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Bollywood, Beauty and Colonial Mentality

Updated on June 22, 2011

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. At least it used to be. Ideas of beauty used to be as varied as the number of individuals. Now it seems there is a concept of beauty which is fast becoming the de facto standard, especially for women.

I was looking at some of the Bollywood actress hubs (ahem . . . for research) and a lot of the Indian actresses in these photos all conform to the same standard. Most have a fair complexion and many look . . . well Caucasian. Fair skin and blue or green eyes is seen as the ultimate beauty in Bollywood.

This got me thinking. If the general tradition in the film industry (with some exceptions) is to cast actors and actresses who are considered “beautiful”, why does “beautiful” in the case of Bollywood mean fair complexion, Caucasian in appearance?

And does the appearance of Bollywood actors and actresses reflect the general attitude towards beauty in Indian society, i.e. fair skin, blue eyes beautiful; Dark skin, brown eyes less so?

image search result for Indian woman -  photo by Lakshmi Prabhala - Used with permission.
image search result for Indian woman - photo by Lakshmi Prabhala - Used with permission.
Image search result for Bollywood Actress - Rya Sen
Image search result for Bollywood Actress - Rya Sen

The Experiment

I did a basic experiment by way of research. I ran a search on Google for Bollywood Actress. Then ran a search for black model, Japanese model and Arabic model. If you open those links in a new tab/window you can see the results yourself.

See any similarities? There's a tendency for models to have fair skin and be more Caucasian in appearance even if they are from a background where people have darker skin tones.

Not convinced? Compare this Google "image" search of Indian women, to the image search for Bollywood actress. Or Arabic woman compared to Arabic model. You can do the same for African women compared to African model.

See the difference? But this doesn’t just apply to women, you can do the same for men also. Indeed with men the difference is even more apparent. Compare this search for Indian male model, with young Indian man.

There's a difference between the appearance of “ordinary” people from any of these ethnic backgrounds and that of models, actors and actresses from these backgrounds.

Okay, so of course models and actors aren’t representative of ordinary people, that's why they're models and actors. True, but models and actors do represent an aesthetic ideal, which in turn reveals something of the underlying attitudes towards beauty in a society.

These comparisons show a tendency (with some exceptions) for models, actors and actresses to be fair skinned, regardless of their ethnic background.

Colonial Mentality and Beauty

People from an ethnic background with darker skin often show personal preference for fair skin, especially if the culture they are from has been subject to colonisation (by people with fairer skin) at some point in its history.

A sense of inferiority can develop in a colonised society to the point where the conventions, standards and values of the coloniser are considered “better” than those of the colonised. “Colonial mentality”, “culture cringe” and “culture alienation” are sociological terms that describe aspects of this phenomenon.

Individuals and institutions in that society can reject intellectual, artistic, scientific and other outputs of their own culture in favour of those from the coloniser, leading to the negation of local conventions by that of the other.

This image shows superimposed images of all the delegates from Miss Universe, creating a "universal" look where all the features are combined.
This image shows superimposed images of all the delegates from Miss Universe, creating a "universal" look where all the features are combined.

Beauty or an aesthetic ideal is tied up with those cultural conventions and values. So if local conventions are negated, ideas of beauty change accordingly. Mass communications media, popular culture, educational systems etc. all play a part in the negation of local conventions and values.

These cultural agents have been at work in India for hundreds of years, not least due to deliberate efforts from colonisers. British Member of Parliament Thomas Macaulay is famous for concluding in 1835 that "We must do our best to form... a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect."

That really does seemed to have worked. What we are seeing in the Bollywood aesthetic ideal is a particular concept of beauty based on European conventions and values which has been transported and transplanted through a process of cultural hegemony.


Whenever someone from an ethnic background whitens their skin, straightens their hair, has cosmetic surgery to obtain Caucasian facial features etc, they are literally buying-in to the standards, conventions and values of another culture. This attitude to one's own culture is not without controversy.

Bollywood veteran Shahrukh Khan came in for a lot of criticism recently after appearing in a commercial for a skin whitening product. The name of that product "Fair and Handsome" surely reveals something about underlying attitudes towards concepts of beauty and the politics of race in India.

It's a matter of opinion whether conforming to the conventions and values of another culture is good or bad; But if you look at the picture from the search of Indian women above.

Is she beautiful? According to Bollywood convention (read European convention) the answer is no. But, at risk of being patronising, the welcoming eyes, the playful smile, the radiant face is surely, truly beautiful. That may not be apparent to Bollywood, but it is to the eyes of this beholder.

Economic prosperity might be fomenting a change in attitude. With new prosperity comes new found confidence and national pride. As a result western conventions adopted by Bollywood may lose popularity in favour of the more authentic aesthetic ideals of the type that are seen in other regional film production centres around Indian or the television industry (tellywood).

However, the potential for cross-over from Bollywood to international mainstream might be more attractive to Bollywood film makers than authenticity. Such cross-overs would be less likely if local conventions were adopted over western conventions. Indeed, that could alienate an international audience altogether. So for the time Bollywood will share the same aesthetic ideals as Hollywood/ "the west", at least until the potential new status of India as a political and economic super power is realised and reverses the effect of several hundred years of colonial rule and the resulting colonial mentality.

Got a different view? Let me know with a comment below.

Have Your Say

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    • profile image

      Beth37 4 years ago

      Good article Don. At first look (and even 2nd) I thought the ms universe pics were all the same person... sad commentary.

    • profile image

      SandCastles 5 years ago

      This mindset has been around for awhile. Actress Rita Hayworth was of Spanish descent and to become fameous she had to dye her dark hair red, raise her hairline with electroylsis and some say she had her skin bleached too so she would look European. Good hub.

    • profile image

      Yonder Moon 5 years ago

      This is a very intersting article, posing some very relevant ideas. Even in a world that is becoming more 'globalised', European ideals of beauty still dominate.

    • profile image

      destiny84 6 years ago

      SOME blacks have similar features to chinese (and some of them are just as small/short) I ususally found these to be blacks of Nigerian/Congo/ Ghanian/West African heritage. This is not as true of blacks from Ethiopia, Somalia, and East African heritage and there are plenty of blacks in the Americas who don't have those features either.

    • profile image

      Chinese and Blacks have same features except for skin color and size 6 years ago

      while original indian and arabs (not the ones that the colonial british brought from kenya and phillipines to work ) look caucasian in features. i know many german/swiss/british people who came and settled in kerala india for a long time and darkened their skins and looked like upper class or original indian with less good features than us

    • profile image

      Freeq 8 years ago

      Or perhaps the human eye is simply attracted to things that are lighter in color?

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      That is interesting. That looks like a composite of the human race. Certainly not blue eyed blonds. Actually, studies show that 22% of the characters on television are black though they are 11% of the population. I agree the thin thing is way overdone. The thin look better in haute couture.

    • Don W profile image

      Don W 8 years ago

      Hello James. Thanks for dropping in. There is a relationship between symmetry and beauty, but that relationship is considered 'weak' i.e. symmetrical faces can be perceived as beautiful, asymmetrical faces perceived as ugly, but faces considered ugly don't have to be asymmetrical, and vice versa. Very symmetrical faces are not always perceived as beautiful and faces considered beautiful don't always show high levels of symmetry.

      Of course none of that precludes socio-political and cultural factors. The influence of the media in relation to what is considered beautiful shouldn't be underestimated. 'Thin' models on television and in magazines help perpetuate the notion in women that thin is beautiful, regardless of other factors.

      Likewise the high proportion of Caucasian men and woman in films, adverts, television, magazines etc in societies that are in reality more diverse, also perpetuates the notion that a Caucasian or Eurocentric look is more beautiful.

      So two people could have perfectly symmetrical faces but one can still be considered less beautiful than the other by virtue of their skin colour. As you rightly suggest, that's more likely the result of cultural influence than anything else.

      Have a look at this composite of Miss Universe contestants from 2005.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      Actually studies show that beauty is perceived based on a certain symmetry among the dimensions of the face, more than color. (A lopsided face being unbeautiful.)

    • Don W profile image

      Don W 8 years ago

      myownworld - Thanks for the visit. Appreciate your comment.

    • myownworld profile image

      myownworld 8 years ago from uk

      brilliant hub! perfectly written and very insightful too. I'm half indian...and trust me you have hit on some real truth here: beauty in almost all south asian countries for the average woman (not just celebrities) is fair skin, brown hair and light colored eyes.

      And yes, it's because 'white' skin is associated with the rich and powerful and not just a case of wanting what we don't have. You cannot even imagine how popular skin whitening creams are and I have known countless girls made to feel 'ugly' because their skin is dark (something a white person is never made to feel if he's not tanned, to answer the argument above!) anyway, thank you for for this amazing and perceptive piece of work! loved it!

    • Don W profile image

      Don W 8 years ago

      lmmartin - that's true, people do seem to want to be whatever they are not, and advertising has a lot to answer for in that regard. But there is also a racial/political element.

      People can still be treated differently according to what they look like in all parts of the world, and it's the dominant social group in a society that writes the rules as to who/what is beautiful and what is not.

      As T_Augustus mentioned if an attribute or feature considered ethnic becomes popular, then that feature will be subverted and assimilated into the mainstream dominant culture. So full lips become "Angelina Jolie lips" etc. In the same way when a white person has a sun tan it's considered a "healthy glow". It would not usually be considered polite to tell such a person they looked like a black person with a light complexion, although that may in fact be the truth. Having a "healthy glow" is beautiful and desirable. Looking like a black person (in any way) is not.

      So anything intrinsically beautiful about a particular ethnic feature becomes disassociated with the ethnic group that feature is naturally found in, instead it gets re-labelled and associated with the dominant social group. This forms part of the process of cultural hegemony and cultural imperialism.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Maybe we all want to be what we're not. While Indian women may be using products to lighten their skin, white women are using products to darken theirs (now that it's not acceptable to sit in the sun.) Those with curly hair straighten it; those with straight hair perm it. Women with small breasts get implants and women with large breast get reductions. I don't know if it's a racial/political thing, or just the result of a couple of generations of women who have been constantly barraged by the media with the message you are not good enough the way you are. And the unreal images you show here are the perfect example.

    • Don W profile image

      Don W 8 years ago

      Pseudonymous - I think there's some truth to that. Maybe people are somehow attracted to things that is "other", as well as frightened by them.

    • Don W profile image

      Don W 8 years ago

      T_Augustus - Yes it's quite amazing when you see the differences.

    • Pseudonymous profile image

      Pseudonymous 8 years ago

      An interesting hub. The Chinese have a similar thing where attractive features are considered to be large eyes, a high, straight nose and light skin, in other words caucasian features. Skin whitening products are also sold extensively in China.

      I'm not sure if this is a post-colonialist thing, I suppose you would have to dig back a few hundred years and look at what the standard of beauty was before European contact. My honest guess is that white skin would still have been preferred. In India I get the impression that the skin-whiteness preference may be related to the caste system but a quick google has been inconclusive!

      I think at least partly its a matter of wanting what you don't have. When I was at school I remember a mate pointing out that all the white girls had their hair up like the black girls but all the black girls flattened their hair down straight. The grass is always greener on the other side!

    • T_Augustus profile image

      T_Augustus 8 years ago from Detroit, MI

      By the way, I followed the links to the google searches and it is an amazing difference.

    • Don W profile image

      Don W 8 years ago

      T_Augustus thanks for the read and the thoughts.

    • T_Augustus profile image

      T_Augustus 8 years ago from Detroit, MI

      Great hub Don. I have been preaching this "standard of beauty" gospel to Black women for ages now. Something that a Black woman pointed out to me as a recent trend, is that when the features of another culture (in this case Black) are adopted into the world of the beautiful White woman, she then becomes the icon for this now accepted feature. So instead of asking if you want to enhance features that Black women have, they ask if you're trying to get "a J-Lo butt" or "Angelina Jolie lips". I know J-Lo is not Caucasian, but she fits into your message about the standard of beauty for women of color (in this case Latino) still being set by the women that look closest to that of the Caucasoid standard of beauty.

      Meanwhile, Black women are getting a Perm (which is actually a Temp), so they can have straight hair like a White woman. They buy weave, so they can have long hair like the White woman. They wear make up that lightens their skin tone. Why? I refer back to the entirety of your hub.

    • Don W profile image

      Don W 8 years ago

      theleftflank - thanks for visiting and for your comment

    • profile image

      theleftflank 8 years ago

      Ohhhh I don't know about that Don. The albification (the act or process of making white) of various indigenous peoples outside of western culture has in fact been around for quite some time. Its just that at the dawn of the Western Colonial powers starting with Britain, their new Capitalist ideology required that everything be turned into a commodity, so invariably the white image took center stage. This Propaganda ultimately served then, as it does now, to solidify their image around the world while filling their pockets simultaneously. In the days of Alexander the Great, which was the first real Western invasion into parts of Africa, foreign overlords would often take women as the spoils of war and produce bastard offspring that was usually more loyal to them than their captive primitive half-brothers.

      What's that common refrain? Oh, yeah:

      If you can't beat'em, join'em!

    • Don W profile image

      Don W 8 years ago

      It is sad, and I think it will get worse now the "money machine" has found a brand new market to exploit.

    • omi saide profile image

      omi saide 8 years ago

      The truth will set us free. I am from this type of mentality that is prevalent in the deep south of the US. Its so sad. I can find beauty in everything and everybody.I like myself as I am and the need to be thinner,lighter,and more physically desirable in an anglocentric world never crossed my mind.


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