India’s Beauty Ideal: The Dark Side of Fairness

Aalima Qayoom and Toyyibah Ansar

Fairness, considered an attribute of beauty in India, is basically a veiled mask of social prejudice. The historical and cultural fascination with fair skin in India is deeply rooted, predating even the invasions by lighter-skinned people.
Social structures reflected a preference for lighter skin, which was later exacerbated by British colonial rule. This obsession with fairness has permeated Indian society, influencing marriage prospects, employment opportunities, and social status.

This analytical piece explores the origins of this toxic beauty standard in India, how it is perpetuated by beauty brands, and how it is promoted by the media. It’ll discuss potential solutions to minimize this issue, focusing on the roles of citizens and the government.



India is a conglomeration of numerous races, castes, languages, and religions. This diversity is indicative of a rich anthropological history. Tony Joseph, an Indian author, claims that migrations of Harappans, Aryans, and others form the major chunk of the Indian population. These migrations resulted in a significant diversity of skin color and facial features among the people currently residing in different regions of India.

Absence of Ancient Color Prejudice

The depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses in ancient Indian art and literature suggests a lack of skin color discrimination in ancient India. For example, Kali Mata, whose name translates to “black mother,” is a revered goddess of power and strength and is depicted with black skin. Additionally, other significant figures in Hindu mythology gods, such as Lord Ram and Draupadi, are described as having dark skin. These examples indicate that dark skin was not only accepted but also associated with divinity and virtue in ancient Indian culture.

Migration and Social Changes
The Aryan migration around 3000 BCE led to great social, linguistic, and religious changes in India. It is believed that Indian society developed its caste system, religious scriptures, and folklore after the invasion of the Aryans. Subsequent invasions by Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese, and British also influenced the region. The Aryans and later Muslim rulers had lighter skin compared to the local inhabitants, but there’s no evidence of color prejudice during these periods.

Colonial Influence
Before becoming an independent country, the region was ruled by the British from 1610 until 1947, meaning India remained a British colony for more than three centuries. During this time, the issue of skin color bias frequently surfaced in social and political life, with the British considering themselves superior to the darker-skinned Indians.
After the British Crown took over India, ‘black color’ individuals were perceived differently. They had a low employment as fair skin Indians were given preference. Entry in educational places, offices and clubs were stopped and boards like ‘Indians and dogs not allowed’ were uses outside these locations.
An entry of September 1942 in the Amery Diaries reads: during my talk with Winston, he burst out with, “I hate Indians. They are beastly religion”.

Societal influence
Society has always created pressure among young adults on how skin color can affect their future and jeopardize their chances of landing a job or marriage and can bring down their social status.
Research shows there is an indication that white skin is at least the aspirational preference for individuals themselves, mistakenly associating lightness with hiring success, as promoted by the skin whitening industry.




The first-ever fairness cream sold in India was during 1919- Afghan snow, but the most popular cream-Fair and lovely was introduced in the market by 1975. After the Liberalisation of 1991, many branded creams came to the market. In 2005, for the first time, Fair and Handsome cream targeted boys instead of girls.
Emami Natural Fairness cream in the early 90s, Cavin Kare’s Fairever in 1998 and Godrej Fair Glow in 1999. In the mid-2000s, soap operas embraced advertiser funded programming and fairness brands were quick to jump on board, slowing the already snail like pacing of these serials to a crawl, with sales pitches that stalled the narrative for several minutes on end.
In 2008, Pond’s came up with a 5-part 45 second series, narrating a story of love, heartbreak and triumph. Saif Ali Khan breaks up with Priyanka Chopra, who’s clearly low on self-esteem. A distraught PC starts using Pond’s White Beauty, and gradually her superior pigmentation brings back both her confidence and her wayward beau, who abandons his next love interest, Neha Dhupia.
This shows us that over 10 decades we still have advertisement’s that are manipulative in nature and promotes beauty and fairness in a different way, we may not have a proper reference to fairness or words like ‘gori twacha’(fair skin), but we have other tactics that are used in advertisements to promote toxic beauty standards.
To this date, many products are still available in the market that have words like skin-lightening and skin-whitening on their package. Products like Patanjali’s Beauty cream, Glow and lovely cream, Garnier vitamin C- serum, Olay natural white, etc. are still available in the market and are used by many.
Currently, many brands and products are washing their hands from the allegations of promoting colourism in India by changing the brand name. Following the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the brutal police killing of George Floyd, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) announces the rebranding of its flagship brand ‘Fair and Lovely’, which since then came to be known as ‘Glow and Lovely’.

Product packaging
In Skin lightening, the popular products have titles like ‘white perfect ‘and ‘fair and lovely ‘and are made by the biggest cosmetics companies in the world like Unilever, Procter and Gamble, L’Oreal etc. Around 60% of women and a growing number of men in India say they use these creams and the way they sell the shells is because they hire Bollywood’s biggest stars.
Many Bollywood A-Listers, including Shah Rukh Khan (Fair and Handsome), Aishwariya Rai Bachan (L’Oreal White Perfect), Priyanka Chopra (Garnier Light Ultra fairness cream), Deepika Padukone (Neutrogena Fine Fairness Cream), Sonam Kapoor (L’Oreal White Perfect Fairness Cream), Katrina Kaif (Olay Natural White fairness cream) John Abraham (Garnier Men Power light) have been associated with big brands to endorse their skin-lightening creams in the past.

Market Dynamic
As per the Indian Fairness Cream and Bleach Market Outlook , 2027-28 the market is projected to grow at a near 6% CAGR(compound annual growth rate) during the forecast period and is expected to register a market size of around 10500 INR. According to the Indian Fairness Cream and Bleach Market Overview (2018-2023), in 2019, the Indian fairness cream market was reportedly worth nearly Rs 3,000 crore,
Market revenues were expected to reach Rs 5,000 crore by 2023, the study estimated. This is not at all unexpected given that almost half of India’s skincare market is made up of products that promote skin -lightening.



Mass media is undoubtedly the most powerful tool for implanting a particular mindset in the general populace. Throughout history, it has been used to influence masses on various issues. For instance, the Nazis used mass media to disseminate propaganda promoting the ideology of a pure Aryan race.
Mass media encompasses various mediums and, through TV shows and films, spread particular mindsets among people. Cinema plays a pivotal role in spreading the fairness beauty standard mentality in Indians. The common public is bombarded with fairness-related content through television advertisements and billboard ads.

Cinematic Scenario
In India, it is said that three things sell and interest people: Crime, Cricket, and Cinema. India is one of the largest film-producing countries in the world and Bollywood represents 43% of India’s net box office revenue. However, dark-skinned people are rarely given major roles or projected as heroes in most films, while fair-skinned actors and actresses are given more opportunities.
Actor Dibyendu Bhattacharya, who starred in Alia Bhatt’s production venture “Poacher,” recently made a strong statement claiming that racism is increasing in the country. He stated that darker-skinned actors do not get positive roles in the film industry and added that while the West is trying to abolish racism in their showbiz, it has been increasing in India.
A classic example proving this statement in Bollywood is Shah Rukh Khan starrer “Chennai Express,” where all the thugs are dark-skinned, and other rich and positive characters are fair-skinned. This also shows the prevalence of colorism in the casting procedure.
Another major problem is equating dark-skinned people with poverty, as most dark-skinned characters in films are portrayed as poor. The dark toning of characters is evident in films like “Super 30,” where Hrithik Roshan is shown as an inspirational teacher, Manoj Kumar in “12th Fail” as a poor UPSC aspirant, and Murad as an underprivileged rapper in “Gully Boy.”
No doubt these are based on real-life characters, but dark skin toning is definitely Bollywood’s favorite when it comes to depicting lower economic and social standards.
When it comes to equating fairness with beauty in women, Hindi films have heavily portrayed this stereotype for ages. In the 1986 film Naseeb Apna Apna, the protagonist is shown as a dark-skinned girl and is neglected for being “ugly” because of her dark complexion. Throughout the film, Chando is portrayed as submissive and inferior, all because of her color. Although the film was released three decades ago, not much has changed in the industry.

Song Lyrics
Songs are an integral part of Indian films, sometimes becoming even more popular than the films themselves. With catchy tunes and music, they are the heart of these films.
However, the concept of colorism is predominantly evident in these songs, especially concerning women. The term “Goriye” or “Goriya” (white girl) is repeatedly used in songs as a way to praise a girl’s beauty. For instance, these lyrics from the song “Hum Kale Hai Toh Kya Hua” from the movie Gumnaam released in 1965 go like:

“Hum kale hain to kya hua dil wale hein,

Kahan bhag rahi hai tu? Kale se dar gai kya?

Hum kale hain to kya hua dil wale hein,

Hum tere tere tere chahne wale hein,

Ye gore galaan tandana,

Ye reshmi balaan tandana,

Ye sola salaan tandana,

Ae tere khayalaan tandana,”

Translation: “So what if we are dark-skinned, we have big hearts, Where are you running away to? Are you scared of the dark? So what if we are dark-skinned, we have big hearts, We are your admirers, we adore you, These fair cheeks, these silky hair, These sixteen-year-olds, in your thoughts.”
This song focuses on the beloved’s white cheeks, or “gore galaan,” and the girl’s lovely complexion. The song’s most noticeable element is the sharp contrast between the woman with a light complexion and the man with dark skin.
Then this trend continued into the 1990s. For example, the 1994 movie Suhaag contained a song with the lyrics:

“Gore Gore Mukhade Pe Kaala Kaala Chashma,

Tauba Khuda Khair Kare Khoob Hai Karishma,

Khoob Hai Karishma,”

Translation: “Dark glasses adoring a fair face, God save me, what a wonder it is, What a wonder it is.” In this song, actor Akshay Kumar is shown drooling over the heroine because of her white face.
This problematic, toxic trend is still present in the Indian music industry today. For example, the recent 2019 Badshah song called “Pagal” includes lyrics like:

“Teri mummy ki jai,

Kya cheez bnai,

Dhood pe jese ai ho malai,

Chitty chitty bang bang, chitty kalai,

Teri aag laga de jese diya silai,”

Translation: “Praise be to your mom, For creating a thing like you, Like cream on the milk, your white arm, lights fires like a matchstick.”

These lyrics are problematic and create toxic beauty standards for women in the country. They reinforce the idea that girls with light skin are pretty and attractive, even in the 21st-century modern era, thereby attracting the male gaze.
Colorism in music has persisted from the 1960s through the 1990s and into the present day. It is concerning that, despite societal progress, these outdated and harmful beauty standards continue to be celebrated and promoted in popular culture.



Women of Worth, a Chennai based NGO, which works for women related issues started a campaign “Dark is Beautiful” in 2009. Under the support of actress Nandita Das, the campaign addressed the issue of colorism in India and took a stand against discriminatory advertisements based on skin tone.
As a result, the Advertising Standards Council of India (abbreviated as ASCI) launched guidelines for fairness products’ advertising. In the set of guidelines, it was said “no advertisement should communicate any discrimination or reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin color”.
However, according to a 2018 study published by Sage Publications skin color bias still dominantly persists in India, affecting marriage preferences despite competency and attractiveness. Fair-skinned individuals consistently receive higher ratings, overshadowing other qualities, highlighting entrenched colorism issues in society.


There is a need for a multi-faceted approach to eradicate this notion from society. Educational initiatives play a major role in this. Children from a very young age should be taught about this. They should be made aware of the historical and societal context of this issue and should be encouraged to speak about it.
Social media has the power to change the world. Influencers should use this platform to raise awareness about this issue and teach people to embrace their beauty irrespective of their skin tone.
Authorities should also strictly monitor ads and ensure action against violators. They should give due attention to crimes that involve this issue.
Most importantly, it is the responsibility of common people to come out of this mindset. They should support initiatives that raise their voice against it to create healthier perceptions of beauty in society.

India’s deeply rooted beauty standard of fairness is a complex issue shaped by social, cultural, and historical variables. Although the media and beauty brands uphold this norm for financial gain, citizens, the government, and the media can take concrete measures to counteract it. A more inclusive and equal society can be achieved by fostering diversity and opposing discriminatory norms.

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