Nidhi Sunil for Dazed Beauty: Colourism and being in an industry that favours fair skin
My first instinct when I’m asked to discuss colourism and its effect on my life has always been: ‘How do I articulate this so that the crux of this conversation doesn’t get lost in rhetoric?’. I want humans to release the regressive perceptions that surround us regarding how we look and choose to feel powerful for reasons other than fitting into some general narrative structure of beauty.
How does one sum up what it feels like to be discriminated against for something that is your genetic heritage, something you can’t change? The only word that comes to mind is painful. It was painful. Shout out to the guy that nicknamed me Kaalia (Blackie) the crow in high school; I love you for sending me on my journey.
Growing up in India, it was disorienting living in a country full of dark people, but to be surrounded by information that insisted that under no circumstances were you to consider yourself acceptable to look at. We are a nation of arranged marriages, dowry, and a rabid obsession with fair skin. Although I was lucky enough to have a mum who was wise enough to keep her kids away from bleaching creams, my run-ins with the outside world and my extended Indian family were not so fortunate. I remember going to a second cousin’s wedding and one of my aunt’s summing up my eligibility as a future bride: “Pretty, but would have been better if she’d been blessed with her grandmother’s complexion.”
I’m unsure about when and how the perception that ‘white skin is better’ became so deeply rooted in my culture. Though after living and working outside of India I’m pretty convinced that it’s not just an issue native to South Asian culture – though it takes on different forms in different countries. In conversations among my Indian friends, we often joke about our obsession with fair skin being a colonial hangover.
From extended family members taking an acute interest in the tan-free, blemish-free state of your skin for potential future marriage arrangements, to being inundated by billboards and TV commercials propagating that you can forget about winning at life if you’re dark – the message is hard to avoid. That’s without mentioning classifieds in the marriage section asking for fair brides for engineer sons, to the large majority of A-list Bollywood actresses being fair and pushing fairness products.
As a young teen growing up in India it was sort of a foregone conclusion that if you were fairer you were prettier. I was a sports kid growing up and my schedule involved training as a swimmer for five hours a day, six days a week. I was a very tanned dark kid. My mum, who was very dark-skinned, much darker than me, constantly drummed into me that I was beautiful. It must have worked because if I had just my high school teenage experiences for context I would definitely have a complex about my skin. But, as I mentioned, my nickname in high school was Kaalia the crow.
It’s almost like we’re brainwashed really… you don’t even question it as a kid. Fair skin and light eyes were just the epitome of beauty. I had this weird fantasy of growing up and dyeing my hair red and sticking in green contact lenses. We prefer light eyes over our brown ones. I have even used a bleach cream on my own skin before realising it’s a waste of time and was probably horribly bad for me.
I was signed to an agency in India when I was in university; I competed in a model hunt between semesters and placed second. One of the prizes was a modelling contract. The judges were photographers and creatives in the industry, but the bookers at the agency were unhappy about me having freckles and what they called an “uneven complexion.”