Monograph Explores Cultural Politics of Colorism in India

[December 16, 2009]

Magazine advertisements and television commercials for cosmetics and personal hygiene products in India illustrate a cultural bias toward lighter skin, according to the findings of a study published in the fall 2009 issue of Journalism and Communication Monographs.

In their monograph, “Melanin on the Margins: Advertising and the Cultural Politics of Fair/Light/White Beauty in India,” Radhika Parameswaran and Kavitha Cardoza first provide context for “colorism,” or skin color discrimination, in India. They explain that the nineteenth century colonial attitudes that considered the science of race looked at physical characteristics of natives in order to prove their inferiority. Likewise, colorism has roots in the caste system of India, as well as in the country’s ancient history when lighter-skinned tribes invaded around 1500 B.C.

The authors argue that colorism affects women more than men, and non-white women consider light-colored skin to be an asset that can improve one’s social and economic status. Magazine advertisements, matrimonial classified advertisements, film and music industries, and fashion magazine editorials promote skin-lightening cosmetics and personal products by taking advantage of this cultural perspective.

In their study, Parameswaran and Cardoza identify the themes of transformation, scientific authority and heterosexual romance in the rhetoric of the advertisements they analyze. These themes suggest that a woman can change her skin color; that she should trust the products developed by western science; and that she can gain a successful, fulfilling relationship with a man as a result of having lighter skin.

Parameswaran is an associate professor in the School of Journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington, and Cardoza is a senior reporter at WAMU Public Radio in Washington, D.C.

CONTACT: Dr. Parameswaran at the School of Journalism, Indiana University. Phone: (812) 855-8569. Email: rparames@indiana.edu

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