Social norms continue to state that a person can only be considered “beautiful” if their skin is fair and white. In fact, structures of power and domination have succeeded in establishing beauty as a social construct, now increasingly difficult to navigate and escape.
The same structural issues are also linked to the gender norms that dictate acceptable behavior, including the appearance of people, which both men and women are expected to adhere to. When people with a specific gender identity learn to look a certain appearance, anyone who wishes to deviate from the “ideal norm” is treated as a misfit, which can lead to them being ostracized – evident in the way the society reacts to the lifestyle choices of homosexual people.
The history of beauty dates back to ancient times and has changed with colonial values until the present day. When Europeans were in the subcontinent, they brought with them concepts of beauty inherited from Greco-Roman heritage and civilization. David and Aphrodite were the standards, and the whiteness was not only beautiful, but also intellectually dominant.
Of course, the notion of equity had already imposed itself in our societies long before the Europeans, with interdependent aesthetic and political implications. The subjugation of the relatively darker-skinned Dravidian people in South Asia by lighter-skinned Aryans with straight noses and angular bones cemented the idea that fair skin was more powerful.
Likewise, the incoming Turkish and Mughal cultures have uplifted people, especially women, with fair skin. Skin color was a tool of social demarcation, and fairness was a signifier of desirability, adhering to the preconceived notion of Central Asian supremacy.
In the caste structures, those of the “upper” castes, with more power and capital, had a lighter skin tone than those of the “lower” castes whose professions required them to work longer outside. This perpetuated the belief that dark skin signified a person who belonged to a “lower” caste.
The psycho-sociological relevance of this is visible in the subtle degradation of Madhes to have darker skin and to refer to anyone with a similar coloration as “madhesi” or “bhaiya” by the Nepalese in the mountains.
The monetization of this construct today has set a subliminal precedent that the stereotype is not only attractive but also essential for moving up the social, cultural and economic ladder.