and historical reasons.
India has experienced impressive economic growth over the last 25 years and has a massive middle class. More Indian women go to universities and get high paying jobs. But prejudices such as a bias for white skin as a measure of beauty, refuse to go away as they are deeply entrenched in the Indian society.