Fifty Shades of Beauty

Aleena Udas Sharma | July 22, 2020

It was 6:30 am and, as usual, we were late. I thought my son would miss his school bus, but thankfully we reached the bus stop well on time. Everything seemed normal at the stop except for an unfamiliar face. There was a pretty little girl. She stood close to her mom and was happily reciting a nursery rhyme:

“Chubby cheeks, dimpled chin, 
Rosy lips, teeth within, 
Curly hair, very fair, 
Eyes so blue, lovely too, 
Teacher’s pet, is that you? 
“Yes, yes, yes.”

 I enjoyed listening to her voice, even applauded her expressions, yet there was something which made me uncomfortable listening to it. The physical characteristics of a beautiful girl described in the rhyme hardly matched the little girl apart from her curly hair and chubby cheeks. I thought to myself, why do schools make children learn such rhymes when the majority of these children neither have fair skin nor blue eyes?  I also wondered why we, at such an early age, teach children that rosy lips, curly hair and being fair is synonymous to being beautiful—that it will make them their teacher’s favorite.  

We are consciously or subconsciously telling our children that skin color is what determines success, fame and happiness. Colorism, as defined by Dr. Radhika Parameswaran, professor at Indiana University is a discrimination against people based on skin color. It is a discrimination in which dark skinned people are seen as inferior, less beautiful, less competent, less intelligent and less accomplished than the light skinned people.

It begins at home

Although colorism is common in most countries, it is practiced extensively in the south Asian region. It is so deep rooted in this part of the world that sometimes it begins as soon as a woman conceives. Peers offer their outrageous advice to an expecting mother to start having white color food like milk, blanched almonds and coconut instead of tea and coffee, if she wants to have a light complexioned child.

After the childbirth, the first thing parents and relatives notice after a close scrutiny of a child’s limbs is the skin color. Other bizarre recommendations follow such as bathing a child with milk so that the child’s complexion becomes lighter.

We color code people as white, brown and black based on their skin color thanks to our cultural beliefs that links fairness to beauty, which is a prerequisite for marriage.  Most matrimonial advertisements in national dailies read something like: ‘looking for a fair, slim and homely girl for….’ this not only accentuates the potential bride’s fairness more than her other qualities, such as her educational achievements and professional status, but also emphasizes how ingrained colorism is in our mindsets.

Color Mania

Preference for lighter skin is not restricted to women anymore; men are also smitten by this fairness bug. Gone are the days of ‘tall, dark and handsome’ men. In India, some products even promise love, wealth, fame and happiness for fairer men. Brands such as Fair & Handsome, Garnier Men’s face wash and Vaseline Men, are nothing but brands cashing in on our notorious obsession for white skin. Fair and Lovely has been the most sought after brand for fairness cream for decades and I still remember my childhood days when my cousins refused to step out of the house without dabbing a generous portion of it on their faces.

Things haven’t changed over the years; rather we have got more choices in terms of brands manufacturing fairness products with atrocious promises. In countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, where many people are brown, media is flooded with numerous advertisements which promulgate the message that fair is bold and fairness is beautiful. This trend is dangerous because we are indirectly telling everyone around us that ‘if you are brown/black’ you should use these fairness products and unravel a new ‘you’ who is considered more acceptable by the society. This reinforces stereotypes which further create social inequalities.

Having a different skin tone is neither an evil spell, nor a disease; it is just skin which has more melanin in it. The way we, as a society, look at people with dark skin tones is shameful. Ironically, we call ourselves modern and educated when we still behave, react and think like our predecessors of the medieval era. We still associate fair skin with superiority, beauty and power, hence, we tell our daughters to stay indoors and avoid the sun fearing it might darken their complexions. We still use our hand as shields inside our vehicles to protect our kids from getting tanned. We still narrate those bedtime stories of fairies and gift them dolls with curly hair, fair skin and blue eyes.

Time for change

Colorism is present everywhere, all over the world cutting across religions, castes, and creeds. From working class to the world leaders, people have been frequently differentiated based on their complexion. Differentiation is not a negative process per se. We differentiate between intelligence and stupidity, privilege and depravity, youth and maturity etc. but to differentiate light from dark skin tone is detrimental to our growth as a human race.

We need to change our attitudes and prejudices against skin tones that are just a few shades darker. This calls for a collaborative effort by parents, teachers, families, friends and society as a whole in promoting beauty in all of its shades. Beauty is skin deep and there is more to life than the color of one’s skin. So let’s not forget ‘laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color’ and black and white can have fifty equally beautiful shades.

This article was first published in Republica, Nepal.


Aleena Udas Sharma is a management expert at Enterprise for Management, Economic Reform and Gender Equality (EMERGE) Pvt. Ltd. and a writer for various magazines, newspapers and blogs in India and Nepal. She writes on contemporary social issues such as gender discrimination, bias, prejudices, parenting and education, etc. She was a Senior Lecturer at Rai Business School, New Delhi and a Visiting faculty at Amity School of Insurance and Actuarial Sciences, Noida. She holds a Post Degree Diploma in Human Resource Management and Business Management from University of Winnipeg, a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Management from IILM New Delhi, a Masters in Human Resource Management from Annamalai University and Bachelors in Education from Panjab University, India. You can contact her at: