Racialised Beauty - Skin Colour & Skin-lightening for British South Asian women: Socio-Historical Nuances Matter

Images taken of ads for clothing and/or jewellery, and advertising by make-up artist in South Asian shops in Birmingham

Across South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, the symbolic value of fair skin remains a contour of social reality, particularly for women (Jah, 2016; Malik, 2007; Shankar and Subish, 2007) – both perpetuating, and facilitated by the continued; veneration of fair skin as best, and the proliferation of skin-lightening products. Consequently, in my PhD project I am investigating cross-culturally British South Asian (BSA) women’s lived experiences of racialised beauty, with a specific focus on skin-lightening and skin colour. By doing so it has become increasingly apparent that there are nuanced differences in histories and socio-cultural mores and practices, across but also within large arbitrary categories like South Asian, which mean how the preference for fair skin as an aesthetic ideal and norm manifests and is enacted, can diverge. Thus, greater deliberation of nuances in both the socio-historical framework of racialised beauty, and the contemporary materiality and enactment of issues encompassing race, needs to be considered when examining South Asian groups – the former shall be the focus of this post.

A dominant assertion by scholars is that colonialism is a critical historical conjuncture when we consider issues of race for those whose ancestry can be traced to for instance India and the West Indies. I agree, but what can be underemphasised is that firstly, colonialism and the mechanisms through which racialisation occurred and fair skin as best reified was not homogenous across groups; secondly, colonialism is not untangled from what came prior to nor after it. Thus, in the context of BSAs the history of pre-colonial India matters, as does the history of postcolonialism. Combined with the legacies of colonialism they helped partly mould the present as lived and experienced by BSA women, and must be viewed as having left entangled, subjective and multi-dimensional legacies, which remain components of social reality. 

Skin colour biases can be found across pre-colonial societies like India and Britain, and were principally being class based – darker skin was linked to the lower-classes who toiled in the sun, whilst fair skin was associated with the sheltered nobility (Jablonski, 2012; Russell et al., 1993). Consider the painting below of Queen Elizabeth 1st, fairness was a staple of beauty standards in the 16th century, with British courtly beauty regimes involving the application of whitening products like ceruse to attain ivory complexions (Downing, 2016):

Fair skin has been a component of beauty ideals and normative standards for centuries - its symbolic association with health, wealth, goodness and beauty is an age-old association. Indeed, the feminist sociologist Meeta Rani Jha (2016) asserts that skin colour biases and colourism have been ‘an integral part of Indian culture’ pre-dating Mughal rule and colonialism (Jha, 2016:66). Others situate responsibility for racism and colourism at the feet of the Brahman upper caste and later the British, arguing that their practice in India today, is pre-colonial, originating in the mythical Aryan race theory propagated by the upper castes and later the British (Ayyar and Khandare, 2013).

It was during 18th century colonialism that skin colour gained significant racial connotations – with the production of racialised whiteness as an aesthetic norm produced as much in the British colonies as in the West. During colonialism, phenotypes - external markers like skin colour were used to mark the distinctions between the colonisers’ superiority and the inferiority of the colonised (Malik, 2007). However, something underemphasised is that what the colonisers were able to build on was subjective to the colonised nation considered – the colonisers did not have the same framework to manipulate and mould as they did in India, in for example African communities– this is one reason why examination of nuances matter. 

The British in India exploited old myths and built on pre- established biases, reinforcing whiteness as symbolic of ‘beauty, power and superior breeding’ (Johnson, 2002:217). For example, the British co-opted and reconstructed the Brahman headed model society (the caste system) - a gori (fair) complexion was associated with the higher castes, and a kali (black) complexion with the lower castes (Samarendra, 2011; Malik, 2007). Accordingly, skin colour and caste become further entrenched as the basis of difference and legitimate differentiation between groups. The growing racial connotations around skin colour thus intersected with its class and gendered dimensions. 

Furthermore, during colonialism through the usage of the camera ‘Western knowledge and Western authority became synonymous with the real’ (McClintock, 1995:123). Thus, the White European traveller and coloniser was able to circulate the differences created as truth - reinforcing and perpetuating the ideological binaries of Black and White, and the aesthetic dominance of whiteness. 

Indeed, with early cinema we see the amalgamation of the ‘scientific imagination with the popular’ (Rony, 1994 cited in Kaplan, 1997:63), which helped shape notions of race and beauty by unifying beauty with idealised images of White women, and heightened sexuality with the ‘exotic’ - non-white women. 

However, whilst whiteness become a dominant fascination, beauty ideals were not passively consumed. Natasha Eaton (2013) in her examination of art cites the colonial painting on the right, as an illustration of ‘imperial desire[s] for whiteness’, but also as an example of ‘a sly critique […] on the colonial norms of beauty (Eaton, 2013.:81) that existed in certain sects, as Indian artists ‘experimented with their own parody on [the] colonial fascination with whiteness’ (ibid.:79). 

Now, as I have said previously when looking at historical developments pertinent to understanding the contemporary lived experiences and practices of BSA women it is important to stress that the (Indian) colonial legacy is not stagnant, and it intertwines with other historical periods, both of which are somewhat subjective to the geographical locale of those one is scrutinising.                                                                               
The 20th century (particularly post-1945) is an important historical conjuncture - its consequences entangling with the legacies of colonialism. I refer here specifically to the Partition of India and Post-WW2 migration to Britain, whilst the former matters for all South Asians, the latter is of note when looking specifically at diasporic South Asians in Britain like my interviewees. These histories impacted conceptualisations and discourses around; gender, race, ethnicity and class, through for instance identity politics and beauty norms and practices. 

The Indian Partition (1947) led to the further entrenchment of more nuanced explicit differentiation. Polarisation became an endemic and rooted component of identity formation, as the overarching identity category of South Asian, whilst used, obscured now embedded and naturalised differences. Whilst differentiation had previously existed, during colonialism and the partition differentiation became more; entrenched and visible. These shifts affected socio-economic structures and relationships (Ballard, 2002), and had an impact (minute and large) on discursive constructs, practices and the enactment and embodiment of race, ethnicity and class.

I make this postulation as I consider comparatively the scholarly material I have read and the information my interviewees have provided. For instance, the Brahman headed caste system ideologically and symbolically has a clear hierarchical framework when considering skin colour, and yet the same is not true of Pakistani qualms, whilst particular qualms are associated with fair-skinned individuals, qualms do not have the same influence on the everyday, nor do they have the same perceived hierarchal skin colour structure. 

In turn, post-WW2 migration by South Asian’s to Britain is important as geographical movements affect social structures and relationships – impacting discursive constructs and practices around the enactment and embodiment of race, gender, class and beauty. The political dissonance that emerged in the context of post-WW2 migration enabled the appearance of different types of identity politics that helped highlight the fragmentation of binaries of White and Other, and overarching categories like South Asian. Indeed, this micro politics can be expressed in the politics of beauty, consider that in my fieldwork British; Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian are emerging as strong modes of identification and differentiation rather than the usage of just South Asian. 

Furthermore, talking to my interviewees highlights that whilst the maintenance of norms, ideals and practices around skin colour and skin-lightening, that emerged out of colonialism are still being reinforced, they are also being transformed in the post-migration experience. Beauty as something we do and how we do beauty is not monolithic nor stagnant - as my interview data continues to suggest, we need to recognise there were and are shifts in: skills, access to products and community sources of knowledge. 

These movements are one of the reasons why we need to talk beyond just binaries of black and white, and discuss the fact that in lived experience, how skin colour is seen is fragmented into numerous shades that fall in, and between these two binaries. Thus, allowing for potential negotiation and flexibility of ideals in lived experience. What’s more, the ideals and practices that travelled to Britain sit beside and/or intermingle directly with Western European ideas of how to be and look. Thus, the conflicts and negotiations of identities that BSA women face comparably may differ to those South Asian women residing in for instance Asia or America, my interviewees thus far have made a distinction between their BSA conceptualisation of skin colour and beauty and those ‘back home’. 
In our postcolonial world the tensions between choice, flexibility, and the entrenchment of norms and ideals, can be seen compellingly through the lens of beauty. Whilst dominant aesthetic standards remain the product of Western European Eurocentric ideals, which are circulated transnationally via representations in for instance the beauty industry and popular culture (Blay, 2011; Robinson-Moore, 2008; Malik, 2007), one cannot forget agency or the plurality of lived experiences. 

Indeed, whilst many of my interviewees assert that Western White beauty ideals and norms are transmitted across forums like ‘Bollywood’, Hollywood and Asian culture and thus dominate, some of my interviewees are simultaneously suggesting that standards of beauty within women’s lives and the perceptions of others beauty can be more flexible than the ideal. Consider Fahida Zaman a 24-year-old Bangladeshi, who over the years has been deemed very fair ‘for a Bengali’ by friends, and simultaneously viewed as not fair enough by relatives, when compared to her parents:

‘[…] an ideal in Bollywood it’s… it would be someone who’s tallish, very slim and erm super stylish, always experimentative with their style; hair, make-up, clothing, and you know fair obviously although like I said deeper tones are being more accepted […] and you know how I said before about beauty for an Asian female is being slim, fair and tall well tallish – I do think in real life like for me and people like me it’s not that you need to be all of it or you’re in huh shit – you know it does not mean you are not attractive. I completely do think our generation has become slightly more open to different skin colours along as its not Black, or whatever, really dark-skinned. And if you’re not fair, being slim and tall is good. And it’s not like Michael Jackson white is what is wanted, it’s fair so you’re still Asian you know and if not, tanned and deeper tones are I think ok. But with our parents’ generation I do think they are more picky about skin colour […] with me being the darkest I think for them that would be the most acceptable (laughs as she says these 12 words) like, or perhaps very slightly more tanned than me just by a shade –  That’s it no more than that […]’

Fahida’s words highlight that in the everyday, beauty ideals are not rigidly entrenched or embodied, although there is a suggestion that this may differ generationally, a theme emerging across my interviews, and one I shall be considering in the broader scope of my research. It is also clear that firstly, skin colour should not be considered in isolation but in unison with other bodily characteristics and practices, and secondly skin colour and its value can potentially be negotiated with other attributes like height and weight. Indeed, this potential for negotiation is emerging as many of my interviewees discuss the significance of women’s beauty/physical attributes in marriage talks, another matter that will be delved into in the broader scope of my research.

What I have attempted to illustrate in this post is that the histories that frame the cultivation and naturalisation of racialised beauty and skin colour norms and practices, for BSAs are plural and intertwined. Recognising nuances can do nothing but help gain a richer comprehension of postcolonial, contemporary lived experiences and their subjectivity and multifaceted contours, as whilst, history does not explain everything, the legacies of the past are a strand in the tangled weave of contemporary lived experiences - legacies evolve and alter but remain a contour of social reality.

By Somia R Bibi

Somia Bibi Is a third year PhD student within the Sociology department at the University of Warwick. Her project involves a cross-cultural analysis of British South Asian women's lived experiences of race and racism through the lens of racialised beauty - with a specific focus on skin colour and skin-lightening. In an attempt to move away from just looking at binaries and to focus on and highlight, for instance, nuances in the socio-historical framework of racialised beauty, and the contemporary lived experiences of British South Asian women she is focusing on 3 groups: 1) Pakistani women whose family migrated from Mirpur; 2) Bangladeshi women who migrated from Sylhet; and Gujarati women whose family twice migrated: Gujrat (India) – Africa - Britain.


Ayyar, V and Khandare, L (2013) Mapping Skin Color and Caste Discrimination in Indian Society. From: Hall, R (ed.) The Melanin Millennium: Skin Color as 21st Century International Discourse. Dordrecht: Springer. Pp. 71-95.

Ballard, R (2002) The South Asian Presence in Britain and its Transnational connections. From: Singh, H and Vertovec, S (eds.) Culture and Economy in the Indian Diaspora. London: Routledge. 

Blay, A.Y (2011) ‘Skin Bleaching and the Global White Supremacy By Way of Introduction’. The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.4, no. 4, pp.4-46.
Downing, J.S (2016) Beauty and Cosmetics 1550-1950.  Oxford: Shire Publications. 

Eaton, N (2013) Mimesis across Empire: Artworks and Networks in India 1765-1860. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hunter, L.M (2011) ‘Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World’. The Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol.4, No.4, pp. 142-164.

Jablonski, G.N (2012) Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jha, R.J (2016) The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body. London: Routledge. 

Jha, S and Adelman, M (2009) ‘Looking for Love in All the White Places: A Study of Skin Color Preferences on Indian Matrimonial and Mate-Seeking Websites.’ Studies in South Asian Film and Media, Volume 1 Number 1, pp. 65-83.

Johnson, E.S (2002) ‘The Pot Calling the Kettle Black? Gender-specific Health Dimensions of Color Prejudice in India.’ Journal of Health Management, 4, 2, pp. 215-227.

Johnson, E.S (2002) ‘The Pot Calling the Kettle Black? Gender-specific Health Dimensions of Color Prejudice in India.’ Journal of Health Management, 4, 2, pp. 215-227.

Kaplan, A.E (1997) Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze. London: Routledge Inc.

Malik, S (2007) The Domination of Fair Skin: Skin Whitening, Indian Women and Public Health. From: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:o9__Hh2rJsMJ:citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download%3Fdoi%3D10.1.1.467.3346%26rep%3Drep1%26type%3Dpdf+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk  [Accessed 28th February 2016].

McClintock, A (1995) Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge.

Robinson-Moore, L.C (2008) ‘Beauty Standards Reflect Eurocentric Paradigms - So What? Skin Color, Identity, and Black Female Beauty.’ Journal of Race & Policy, Vol.4, Issue 1, pp.66-85.
Russell, K, Wilson, M and Hall, R (1993) Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans. New York: Anchor Books.

Samarendra, P (2011) ‘Census in Colonial India and the Birth of Caste.’ Economic & Political WEEKLY, Vol. XLVI, No. 33, pp.51-58. Available from: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:dI2QKoqO_FsJ:www.tamilnet.com/img/publish/2011/08/16430.pdf+&cd=8&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk [Accessed 1st March 2016].

Shankar, P.R and Subish, P (2007) ‘Fair skin in South Asia: an obsession?’ Journal of Pakistan Association of Dermatologists, 17, pp. 100-104.

Shaw, A (2000) Kinship and Continuity: Pakistani Families in Britain. London: Routledge. 

End Notes:

 1. With the progression of research, my focus has narrowed to 3 specific groups of BSA women: 1) Pakistani women whose family migrated from Mirpur; 2) Bangladeshi women who migrated from Sylhet; and Gujarati women whose family twice migrated: Gujrat (India) – Africa - Britain. 
2.  When referring to pre-colonial and colonial India this is inclusive of what is today known as Bangladeshi and Pakistan. 
3.  A mixture of finely ground white lead powder, mixed with vinegar – a highly popular for several centuries with one drawback it was poisonous. 
4. The 1947 Partition lead to India and Pakistan emerging as two distinct nations – with the emergence of East and West Pakistan, and then in 1971 East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
5.   Highly contested term often said to refer to the tribe and/or village and thus family one is from, and was linked/influenced by the Brahman caste system. Qualms are also known as zāts (Shaw, 2000) and can be referred to as castes.


  1. This paper on loss of skin colour is relevant to this topic and might be of interest to readers - Thompson, A. R., Clarke, S. A., Newell, R., Gawkrodger, G., & The Appearance Research Collaboration. (2010). Vitiligo linked to stigmatisation in British South Asian women: A qualitative study of the experiences of living with vitiligo. The British Journal of Dermatology,163, 481-486. Available at - http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2133.2010.09828.x/abstract

  2. Very good information

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