Some South Asian girls might remember applying layer upon layer of a beauty product called Fair & Lovely, a skin-lightening cream used to obtain the lighter skin they aspired for at a young age.
Story by Zoya Zia & Rachana Jadala
Photos by Pax Jones
Yanusha Yogarajah, a sociology and social work sophomore, remembers applying bleach to her skin and hands before cultural functions. She listened to others tell her that she would be prettier, and at the time, it felt like the right thing to do.
These experiences are common ground between dark skinned girls of various backgrounds, African and African Diaspora studies and government fifth year Mirusha Yogarajah says. “There are a lot of cultural practices that cement this idea as well, saying you should stay indoors, use certain products, that you should redeem yourself in other ways,” Mirusha says. “This colorism is a worldwide phenomenon that carries the idea that people with darker skin are less attractive and desirable than those with lighter skin.
Mirusha, her sister Yanusha, and engineering student Pax Jones are fighting against stereotypical beauty standards and are encouraging others to do the same. They pioneered a social media campaign inspired by Fair & Lovely, called #UNFAIRANDLOVELY, to provide a platform for dark-skinned people to post selfies. “I want darker-skinned women to realize that we are beautiful,” Yogarajah says. “We don’t have to succumb to these standards that are up in the air and really toxic.”
Eurocentric beauty standards remain prominent in South Asian cultures. Bollywood movies perpetuate these standards through whitewashed actresses and media representations. A fairer skin tone is constantly held in great esteem. “Fair is a reference to being light, so unfair and lovely just means to be darker and be lovely,” Mirusha says. “It represents an attack on the promotion of skin-lightening.”
The campaign began with a photo shoot. “Pax contacted my sister and said she wanted to focus on dark-skinned South Asian women,” Yanusha says. “When I saw my sister getting ready, I decided I wanted to do it too. I was all about it. It was a really fun, random shoot.”
The photo shoot represented an effort to achieve solidarity with dark-skinned women. Yanusha notes how dark-skinned women are “generally forgotten or undermined in general.” Jones conducted the photo shoot for the same reason. “I was inspired by the lived experiences of women who are darker than I am, and consequently see no one in media who looks like them,” Jones says. “I wanted to explore how overly colorism translates into a global phenomenon, and how that impacted others from ethnic backgrounds different from my own.”
Mirusha and Yanusha brought Western and Tamil cultures together, shooting at a local temple, Radha Madhav Dham and a local 7/11. “We used some western clothes and Tamil aesthetic like jewelry and bindis,” Mirusha says. “The locations were meant to be bright and vibrant. Dark-skinned girls are also told not to wear dark colors, but we rocked it.”
Jones says that the outfit choices had meaning. “The aesthetic was important, because media doesn't represent dark-skinned South Asian women,” Jones says. “It doesn't display the dynamic culture and the fusion of western and south Asian expression. I wanted to capture it and glorify its importance.”
The hashtag is popular on social media, especially Twitter and Tumblr. With this popularity comes hijacking; lighter-skinned people have been using the hashtag for their own selfies which is detrimental to the purpose of the hashtag. Light-skinned people may not always recognize their privilege, according to Mirusha. “The purpose was to give people access to a hashtag and social media space that provides support and comfort for dark skinned people of color,” Mirusha says.
Though the Yogarajah sisters and Jones mobilized the movement, they acknowledge that the progress being made in combatting colorism is parallel to greater political struggles in South Asia. “I think that this is really emerging in South Asia, specifically India,” Yanusha says. “There have been other avenues with Tumblr sites and there is even a blog called Unfair & Lovely.”
There are two upcoming promotions for the hashtag. On Feb. 26, South Asians and dark skinned people are encouraged to tweet their selfies with the hashtag. #UNFAIRANDLOVELY teamed up with an existing campaign #reclaimthebindi, to encourage South Asians to take pride in both South Asian culture and bring attention to colorism within the community. This week of pride will take place March 8 to 14.
Yanusha is hopeful that #UNFAIRANDLOVELY will help others learn to accept and love their melanin. “Having this notion of wanting white skin and the self-hatred is really difficult to unlearn since that is what our community echoes and preaches,” Yanusha says. “The courage to put a selfie out there and claim this hashtag is really, maybe, revolutionary.”