Why Is It So Hard For South Asians To Shake Light-Skin Worship?

A documentary from our first South Asian Miss America examines why colorism persists.
The moment Davuluri was crowned Miss America in 2014, Twitter and various headlines began fixating on her skin tone.
The moment Davuluri was crowned Miss America in 2014, Twitter and various headlines began fixating on her skin tone.
COMPLEXion Film

There’s finally a little more dark-skin representation in what we’re seeing, streaming, and in the advertising we’re consuming. Beauty influencers are out here nurturing their melanin-rich complexions and not every single role in Hollywood is going to a light-skinned person of color. If you emotionally squint, it almost appears as if the beauty and richness of darker skin tones have been acknowledged across the board. Alas, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface — especially when it comes to colorism in South Asian communities.

In the opening scene of the documentary “COMPLEXion,” former Miss America winner, activist and producer Nina Davuluri stands in a local shop in India observing a shelf stocked with Fair and Lovely skin-lightening creams. She’s immediately drawn back in time to a vivid memory, when she witnessed a mother buying her teenage daughter a tube of the cream. The mother’s painful words to her daughter in Telugu echo in Davuluri’s mind, uninvited: “So you don’t have the life that I have.”

The moment Davuluri was crowned Miss America in 2014, Twitter and various headlines began fixating on her skin tone. So many of us were incredulous that a woman of Indian descent with actual brown skin had been deemed a beauty queen — not because Davuluri wasn’t stunning, but because the only South Asian women the world celebrates in this way are remarkably pasty. I’m not mincing words when I say that Indian movie stars do not reflect the vast and sumptuous spectrum of brown skin tones found in India.

And so, to examine why it feels painfully impossible to shake light-skin worship, Davuluri set on a three-year journey to capture the real stories of those directly impacted by colorism, and to advocate, on a larger scale, what it means to break away from these stigmas.

Despite her iconic pageant win, Davuluri, like many women across the world, have been belittled due to archaic beauty standards that subconsciously and consciously prioritize lighter skin. Colorism is still an insidious and persisting form of discrimination in communities of color — from China to Jamaica, and all over the U.S.

As a result, skin lightening by various means is still a peculiarly popular option for many people all over the world. Globally, the beauty industry monetizes on these beauty standards, and the current $8.8 billion skin lightening industry is projected to reach $11.8 dollars by 2026.

Though many products have been banned for their harmful ingredients, and several governments such as Sri Lanka, Gabon and Jamaica launched a joint $14 million initiative in February 2023 to fight against the skin-lightening industry, these products are still widely used worldwide.

In India, where Davuluri focuses her attention in her documentary, a large part of the female population is earnestly trying to get lighter by any means necessary. Even as we in the diaspora gain insight on the potent and poignant effects of colonialism, white supremacist systems, and racism — it’s a curse that won’t seem to lift.

What is beauty really costing us, and more importantly, why do so many South Asians continue to worship lighter skin?

Despite her iconic pageant win, Davuluri, like many women across the world, have been belittled due to archaic beauty standards.
Despite her iconic pageant win, Davuluri, like many women across the world, have been belittled due to archaic beauty standards.
Charmi Patel Peña

We’ve been talking about the bias toward Eurocentric beauty standards in our communities for decades, and honestly, it is beginning to feel exhausting. Still, in this weird purgatory where brown skin elicits a variety of reactions, “COMPLEXion” is very much needed. It examines the current need to dismantle the social hierarchy linked to fairer skin. The documentary includes insightful interviews that unpack the complex ways in which colorism affects us today, from employment opportunities to marriage prospects.

This is very much related to Shandilya’s analysis of a woman’s worth through her skin tone. The connection between colorism and dowry — a monetary expectation that a woman needs to pay to her groom’s family prior to marriage — is a fraught one, says Lina Fruzzetti, author and professor at Brown University. Fruzzetti has penned four books about the marriage system during her tenure, with a focus on women. “What I found is that during a marriage negotiation, the question of color comes up from time to time,” she said.

Essentially, your dowry will be higher if your skin is on the darker end of the spectrum. This, not so subtly implies that we’re worth less, as humans, if our skin is darker. This is an uncomfortable reality to continue to accept. And so, despite the emotional labor of explaining colorism and bringing up the conversation again and again — we need to do it.

“Many of us were incredulous that a woman of Indian descent with actual brown skin had been deemed a beauty queen — not because Davuluri wasn’t stunning, but because the only South Asian women the world celebrates in this way are remarkably pasty.”

Thankfully, there’s a revolution happening on social media. Alongside the rise of content creators promoting body positivity and self-love, is a growing movement towards embracing darker skin tones. The use of hashtags such as #UnfairAndLovely and #SeemyComplexion has gained traction on social media, with many South Asians sharing their own stories and experiences of colorism.

This online movement has been a huge motivator for Davuluri, who didn’t grow up with the communication tools to openly discuss how colorism was playing out for her. “I’ve been really open about my struggles with mental health, especially as it relates to how I was viewed because of my darker skin,” she said. “The ultimate power we have is to share our truth and that starts with having this conversation with our families to change decades worth of stigma.”

The discussion of colorism today, according to Shandilya, is intertwined with anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter. “With a greater political consciousness of racial equality, we hope there will be less pressure to ‘be white’ and more of an embracement of people with darker skin tones,” she said.

Though these conversions on and off social media promote awareness, education and advocacy are essential to breaking down deeply ingrained biases, Fruzzetti said this starts at home and in academic institutions: “The topics of dowry, caste and colorism need to be taught in schools from an early age.”

As frustrating as it is that our communities cannot seem to completely shake colorism, the reality is that white-worship has been drilled into our psyches for centuries. Change will happen slowly, but there’s power in the collective.

According to Davuluri, the goal is not to demonize the beauty industry or any other organization — they’re operating under a much larger oppressive societal system, of course — but to champion change and welcome representation on mainstream media that shows a range of skin tones. That’s the only way we can all finally move forward.

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