Growing up in Delhi as a dark-skinned, frizzy-haired, blunt-nosed chubby girl is bound to produce some backlash – for me. It was the outrageous fantasy I harboured as a child that these traits would vanish as I matured. If I drank enough milk, slathered enough lotion and used enough TV Commercial Shampoo (all the actors had straight, silky tresses), surely fate would seal the rest? Surely it would Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo me into the beautiful straw-haired chalk stick I was destined to be – and wasn’t that the Desi Dream – when all was said and done?
When the wishful thinking dissolved, I grew to know the perils of a worldwide plague called eurocentricity, with its deep-rooted Indian embodiments. This is a white supremacist ideal that favours Europeanness: it deems ‘Caucasian’ (or the closest thing to it) a universal touchstone for appeal and any deviation from it is held as undesirable or eccentric. In terms of beauty standards, eurocentricity is the monstrous power that had us call our blonde, blue-eyed dolls ‘Cinderella’ and our Desi ones her ugly sisters – it is a pervasive, prehistoric pandemic, and we are yet to be made immune.
Over the last decade, measures of beauty have been diversified. Though the Chalk Stick Fantasy is still at large, the enhanced appreciation of skin, hair, facial features and body types of all social and ethnic groups is a cardinal sign of a breakthrough. Nevertheless, eurocentric beauty standards are not easy to unlearn for anybody, and their entrenchment in global society often goes unseen.
Emphasis on light skin, ‘tame’ hair and anglicised features as attractive is a universal abomination with varied sources. Starting no later than the 15th century, systematic European colonisation fortified light skin as the global emblem of superiority, engendering the ceaseless barbarity we know as white supremacy.
In India, social bias against dark skin emerged with an undeniable pattern of fair-skinned ruling classes: first, there were the dominant caste Aryans of North India, who often had lighter skin than the non-dominant caste/Dravidian community as well as tribal communities. Though the relationship between caste and colour is not set in stone, one cannot overlook the correspondence: Bahujans and Dalits were persistently coerced into outdoor manual labour, kindling a grave cultural association between dark skin and ‘low’ social status – a correlation that refuses to take its leave.
While the Arab and Muslim dynasties of the medieval age are not known to have been prejudiced based on skin tone, it is important to note that they were lighter-skinned on the whole than the indigenous population of the time, igniting the second phase of ‘Lightskins in Power’. Needless to say, when the British trooped in for Operation Oppress and bludgeoned the country into obeisance to the White Man – this custom gained a nasty, irreversible gravity, and the simple want of melanin became a token of power, status, and well – beauty – for aeons to ensue.
Dark skin prejudice in India and the magnanimity of South Asian colourism is a ghastly cultural convention. In Naseeb Apna Apna (1986), Raadhika Sarathkumar winds up as domestic staff to her former husband, Rishi Kapoor – who despised her dark skin so much he abandoned her at a train station to marry the light-skinned Farah Naaz. Not only is the housemaid storyline a blatant citation of the parallels between occupation, caste and skin tone, the movie also ends with her ‘winning over’ the scoundrel husband via makeover – a tad Eliza Doolittle Style, only worse. Much worse. Of course, Bollywood is a frequent perpetrator of colourism and eurocentrism – when they would rather swathe Alia Bhatt in ‘wheatish’ than cast an actual dark-skinned woman for a part (and have none complain), it is safe to say we are farther behind on this front than we like to assume.
Colourism is not the only gross avatar of eurocentric beauty standards: virtually every single analysis of beauty in the world stems from eurocentric bias, from the Golden Ratio – a ‘scientific’ measure of ‘universal’ beauty that somehow ranks not a single non-European feature as beautiful – to something as simple and widespread as fatphobia. Believe it or not, the world’s obsession with thin body types did not arise from ‘fitness’ concerns originally, because it began nearly a century before the health aspect was known. As Sabrina Strings explores in Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia – Western fatphobia (which the rest of the world inherited, courtesy of colonialism) is rooted in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and stigmatisation of the Black body. Essentially, even the norms we thought had nothing to do with race and ethnicity have eurocentric associations – and this is a truth we are simply too cowardly to grasp.
The list of these norms goes on, and straight hair is a big one. As much as people love to rave about curly hair today (though they often prefer looser aka whiter curl patterns), most curly-haired children still grow up squealing with joy after a blow-dry – because heat, chemicals and the complete defacement of their natural hair make them pretty, I guess. It doesn’t help when their friends marvel at the glorious transformation, of course, or when they watch Mia’s makeover in The Princess Diaries – where every beautiful curl on her head is pulverised into oblivion.
The reason for this standardisation of straight hair is that straight hair is white hair. Though Black people and black hair bear the brunt of this, ideals of beauty among desis reflect the same prejudice: straight hair is ‘good hair’. It is neater, softer, nicer. Curly hair is wild, unruly and needs to be tamed – you know, the way white colonists have perceived people of colour for all of history?
Eurocentric beauty standards are difficult for anyone to relinquish; even if you’re not colourist, and appreciate all body and hair types. Just the way we think and speak about beauty is eurocentric: euphemisms like ‘chocolate skin’, ‘olive skin’, ‘caramel skin’ (it just goes on like that) or words like ‘dusky’, ‘wheatish’, ‘exotic’, ‘sun-kissed’ and ‘tanned’ for naturally dark-skinned people are not exceptions. The same for anti-frizz messaging in hair products. As well as people who hate their flat noses, big lips and small eyes, and our favourite description of good-looking people who do not fit eurocentric norms – ‘unconventionally attractive’.
Trust me and my Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo dream when I say that nobody is free of the plague just yet – and that is all right, so long as we are willing to (un)learn.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Weebly