Photo courtesy of Sara Schmitt

“No, don’t wear that. Red doesn’t look good on dark skinned people,” he said to my roommate while discussing Halloween costumes. My jaw  dropped. I was flummoxed, although I should not have been.

Growing up as a South Indian girl with chocolate skin, I’d seen and heard all of the clichéd things that were said to dark complexioned Indians. From commercials selling skin bleaching products like Fair and Lovely to the fake concern from aunties at dinner parties telling me, “You shouldn’t go outside when the sun is shining so bright outside,” looking down upon those with a darker complexion is deeply ingrained within the Indian culture. Although no one should be sun bathing at 3 p.m. on a sultry July day, children should not have to worry about maintaining a fair complexion over getting a hearty dose of Vitamin D.

While all genders face this scrutiny, Indian women are more often targeted, as the culture, like most cultures, considers women to first and foremost be objects of beauty. As a result, the emphasis that is placed on the quest to be a fair maiden is just unhealthy. This is blatantly seen in Indian media. Growing up, I cannot recall seeing a heroine of an Indian movie ever being close to my skin tone. I asked a few people if they could mention any Indian actresses with a deep complexion, and the first name mentioned was Kajol. But when I looked at pictures of  her, she might be dark by Bollywood standards, but by no means is her skin tone representative for the millions of people who fall in the darker end of the 50 shades of brown that comprise the Indian population.

When only one kind of woman is idealized, it makes sense that droves of women strive to attain this “beauty.” A 2010 BBC News article read, “… the Indian whitening cream market is expanding at a rate of nearly 18% a year.” Many dermatologists have spoken out against such products mentioning that the practice of skin bleaching has consequences. Another way to achieve this perception of fairness, is by buying makeup that is lighter than one’s skin tone. The physical side effects of this method are nearly harmless, but it takes just as much of a toll on one’s self-esteem.

I called out the guy sitting in my living room, but he was unable to understand that the color red did not belong to lighter skin tones and was adamant that people of darker skin should not venture into wearing certain colors. I was initially appalled at his narrow perception, but I’ve come to realize now, that these targeted “beauty” efforts in the Indian culture play a larger role in not just the way women perceive themselves but in the way others also treat and perceive darker skinned women. It by no means excuses his statement, but brings to light that women of darker complexions need better representation.