Brown, dusky, dark, deep, black- are just some of the terms used to describe the many skin tones of women of color. But instead of celebrating the rich variety of skin color, most women of color have to face the daunting reality of “Colorism”. Colorism, or shadism, refers to the prejudice and discrimination that women with dark skin tones face in their everyday life, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. On the other hand, light‐skinned people have more privileges over dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and even the marriage market.

Though we’d like to think that the skin color divide has been steeped in Indian culture from the earliest times, ancient religious texts prove otherwise. Amongst India’s large pantheon of deities, there are many gods and goddesses who are dark-skinned but are revered. The name of goddess Kali, the goddess of strength and power, means black in color. She is also known as Maa Shyama, meaning ‘of dark color’, a term that has been used to define dark colored females since olden times.

But over the many centuries of foreign invasions and rulers, India’s view on skin tones became more skewed. The Mughals who had the fair skin tone were followed by European rulers like the British, who hammered down the differences. Being fair skinned and different, the British sought to establish themselves as superior to the dark-skinned natives. To create more divisiveness within the Indian population itself, the British hired and gave more preference to lighter skinned Indians. In the century where they ruled India, the British shaped Indian society’s skin tone prejudice to the detriment of women today.

Though dark skinned men face prejudice, it’s the women who bear the brunt of society’s judgement and discrimination if they are too dark. Nobody is interested in wooing a dark woman until and unless she is in the likes of Bipasha Basu. At least that’s what most media tells us. Ads, movies and other media often emphasize that fair skinned women are more successful in their personal and professional life.

The constant obsession with women being the “right skin color” is something that everyone has either witnessed or faced first hand. Mother-in-laws scour the matrimonial columns for fair skinned brides for their sons so that they can get beautiful fair babies, marketing departments create campaigns that only feature women with fair complexions, airlines give preference to fair skinned air hostesses, and the beauty industry is flooded with fairness cream and dangerous bleaches that promise instant fairness without surgical intervention.

Mothers who can’t afford expensive fairness products resort to homemade options for their daughters to ‘secure’ her future with a decent guy. For the average plain Jane, all their attempts to gain success in any way is focused more on getting the right skin tone rather than obtaining proper educational or career accomplishments. Having fair skin becomes a status symbol that women aspire to.

After being bombarded with such societal expectations, is it any wonder that woman are affected on a psychological level?

Scientifically speaking, melanin is the primary pigment that determines the color of the skin and it’s not something that anyone has any control over. But due to the media and the society’s prejudice, women, even young and impressionable girls, try to reach the unrealistic standards of fair skin tones. And when they inevitably fail to reach these unrealistic beauty standards, they are left with numerous issues. Self-doubt, self-hatred, inferiority complex and many other issues lead to an increasing amount of disempowered women who feel like they cannot and will not succeed due to the color of their skin.

How can we tackle this obsession and give women the ability to regain their power?

Banning fairness ads or curtailing the production of skin lightening products won’t be enough to make any real change. Instead, the answer lies in making a conscious choice of accepting one’s skin tone without any prejudice and being comfortable in one’s own skin. This can only happen when we as women stand up and let what lies within us define who we are instead of letting society’s superficial beauty parameters define us.

Thankfully, the narrative of skin is gradually changing for the women in India. Tiny revolutions are gradually occurring in various spaces as more and more young people, celebrities, and social activists speak out against this societal absurdity through various art mediums, and social media platforms.

It is important to voice our personal stories of shame, humiliation, acceptance and breaking of stigmas associated with having dark skin in order to show strength and self-love. By talking and listening to people’s stories, we gain perspective of what it’s like on the receiving end of this terrible menace called colorism.

We have one life to live so why not make peace with and celebrate our own skin tone, after all beauty is skin deep or shall I say “skin tone deep”.

Antara Sarkar

With a Post Graduate in Marketing Management, and 14 years of corporate experience in General Insurance domain, Antara is based out of Delhi and shuttles across India for her work commitments. In order to pursue her higher education, she left home at the tender age of 16 and has stayed in different cities of India, allowing her to meet people from different backgrounds. As a voracious reader, traveller, and orator, Antara has always found the art of writing extremely therapeutic as it helps her channel her inner energy about various social issues.

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