Growing up in America, people of different cultural backgrounds are exposed to a different set of social and cultural norms. This is especially relevant with women and the focus on beauty. White beauty standards are rigid and enforced; the ideal woman in America should preferably have straight hair (blonde, but it’s okay if you’re brunette), blue eyes, be slim or petite in general, and have fair skin.
These are the beauty standards that women of color in America are being exposed to and are taught to value, especially through the media. Magazines are notoriously known to retouch models to look thinner and taller and to make women of color to look lighter. Luckily, they have been criticized for it. Recently, Vanity Fair was accused of lightening Lupita Nyong’o’s skin, and InStyle was criticized for lightening Kerry Washington’s skin, among others instances. Zendaya Coleman recently took to Instagram to point out that Modeliste magazine made her drastically thinner and requested that they publish the original images.
The women chosen for the lead roles in movies and television shows conform to these standards, and the women of color in supporting roles are stereotypes. Representation is a fickle thing. It is necessary that people grow up seeing people who look like them doing important things. When young girls of color watch movie after movie with white female protagonists, they begin to look up to these actresses and try to become them, including matching appearance. The sense of what is beautiful and what is acceptable is internalized. It leads to a feeling of inadequacy if these girls of color are not be accepted as beautiful the way their favorite actresses are considered beautiful. This idea of beautiful tends to be associated with being white.
In an instance from my own life, I was in high school with one of my close friends and we were posing for a picture. Right before the camera flashed, she said something along the lines of, “this would look so much better if we were white.” I could not explain what she meant or if it even made any sense, but I know that in that moment I agreed and understood. I truly felt that if I were white, I would look better, my clothes would fit me better, and our picture would turn out perfect.
It wasn’t until I discovered Bollywood, the Hindi film industry, that I was truly able to understand how beautiful I am or can be as a young Indian woman. As socially aware young women, the argument can be made that if women of color in America know that white beauty standards are a social construct. Yet these are images and concepts that have been internalized since a young age and take time to destroy even at an older age.
When I look at Bollywood actresses, I see women praised for their beauty, talent, and grace. More importantly, I see women who look like me being praised for these qualities. In the context of India, this may not seem like a big deal and Bollywood may not count as representation, seeing as the entire country is Indian and would have primarily Indian women in the spotlight. But that does not matter. As someone who has grown up exposed to white beauty and talent in the media and in my favorite movies, it makes me feel that much more beautiful knowing that there are Indian women who are considered special and seen as beautiful and iconic and important. And it’s very special to have women who look like me who I can look up to.
Young Indian girls in America (and everyone in America, for that matter) need Bollywood and Bollywood actresses. Even though women of color who aren’t Indian would be seeing mainly Indian women in films, they would be exposed to something different that they may be able to relate to. Everyone needs to see women who look like them playing iconic characters, showcasing their talent, and letting them know that one type of beauty is not the only beauty.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.