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Who has the right to be Beautiful: Reflections on Caste, Class & Colorism

Who has the right to be Beautiful: Reflections on Caste, Class & Colorism

Durga Hole

One day I went street shopping in Chembur in Mumbai. After buying the thing I asked the shopkeeper for a concession. He was not ready for it then my friend from Bihar just added that ‘Bhaiya de dona wo Maharashtra se hi hai’ (give it to her, she is from Maharashtra). He was shocked and said ‘really is she from Maharashtra? I thought she was from Andra or Tamil Nadu’. He asked me to prove that I am Marathi. I was shocked because it was the first time for me someone was asking me to prove that I am Maharashtrian. I spoke one sentence in Marathi language then he gave me a concession. It was a mixed feeling of happiness for concession and surprising too. After listening to the story my friend suggested that I should watch the movie ‘The Green Book’. I watched with all my patience, later somewhere I started to understand the issue of racism and colorism on a surface level initially then began to reflect on myself. From that day I collected my personal experience about my color which I always used to take casually. I am not comparing the racism issue in the West to India’s issue of colorism. I am completely aware that the issue of racism in Western is very different. Everything today that the Black peoples in America have they got through their struggle, sacrificed thousands of lives and fought  for their rights and place.

Perhaps when it comes to the Eastern part of our Earth the reality is completely different. I am writing this particularly after reading the research paper of J. Camille Hall ‘No Longer Invisible: Understanding the Psychosocial Impact of Skin Color Stratification in the Lives of African American Women’. She wrote about how the structural issue of colorism makes women feel when they belong to a particular category. The feeling of ‘darkness with negativity and lightness with ideal beauty’, unattractive, and less intelligent, etc.’ (Hall C. J. 2017).  From this I feel that I should write about my journey with my color complexion.

Everyday I think when I stand before the mirror how to become a lighter skinned woman because I want to look beautiful like other women. I want compliments that I am beautiful too. Even today I feel shaken when I think about my childhood experience, particularly those related to my skin color. I was always invisible to everyone, my presence never mattered. Usually people say that the beauty of the mind or heart matters more than appearance but I have experienced that no one thinks or acts that way, at the end of everything appearance matters.

A dark color is not just a color however it has become a parameter. This turns into one of the criteria to determine what kind of treatment an individual will get regardless of its gender. Additionally the upbringing of dark skin girls is not the same as others. Each and every step reminds women that she is dark. The beginning of different treatment does not begin from an outsider paradoxically, this is started from inside the family, clearly from female members. It is generally considered that a boy can be dark in color, then color of skin wouldn’t have mattered so much’. If a girl is dark then it is the only good thing for her to marry her as soon as possible otherwise it will be challenging to find a groom for her since she is not ‘beautiful’.

There is a song written by famous Dalit singer and activist Prahlad Shinde in 1994. The song is narrating the challenge of dark color women in India and the preference of marriage of boys to fair skin girls in India. Impressingly, he expressed the situation as a social issue 30 years ago. At the end of the song the singer wrote that the issue is primarily the problem of  father only instead of girl herself. The writer somewhere missed the feelings of a dark girl, however he expressed the absolute truth of the Indian society’s duality. I have written a translation in English for non Marathi speakers.


जो तो मुलगा…                                                         Every boy expressed…

जो तो मुलगा म्हणतो मजला                                    Every boy expressed that I

बायको पाहिजे गोरी                                                 Needs a fair wife,

आता तुम्हीच सांगा पाहुण                                        Now you tell me,

कुठं जातील काळ्या पोरी?                                      Where will the black girl go?


काल एक पाहुणा आला                                        A proposal for a dark-skinned girl,

पोर दावीयली पोराला                                            A girl showed to boy,

गुण तिचे वर्णिले त्याला                                           Her qualities were highlighted,

तो चौघा समोर म्हणाला                                         And he said in front of everyone,


गुणान पोरगी असो कशी ही                                Even if she’s have rich in qualities,

गुणान पोरगी असो कशी ही                                Even if she’s have rich in qualities,

रंगान पाहिजे गोरी                                               but she should have to be fair-skinned,

आता तुम्हीच सांगा पाहुण                                   Now you tell me,

कुठं जातील काळ्या पोरी?                                  Where will the black girl go?


हा देवून काळा रंग                                             Giving her a dark complexion,

कसा आनी देव प्रसंग                                         What kind of a divine story is this?

त्या पोरी बिचाऱ्या तंग                                         The dark-skinned girl in distress,

लग्न करतील कोणा संग                                      Who will marry her now?


गोरा ही म्हणतो गोरी पाहिजे                              Fair-skinned one says he needs a fair-skinned girl,

गोरा ही म्हणतो गोरी पाहिजे                              Fair-skinned one says he needs a fair-skinned girl,

काळा ही म्हणतो गोरी                                       Dark-skinned one says he needs a fair-skinned girl,

आता तुम्हीच सांगा पाहुण                                  Now you tell me,

कुठं जातील काळ्या पोरी?                                Where will the black girl go?



जर असेच हे चालणार                                      If things continue like this,

हा प्रश्न कसा सुटणार?                                      How will this question be resolved?

ही दुनिया बदलली फारं                                   This world has changed completely,

आता दोष कुणा देणार                                     Now, who will take the blame?


काळ्यासोबत लग्न खुशीन                               With happiness marry with dark skin boy,

काळ्यासोबत लग्न खुशीन                               With happiness marry with dark skin boy,

करती गोऱ्या पोरी                                           By the fair skinned girl,

आता तुम्हीच सांगा पाहुण                               Now you tell me,

कुठं जातील काळ्या पोरी?                             Where will the black girl go?


हा आहे घोर अन्याय                                      This is a grave injustice,

कोणी ही करी ना न्याय                                  Yet no one get justice,

कुणी सांगा यासी उपाय                                Who will show a way?

बापानं कराव काय?                                      What will the father do?


निघून जावं का, मरून जावं                        Should one leave, or should one die,

निघून जावं का, मरून जावं                        Should one leave, or should one die,

गळ्याला लावून दोरी                                   With a rope around the neck,

आता तुम्हीच सांगा पाहुण                           Now you tell me,

कुठं जातील काळ्या पोरी?                          Where will the black girl go?


आता तुम्हीच सांगा पाहुण                           Now you tell me,

कुठं जातील काळ्या पोरी?                         Where will the black girl go?

आता तुम्हीच सांगा पाहुण                          Now you tell me,

कुठं जातील काळ्या पोरी?                         Where will the black girl go?


I remember one story that my nani (maternal grandmother) shared with me: her father belonged to a good family, as they had some land. They were four brothers and two sisters. As per the patriarchal custom, the sisters should marry before their brothers, therefore my nani’s brother started to look for a groom for my nani. There is a twist in the situation that both sisters were completely different from each other. My nani was dark and my nani’s sister was fair. Therefore my nani got a laborer as a partner and her sister got a wealthy man. One single variable changed her whole life so much so that she who had never worked on a farm after her marriage did all the work. When I asked my Nani don’t you feel bad for you she casually said that ‘it is my fault that my color is dark so I have to pay for it’. After remembering her words now I feel that dark skin inherently covers under a negative self-identity.

Colorism influences many sides of life, including family, social class, and educational achievement and gendered notions of colorism, physical attractiveness, and self esteem (Hall C. J. 2017).  It changes the whole life scenario of the individual. Most of the energy is wasted on becoming beautiful. The main objective of a girl’s life, she is told, is to get married and that completely depends on the girl’s beauty. ‘Ladki jitani beautiful rahegi’ she will able to get the best groom. It reduces the the efforts of parents to look for a good groom. Of course, it has both pros and cons too. Plus: Lighter-skinned (gori) skin girls, have more options in life while selecting a partner. On the other hand, for girls with dark skin, it feels like a blessing if anybody thinks beyond her skin color.

During my childhood whenever I buy clothes I would always hear the same sentence – your color is dark so there are limited color options that will suit you. My whole childhood went to wearing bright colors like yellow, pink, red, orange, white, and so on. Interestingly, my favorite color was black. Wearing my favorite color took me 18 years of my age.

I always ask myself who makes all these norms of beauty. Who defines the standards of beauty. The compelling thing is that in India many people think that there is no issue of colorism. The basic experience of dark skinned color people never comes forward, even though they are struggling. The journey is so alienating that people do not even accept their names, instead they use titles such as – Sawala/Sawali and Dombala/Domali. In today’s social media era I have observed that dark color youth use black and white filters  more than any other users. I guess that it is an open secret about reality.

Having dark skin is a problem so I think there must be a solution to cure it too. Because in our world humans are trying to find each problem’s solution. Particularly, to fit into society’s standards there are practices around the world to become beautiful. As there are different practices around the globe since ‘beauty’ is subjective. Most interesting thing is that a plethora of the ‘remedial’ practices are related to women: such as foot binding, skull binding, skin whitening, neck stretching, etc.

After this, another question arises: how did the present scenario regarding female beauty come about? It is clear that this does not happen in one or two days.

To understand the journey we have to travel from ancient time to modern time to understand the journey of a woman’s life. There are many phenomena which shaped our life: like the roots of gender, the valuable lesson from the French Revolution and the struggles of Mary Wollenscraft etc). In the context of India, we have to understand the work of Savitrimai Phule, Jotirao Phule, Fatima Sheikh, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. It is essential to understand the value of each right women in India have secured with a lot of struggle and sacrifice. Still, our women are somewhere still stuck around beauty which is defined by man through the lens of Brahmanism.

On the other hand, a big industry is running under the name of so-called ‘beauty’. With assurance and confidence, people started using statements to attract the women under the name of ‘beauty’.

If you are beautiful we capture your beauty,

If you are not,

We will make you beautiful

No wonder the cosmetic industry has become the most profitable industry nowadays and beauty parlors have become mandatory. It includes skincare, haircare, make-up, perfumes, toiletries and deodorants, oral cosmetics, etc. Whoever can afford this, that particular section of society becomes beautiful and fits the standard; others who cannot afford it don’t. There are some basic questions that arise in the mind: which section of the society can afford to become beautiful and why? Another question is who are the rest that could not afford it and what are the factors behind it?

At present, 60 percent of India’s population lives below the poverty line (Manish, S. 2020). Some groups are not able to obtain the basic necessities like food, cloth, shelter, etc.  Then another question automatically arises: which section of the society can afford cosmetics to become beautiful. This connects somewhere directly with other variables like caste and class in India.

Once I decided to buy deodorant since other hostel girls were using it, therefore I collected some money and asked aai (mother) for some more. I had a total of Rs 200 with me. I went to the shop and asked for a deo under Rs 200. The shopkeeper asked me to buy it from the roadside shop as they sell at a cheap price. I was okay with it and I got it for Rs 120. I saved some money and I was happy with it and later realized that it was not original and worked temporarily. I felt bad and understood that this product is unaffordable for girls like me.

Furthermore, another realization, television is a common source to see the updated fashion. Somewhere every girl like me feels excited after seeing beautiful faces and dresses. Always wishes to have dresses like that. When I started to get an opportunity to buy clothes for myself from my savings, I decided to buy tops like actresses. Unfortunately when I started to buy I understood that I am not good for those clothes, they do not suit me. This always broke my confidence by saying I am not good enough for it. As Malcolm X in his famous speech: ‘Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?’ Similarly, I always get that feeling of who defines and decides all the parameters?

I had a simple question: who has the right to look beautiful? I think those who can afford it. Others who could not fit the standards of beauty will never be seen to be beautiful because they can’t afford it. Therefore I will never be able to fit that standard of beauty. Until an individual is unable to escape from those parameters which arise from the Brahmanical mindset she’ll not meet the standard. Dark color is seen as a curse for girls. I hope this generation, particularly from the Bahujan community, do not see the English language as a parameter of knowledge and skin color as a standard of beauty.



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Durga Hole has an MA in Social Work (specialization in Criminology and Justice) from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is an alumnus of Nalanda academy Wardha and currently serves as a Research Associate at the Samyak Research Centre within Nalanda Academy. Her research focuses on the intersections of caste, gender, and savarna knowledge production.





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