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The Quest to Becoming ‘Fair and Lovely’ - Colourism in India

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Abigail Ling

Colourism is no stranger to Asia. Birthed from the bigoted indoctrination of associating power with fairness all throughout human history, colourism, as referred to by actress Lupita Nyong’o as the “daughter of racism”, is essentially to be prejudiced against another on the basis of their darker skin-tone. While it exists in most, if not all parts, of the region, it is none so prevalent as in India - where the discrimination has managed to permeate almost every layer of society, from getting a job to getting married.

The greatest perpetrator of the continued propagation of these ideals can be attributed to white-washing practices by India’s media industry whose target audience is the largely darker-skinned Indian population.

And it starts from the most base level - casting. Based on an interview done by Vice News, Bollywood casting directors are given strict instructions to hire only fair-skinned actors. It matters not who gave the better audition. If you wanted to play the leading role, you had to be fair-skinned. Period.

The same goes for modelling and advertising. Regardless of the product being advertised, even for traditional Indian wear like the sari, casters will opt instead to hire models from other countries like Ukraine because “everything is about skin” and all these advertisers are looking for is “a little touch of [an] Indian look”.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. This cultural obsession with ‘whiteness’ can trace its origins back to the caste system (where the untouchables at the bottom of the caste system were those with darker skin) and British colonisation. As such, it is easy to brush it aside by simply labelling it a product of history and satisfying ourselves with the fact that society is progressively trying to move on from it.

However, to ignore its far-reaching effects since then would be ignorant. Research has shown that both men and women alike have contributed hundreds and thousands of rupees annually to this already booming, multi-billion dollar skin-bleaching industry, that is only set to become bigger and bigger, in hopes of achieving a fairer complexion. Treatments range from salves and creams to more invasive procedures that directly attack and break-up melanin - the naturally occurring pigment that makes one tan, in the skin. This is a risk they are willing to bear despite knowing the health implications that may arise such as developing skin cancer.

The reason why these colourist beliefs run so deep has much to do with the fact that the Indian population are subject to these expectations from a very young age which is problematic in this regard because they are extremely susceptible to what is being taught to them.

According to Kavitha Emmanuel, founder and director of the Dark is Beautiful campaign - which aims to fight against this very stigma, mentioned in an interview that fairness of skin is something that people ask about upon birth of a child, second only to the question of gender.

Following which, throughout childhood, they are told things like “oh, if you’re not fair enough no one will want to marry you”. Even in schools, fairer-skinned children are treated more favourably. This then carries on into adulthood where despite having all the right credentials, people end up missing out on job opportunities simply for being of a darker skin tone. Emmanuel also notes that women are disproportionately affected by this societal phenomenon as compared to men. In a street interview conducted by Asian Boss, most of the men interviewed indicated their preference for fairer women as they were considered to be more beautiful. The women themselves also recognise and acknowledge this norm because this was indeed what the media and society were propagating as the beauty standard to be met.5 It goes as far as to even affect their prospects of marriage. This is because in arranged marriages, men tend to choose their brides, first and foremost, based on the colour of their skin. As such, there is this additional pressure that is placed on women to become fairer. One male interviewee even mentioned that his younger sister had begun receiving these whitening treatments from as young as twelve years old.

Furthermore, amidst of these, they grow up surrounded by aggressive advertising promoting the use of ‘whitening’ products by big Western names like Unilever (Anglo-Dutch), Procter & Gamble (America), Nivea (Germany) and L’Oreal (France), just to name a few, which stars fair Bollywood artistes in their campaigns to encourage the locals to use and purchase their products, advocating fairness as the pinnacle of beauty. Of all the products on the market, the most popular of which is Unilever’s ‘Fair & Lovely’, launched in 1975. As one can see, the name of the product in and of itself is problematic. By associating ‘fairness’ with ‘loveliness’, it further reinforces this dated idea and promotes the underlying racism interwoven into its meaning. It does not help that the plotline of these advertisements usually include tropes of women, and increasingly so, men, with fairer skin being more successful at “finding love or a glamorous job”. The name has recently been changed - dropping the word ‘fair’. Nevertheless, while this change is welcome, some say it is too little too late and doubt the effectiveness of this repackaging of ‘old wine in new bottles’ in mitigating the effects of deep-rooted colourism in society.

(image of a skin-whitening product advertisement by Fair & Lovely broadcasted to the Indian population who tend to be of a darker skin tone)

This is something that must be corrected. The fact that a society where darker-skinned individuals make up the majority of the population are robbed of the luxury of being comfortable in their own skin (quite literally) is unfortunate. And yes, while this issue is something that dates back far into history, as Kiran Khalap, co-founder of communications consultancy firm Chlorophyll, says is a “deep-seated cultural bias that equates being fair with being superior” and that advertisers cannot be faulted as they are simply responding to market signals, I respectfully disagree.

The very fact that the media continues to perpetuate and expose these ideals to the wider population not only promotes racism but allows its roots to grow deeper and deeper in society making it that much harder to eradicate. The very fact that campaigns like 'Dark is Beautiful' has not managed to make even a dent in the skin-whitening industry is a testament to that. Furthermore, to allow people to feel inferior and deprive them of opportunities to work on the basis of their skin tone goes beyond merely having to accept ‘cultural differences’. Discrimination on the grounds of something that cannot be controlled should not be tolerated anywhere in the world.

What is most disturbing to me is that the West, particularly Britain, who had a huge role in spearheading these discriminatory practices and ideals in India continue to be the biggest beneficiaries - raking in millions, even billions of dollars annually in profit and revenue. Is it not enough that they have robbed the people of their unique cultural identity? To witness this hypocrisy where back home they make a big show of stamping down hard on discrimination whilst practising the complete opposite in other parts of the world, taking advantage of the circumstances in India and capitalising on the insecurities of the people is polarising.

Nevertheless, that being said, from here on out, the only way to move is forward. Pointing fingers will not resolve this issue. There is comfort in the knowledge that progress is already being made and mindsets are being changed. Even in the interviews mentioned earlier, although the young men and women alike acknowledge that this would be something impossible to eradicate completely, even in the distant future, they recognise that the colour of their skin is not what defines them as they are beautiful just as they are. Even corporations like Unilever and influential figures alike are jumping on the bandwagon of this cultural shift. With the direction that society is currently moving in, I believe there is much to be hopeful about.


Photo credit: Freddy Tran Nager, ‘“Your Skin Color is not a Stain!”: L.A. Teen Takes on Unilever’s Bigotry’ (Atomic Tango, 12 July 2008) < > Accessed 23

November 2020.

  1. Asian Boss, ‘How Obsessed are Indians with Fair Skin’ (Asian Boss, 12 April 2019)

  2. BBC News, ‘Lupita Nyong'o: Colourism is the daughter of racism’ (BBC, 8 October 2019)

  3. Freddy Tran Nager, ‘“Your Skin Color is not a Stain!”: L.A. Teen Takes on Unilever’s Bigotry’ (Atomic Tango, 12 July 2008) < > Accessed 23 November 2020.

  4. Geeta Pandey, ‘Fair and Lovely: Can renaming a fairness cream stop colourism?’ (BBC News, 25 June, year unknown) <> Accessed 23 November 2020.

  5. Rina Chandran, ‘FEATURE-Skin lightening under fire as Indians seek whiter shade of pale’ (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 27 April 2017) < > Accessed 23 November 2020.

  6. VICE News, ‘Why India’s Fair Skin Business is Booming’ (VICE News, 20 January 2020)

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