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Beauty Bias: Confronting Prejudices based on Skin Tone
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Gender

Beauty Bias: Confronting Prejudices based on Skin Tone

Kavita Janbandhu

The concept of beauty is a social construct. It is founded on societally accepted ideas that have become ingrained in our systems and psyches and are accepted as the norm. These ideals of beauty gradually become imprinted in our minds on a micro level, influencing how we act. There is a two-way link with societal forces such as the media, marketing, corporations, government, and other organisations (Pearce, n.d.). Due to this constructed notion of beauty, some (lighter-skinned) people may get pleasure; however, others (darker skinned) may feel humiliated when they encounter different incidents of discrimination.

I would like to cite some of my personal experiences – when I was in school, one of my female teachers used to call me ‘black beauty’. From 5th class to 10th, she often addressed me by only this name. I never felt aggrieved with her since I wasn’t aware of the terminology. On the contrary, I used to feel happy when a teacher called me beautiful. During my undergrad days, I went to her home at her invitation. Then the teacher introduced me to her two daughters, that I was her student, and she called me black beauty. On hearing this phrase, her daughters told her that ‘beauty is beauty’, and nothing is black and white. I recall that in those days, being a teacher, she used to differentiate between her students. She should have taught her students to not make any racist remarks about anyone. Instead, she enjoyed passing the comments. Even my friends often added the caption black beauty to my photos on my birthdays.

During my MA program at Tuljapur, I went to Andhra Pradesh for an internship. When I returned to Nagpur, most of my friends said I looked like an Andhra girl and it was difficult to recognise me because I seemed darker. On my campus, when I was heading to the dining hall for my lunch, I asked one of the hostel staff in Marathi, whether she has had food? She surprisingly asked me, are you a Marathi? She said I look like a Kerala girl because of my hairy face and hands. Even after having several conversations in Marathi with her, she continued to consider me a Kerala girl. How come she forgot my language and remembered only my skin colour? In India, our outer features decide our location. It is a prejudice often carried by people and it doesn’t matter to them that it might hurt someone. Since our society does not teach us to shun these biases,  different mass-media platforms too promote the same. I do not have a negative attitude towards the southern states, but how can our skin tone decide our location? I have seen many people from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, who are light skinned–the stereotypes about South Indians and North Indians and their supposedly contrasting skin colours are flawed.

I would like to share one more incident. I like to click photos and do makeup. Through my friend’s contact, I was invited by a beautician to model for a beautician course. Before calling me, she asked for my photos. She said my face was perfect for a South Indian photoshoot. I felt bad since she selected me due to my skin tone. I went for the photo shoot, and a makeup artist was present over there who also called my skin ‘dusky’. I heard this word around 25-30 times throughout the photoshoot. I was the subject for her students to learn how to apply makeup on dusky skin. The photographer too told me I would be a perfect model for a ‘Kali Mata’s photoshoot’ due to my big eyes, features and dark face. But I was questioning whether it was my fault to be a dark skinned or is it the widespread prejudices which make people undermine me based on my skin colour?

Female beauty, as projected by the profit-seeking corporate media, has thus been reduced to a euphemism for the commodification and over-sexualisation of female bodies (Rajoria 2013). Due to the extensive marketing of beauty products , sometimes it appears that being a non-light-skinned person is a crime. These capitalists are showing ‘concern’ for darker people. They manufacture glow and lovely creams. By applying it, a person can glow and become attractive. Even the film industry makes fun of the darker tones. If they were genuinely concerned about racial discrimination they should raise awareness and sensitise people through mass media about everyday colour discrimination that may lead to depression and an inferiority complex among some. To sensitise people, a fight against colourism was started through the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign by film actress Nandita Das. However, I hardly see any difference in the lives of lower caste dark-skinned women. A darker-skinned Dalit girl is bound to face everyday discrimination and suffers explicitly though she has proved her potential and intelligence in every walk of life irrespective of unfavourable socio-economic conditions (Boywad 2019).

People around me always suggest I apply Panderm cream though I do not care for skin colour. The above incidents illustrate how people display their ignorance while pursuing ‘beauty’. I can understand if a person is unaware of the racist implications of their remarks; however, well educated professionals too deliberately pass such racial statements. One of my group members invariably addresses me as Kari (dark-skinned girl). Though on many occasions, we discussed how to sensitise people and to make them refrain from body shaming or gender or racial discrimination. He teases me. I never feel comfortable when he calls me by that word. However, he laughs while doing this and feels cleverer than his group mates.

In another incident, a student from our library suggested that I see a doctor o get a prescription for a cream that would make me fair. The logic was that the boys would then line up behind me. Being dark-skinned, especially for girls, is treated like a sin in our society. Everyone is engaged in advising others to apply certain products and become fair. However, very few seek to sensitise others, treating it as just colour. As Rajoria (2013) writes, understanding and appreciation of differences are needed since every life form is beautiful in its own way, and every human deserves respect. Hence, skin color does not and should not matter at all. Thus, I believe: there should not be any pride in being lighter-skinned and no shame in being darker-skinned.

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References

Boywad, B. (2019). I, Bhagyashri Boywad. Savari – Adivasi Bahujan and Dalit Women Conversing. [Online] [Accessed on 22nd June 2023] https://www.dalitweb.org/?p=3906

Elizabeth B. Pearce (n.d.) What is beauty https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/families/chapter/what-is-beauty/ (Accessed on 19.06.2023)

Rajoria, A. (2013). Why I don’t support the’Dark is Beautiful’ campaign. Round Table India.[Online][Accessed on 23th June 2023] http://roundtableindia. co. in/index. php.

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Kavita Janbandhu has completed MA in Development Policy, Planning and Practice from TISS – Tuljapur. She has been placed in Azim Premji Foundation as a Field Associate.

 

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