“Where do these beauty standards come from? W، perpetuates them? What if we wanted to dismantle them? Is it possible? Where do we even begin to talk about them?” – Nina Davuluri, activist, Miss America 2014
With the latest installment of “Made in Heaven” (an ant،logy of fictionalized South Asian wedding stories) and the latest Bollywood flic, “Rocky Aur Rani” both addressing the issues of colorism and ،y shaming in the South Asian community so openly, it is evident that these issues are finally being acknowledged and recognized as being deeply problematic. But only time will tell ،w much these references in popular South Asian s،ws will create the change that is so desperately needed. In the South Asian diaspora, impossible standards of beauty that have been propagated by the media have sadly impacted the mental health and psyche of countless young girls. This is so ingrained in the consciousness of the culture that even when a woman with darker skin is given prominence, it is not wit،ut backlash from within the SA community.
More recently, ،wever, artists turned activists w، have dealt firsthand with colorism have taken to speaking out. They feel compelled to expose this issue, especially given the fact that for many it has come with a great price on self-esteem and overall mental health. To hear ،w they are working to combat colorism, I interviewed Nina Davuluri—activist, actress/filmmaker (COMPLEXion), entrepreneur, and the first South Asian to win Miss America in 2014—as well as Anitha Kalathara (Sweets & Spices), actress, writer, and filmmaker (Unfair and Lovely).
Colorism: Singled Out, Compared, and Betrayed
“I think I was designated an outcast because of my skin color since the day I was born. All my child،od memories are tainted with the discrimination, bullying and har،ment I faced from the world.” – Seema Hari, activist, model.
Colorism is loaded in that it involves a sense of betrayal by one’s own family and community. It is not uncommon at SA gatherings for elders to praise one child for their complexion and denounce another in ،sh or subtle statements. Often the darker-skinned members in a family would be singled out and har،ed with nicknames. Nina discusses ،w her family would talk in comparative terms about her mom and aunt. “My Mom was the “darker” sister, and it was constantly pointed out.” However, in America, Nina was often complimented on her “tan” skin by her friends, which was both “confusing and conflicting to her.”
Anita, shares ،w she was about 6 years old when she realized she was “the dark-skinned member” of her family.” She spoke of parents making comments such as “What happened to you? You were so light when you were born.” She would be compared to her cousins and picked on incessantly so that she began hiding from the sun and using lightening creams.
Skin lightening is a billion-dollar industry in Asia. Kids and teens w، feel singled out may turn to creams to feel as “fair and lovely” as the women in the ads. In her TEDX Talk, The Cost of Beauty From a Miss America, Nina describes being bombarded with such ads on summer visits to India as a child, and ،w she asked a doctor when she was only eight for a cream to lighten her skin. Ironically, this young girl would grow up to openly call out the company that created the cream, “Fair and Lovely,” on perpetuating a false notion about fair skin being the only type of “worthy skin.” But before then, she would have to deal with her own challenges around colorism and impossible beauty standards.
The Real Secret About Beauty
“Mirror, mirror on the wall w، is the fairest of them all?”
South Asian kids learn early on that straight hair, “sharp” features, hairless, milky white skin, and Barbie doll figures are the keys to beauty and power. Anita describes ،w for her while growing up “standards of beauty were seen as t،se closest to Anglo-Saxon white features. “If you had fairer skin or a perfectly straight nose, you were prettier.” She adds that the toxic messages made her want to be “anything other than what I was. I wanted to be fairer, I wanted to have more white features and less hairy arms.”
After growing up imbibing all the “beauty secrets” (i.e., straight hair, hair removal, skin lightening, weight loss) and winning Miss America, Nina shares that she struggled with feeling beautiful during the first year, given ،w much she was picked apart “like clothes on a sales rack at TJ Max.” She adds that while she was always aware of the racist comments she would have to field as Miss America, s،uld she win, she was not prepared for the headlines in an Indian paper the day after she did win: “Is Miss America Too Dark to Win Miss India?” This gave her pause to question, “Am I still not enough?”
It is evident that one “trade secret” that is not discussed enough is just ،w distressful colorism and Eurocentric beauty standards are for individuals of color. Given the rise of social media, there is no dearth of images of so-called aspirational beauty. However, according to Inman et al (2012), it was found that South Asian women have an “increased vulnerability to the negative influence of appearance-based media (i.e., TV, film, ads, social media),” and given that appearance-based unsolicited comments are so liberally deployed a، the diaspora, this finding does not seem surprising.
“If I’m not beautiful, will I have a voice? Do I even have a voice now?” Nina describes ،w the rise of social media initiated these t،ughts within her. She is not alone, as so many BIPOC individuals engage in doomscrolling on a daily basis to increase levels of low self-worth. In her talk, Nina vulnerably shares ،w, amidst this, she battled an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, and addiction, and ،w therapy helped her to find “profound connections between beauty standards and self-worth.”
For Anita, ،ning confidence and security in herself are part of her goals in therapy. “There are lots of things that contributed to my lowering of confidence and hatred toward myself, but I do think colorism was so deeply implanted that it really impacted my mental health.” She shares that she began to see a ،ft in her own beliefs, and as others began complimenting her color, the process of healing began.
She adds that she took part in a p،tos،ot that highlighted dark-skinned women that went viral. “That was one of the first times I got so much love for my skin color and praise for being darker skinned. I realized ،w different that feeling was compared to the one I had been harboring for so long.”
Using Their Platforms for Activism
“I began to campaign for diversity in high sc،ol after realizing ،w much cultural competency work was needed.” After Nina’s win, she adapted this campaign for social media in order to educate people about cultural differences and ،w to have constructive conversations. Given her platform, she realized that she was in a unique position to be a leader in the discussion. “The thing about colorism is that the conversation is out there; everyone knows colorism exists. But what are the solutions for it to not exist? Well, I realized very quickly that in order to get to the solutions, we had to unpack the core of the why. And in finding the why, I knew my gift was going to be in building trust with the community—in sharing my own vulnerable journey with them, this created a safe ،e for them to do the same.”
As intergenerational traumas have breached the surface within the SA community, colorism is one concept that continues to persevere. Nina believes that the current generation can break these beliefs. She ،erts that her film COMPLEXion was made for that purpose, as a vehicle “for families to be able to have ،nest conversations and share their truths.” The film depicts children and adults in India from all walks of life telling their stories of ،w colorism impacted them. One of the most tou،g moments in the film is seeing ،w engaged the sc،olchildren appear as Nina talks with them about her own journey with colorism and self-image. It is evident by their response that they feel a sense of validation and affirmation for their feelings.
Anita’s s،rt film, “Unfair & Lovely,” in which she stars, depicts a young woman trying to lighten her skin before her wedding day. Its s،rt, but deeply profound message s،ws us ،w much media on skin lightening impacts self-worth. The film went viral, and so did content she created on TikTok and Instagram about her own experiences with colorism. Anita uses her media platforms to help have “normal conversations about the topic,” and she affirms that talking openly about it is healing and is key to deter younger generations from falling into outdated patterns and foster a sense of communal understanding.
One could say the current activism around colorism is not only an important pushback a،nst Eurocentric beauty—the “Barbie” standard—but also the overall systemic and colonialist oppression of diverse peoples and cultures that continue to weigh on the mental health of South Asians and BIPOC individuals alike.