A Fair and Lovely World: How History Has Shaped Modern Beauty Standards

By Mansi Garneni


In the same lines where Shakespeare eloquently promotes the honorable idea of seeing beyond a woman’s physical beauty, he uses the darker skin color of his object of desire to devalue her appearance. The poem in question is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, in which he questions, “If snow be white, why then are her breasts dun”?

While the term “colorism” may be modern, the idea isn’t. It’s been going on for centuries, ever since the division of labor in structured societies created jobs that required more exposure to the sun, creating the split between tan workers and pale aristocrats. Here began the association between status and skin color.

So, how did this concept travel across the Atlantic and arrive at Latin America? The answer is colonization, a time of intense contact between the New World and Europeans. When Europeans placed themselves into the existing social structure of colonized regions, intermixing and hypodescent created a hierarchy that inadvertently put light skin at the top and darker skin at the bottom. In the case of Spanish South America, Spanish-born peninsulares were the ruling elite. while half-African half-white (whose African parent was brought as a slave) received none of the same privileges and had low status. Unsurprisingly, in a society that held white skin at a premium, dark skin became synonymous with poverty and intellectual inferiority.

A similar occurrence happened India, a former British colony. A key difference is that India already had its own strict caste-based hierarchy that contributed to pre-existing stereotypes associated with light and dark skin. The caste system, unique to South Asia, defined social standing by occupation. In this way, the distinction between light-skinned elite and dark-skinned workers was solidified, and colorism was well on its way to tainting Indian beauty standards. As the British placed themselves at the top of this already stratified society, light-skin was considered even more desirable. When they left, those feelings didn’t go with them.

By tracing the history of job specialization and colonialism, it becomes apparent that a multitude of sociological factors that led to the association between light skin and wealth, status, and power are the root of modern colorism. Unfortunately, its modern manifestation is nothing short of damaging.

In India, films largely reflect the sentiments portrayed in Shakespeare’s sonnet. All popular actresses are light-skinned, but the skin tones of male leads range from light to deep. This one-size-fits-all standard of attractiveness has created a status quo where a majority of the population is shown that they are undesirable and inferior to those that were blessed with pale skin. While this affects men as well as women, females are undoubtedly bombarded with colorism’s modern manifestation on a higher scale. With girls as young as seven or eight  using the popular “Fair and Lovely” bleaching cream to become more marriageable, and beauty brands prioritizing light foundation shades over dark ones, colorist influences have profound psychological implications. Women and girls across the globe are taught that they are less of a priority because of a superficial feature.


An advertisement for the bleaching cream, Fair and Lovely

An advertisement for the bleaching cream, Fair and Lovely

Countless studies have been done to show that representation in media and having positive role models that look like you boosts self-confidence and promotes self-worth. These ideas have economic implications, as NBC News states, low self-confidence “makes us doubt our abilities and judgment and prevents us from taking calculated risks, setting ambitious goals and acting on them.” It’s hard to value oneself when one is constantly shown that they aren’t important enough to be represented. We can’t live in a truly free world when the shadow of colonization lurks beneath the surface. In order to break these chains, we must evaluate and change our own mindsets and the way we view skin color, and promote what Shakespeare wanted all along - for beauty to be recognized without considering superficial features.