the make up artists fighting back against india's skin bleaching industry
Light skin and the products used to achieve it have long been ingrained within South Asian culture, but a new generation are finally rejecting colourism.
Photo by @yasitskrishy
Being born dark-skinned in a South Asian family was not easy for make up artist Karishma Leckraz. Throughout her childhood she was surrounded by a societal mindset that dictated light skin was beautiful and dark skin was “ugly”, a concept even her family held. Growing up she remembers being presented with the skin whitening cream 'Fair and Lovely’. “I can’t say I was pressured to use it” Karishma, 25, says. “But having been made to feel my dark skin wasn’t good enough, I was more than happy to use it in the hope that my skin got lighter so I could feel pretty”
The cream actually did the opposite, turning Karishma’s skin a greyish tone and leaving it thin and dry, but it was the psychological impact that really affected her. “Emotionally it took a toll on me because all I wanted was to be lighter and the fact nothing was working really got me down”. Since then, Karishma has stopped using whitening creams and has joined a community of make up artists embracing their darker skin tones and challenging South Asian traditional views of beauty head on.
Skin whitening creams are known for their dangerous side-effects, often containing mercury and, "the biological equivalent of paint stripper", hydroquinone. These creams strip the skin of its top layers and reduce melanin, increasing the chances of skin cancer and serious nerve, kidney, liver and even brain damage. Yet despite the well-documented issues, its illegality in some countries and a conscious online backlash, the skin-whitening industry is more successful than ever and expected to be worth $31.2 billion by 2024.
With an ever increasing market in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, global brands such as l’Oreal, Lancôme, Vaseline and Garnier each have their own lines of whitening creams advertised by high profile celebrities including Deepika Padukone and Blac Chyna. In India alone, sales of skin lightening creams are believed to be higher than sales of Coca-Cola.
“There is a strong racist connotation constructed in the [South Asian] mindset, that lighter skin is more attractive and successful in societal aspects such as professions and relationships and [the idea] that they’re from a higher caste,” says Linasha Kotalawala, a 22-year-old South Asian MUA and political and social activist. “Whereas darker skinned individuals are stereotypically viewed to be from a lower caste, lower income and unattractive.”
The caste system, India’s answer to social classes, is inextricably tied to notions of beauty. Darker skin has become associated with poverty, hard labour and lower castes who work in the sun all day; or ‘untouchables’, who do the jobs no one else wants to do. Meanwhile, lighter skin is associated with wealth and status, never having to do manual labour, and the white colonialists who for many years held power in India.
As a result of those entrenched mentalities, India struggles with a deep-rooted colourism, presenting itself as hatred towards darker skin tones. For centuries, pregnant Indian women have been known to drink a variety of saffron-based concoctions in the hopes that it will make their future child light skinned. This parental fear has even extended to surrogate-seeking couples who not only have a preference, but are willing to pay more, for a light-skinned woman to carry their child despite the obvious lack of genetic influence.
But while these fears are racist, unfortunately they aren’t entirely misplaced. Colourism does systematically prejudice PoC, especially women. Cynthia Sims of Southern Illinois University found that light-skinned women in India are more likely to receive career opportunities than darker skinned women. In the world of dating, websites such as shaadi.com offer singles looking for love a skin tone filter to sort your potential matches by ‘fair’, ‘wheatish’ and ‘dark’ -- as if you were choosing a flavour of Horlicks and not a life partner.
Although a 2014 ruling by the Advertising Standards Council of India prohibited discrimination in advertising based on skin tone and banned the editing of pictures to exaggerate the effects of products, more needs to be done to change the ingrained attitudes towards darker skin tones.
“As soon as we start seeing more darker skinned individuals in Bollywood (not just portrayed as the villain) and the beauty and fashion industries, we can slowly start to create a positive shift in this mindset,” says Linasha. While Bollywood might be lagging behind, social media is charging forward. An emerging generation of young make up artists, like Linasha and Karishma, are actively fighting against the skin-whitening industry by promoting their natural skin tones and offering looks for darker skinned people of colour.
Karishma's looks merge a unique combination of make up tailored to her skin tone with an elfin, mystical fantasy aesthetic. “It’s important not only for South Asian make up artists and influencers, but for every race to celebrate their natural skin tone," she says. "It makes people feel accepted; it makes them feel seen, inspired and powerful. With the influx of diverse influencers on social media in recent years, it’s definitely helped break down the barriers of what 'beauty' really means. Instead of rejecting people it’s turned into celebrating what makes us different and unique.”
Those fighting back against colourism are finally seeing institutional changes to support their work, with India's young MUAs emboldened by a changing cosmetics marketplace. While many major cosmetics brands continue to sell and promote whitening creams there are others who are innovating the industry and changing the narrative. “Fenty beauty is the brand that has now set the bench-mark of standards in terms of diversity, inclusivity, expression and representation of all women and people of colour,” says Roshan Nausad, a 20-year-old Desi MUA based in Australia. "Now we as POCs can walk into a store and know that we are welcome because there are foundations in our skin tones.”
South Asia might still have a long way to go in terms of its deeply embedded phobia of naturally darker skin tones, but things are changing, and younger generations are at last being presented with not brands that champion their natural skin tones, and creatives championing their message.
“As a make up artist, I thrive on the idea that I get to work alongside so many awesome and amazing brown creatives showcasing that we too are beautiful and promoting not only our authentic selves, but our true love and passion for our skin tones,” Roshan says. “We will not be misrepresented anymore.”