For most South Asian women, comments on skin tone have become an accepted consequence of our richness in melanin. I know - as a dark-skinned Tamil woman, I grew up amidst this culture. It was only in my 20s that I realized how deeply entrenched colorist ideals are within our community and the damage they can cause both physically and emotionally.
In South Asian societies, colorism remains a persisting remnant of the dated caste system. Lower caste members, working in outdoor manual labor, developed deeper tones whereas higher caste members worked indoors and away from the sun. Thus, fair skin tones became associated with ideals of elite status and purity, with colonialism only exacerbating the existing devaluation of darker skin. While the caste system has since been abolished in most societies, the desirability, and superiority, of fair skin tones has persisted. India’s Bollywood industry is the most infamous perpetrator of unrealistic beauty ideals, by continually featuring fair-toned leads and comedic skits with underlying colorist themes. In Canada’s South Asian communities, colorist ideals have continued to permeate the lives of dark-skinned women, dictating our perception of beauty and complicating our cultural identity.
This has propelled countless young women to take radical steps towards altering their complexion in hopes of aligning with this unfounded conception of beauty. In India, nearly 50% of spending on skincare is directed towards skin-lightening products and in Mumbai alone, 40% of the population admits to using these “remedies” regularly. However, the glitzy and star-studded commercials fail to address the numerous health concerns of this misaligned quest for social desirability.
In Canada, Marketplace commissioned an evaluation of popular skin-lightening products available in beauty shops across the nation. Most were found to violate Canadian guidelines and were increasingly sold in ethnically rich communities. Some products contained dangerous toxicants like mercury, which is associated with complications including nephrotoxicity. Others had high concentrations of hydroquinone, a biological equivalent of paint stripper which elevates one’s risk of skin cancer. Most frightening was the discovery that many of these products failed to adequately list health warnings or even the ingredients themselves.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the South Asian community’s centuries-long battle with colorism. Completely banning products will only instigate at-home experimentations and the growth of black markets, which brings with it novel dangers. Thus, what must accompany legislative change holding companies accountable for producing non-compliant products, is a shift in our social attitude towards skin color. This begins with a recognition of colorism’s stronghold in our culture, broadening our definition of beauty and holding one another accountable for our own role in sustaining its prevalence. The new generation has already demonstrated much promise in rejecting colorist notions by leading social media campaigns for increased representation and appreciation of darker tones. Successful petitions have been formed against high power retailers, including Amazon, to stop the sale of skin-lightening products with dangerous levels of mercury. However, it is the shift in our own individual perceptions of skin tone and colour that is most vital, and difficult. I wish there was a concrete set of steps I could share, but for each individual, the journey towards appreciation is personal and complex. In my own experience, visualization(seeing darker-toned south asian women across media platforms) and education (on the history of colorism and the skin-lightening industry) were most vital towards gaining confidence in my darker skin. Of course, this realization is not perfect. My appreciation comes in waves, as do my discouragements. However, I think I have finally come to acknowledge, and appreciate, that dark is beautiful - it always has been, and it always will be.
Pollock, S., Taylor, S., Oyerinde, O., Nurmohamed, S., Dlova, N., Sarkar, R., Galadari, H., Manela-Azulay, M., Chung, H. S., Handog, E., & Kourosh, A. S. (2020, September 17). The dark side of skin lightening: An international collaboration and review of a public health issue affecting dermatology. International Journal of Women's Dermatology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352647520301416.
Tomlinson, A., McDonald , J., & Grundig, T. (2020, February 8). 'It can damage your FACE': Skin-whitening creams illegally sold in Canada. CBCnews. https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/marketplace-skin-whitening-lightening-beauty-shadism-1.5454257.