Race, Gender, and Beauty in Late Colonial India c.1900-1950.
This doctoral thesis argues that skin-lightening defined femininity and modernity for emerging middle-class women in colonial India during a time of global transformation. Most contemporary scholarship to date focuses on the impacts of twenty-first-century skin-lightening markets and advertising without adequately historicising colourism. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, this thesis brings socio-cultural experiences, vernacular material cultures and textual production, and intellectual histories of race and caste, into conversation with one another to argue that skin-lightening was, and continues to be, an embodiment praxis. By taking this perspective, it is possible to unpack how obtaining fairer skin, and the social power it enabled, related to colonial and indigenous sanitation and health discourses, the marriage market, and tied to ways of being urban, modern, and feminine. This praxis also involved navigating skin-lightening methodologies which engendered complicities in, and subversions of, skin colour hierarchies. By exploring how racial, cultural, and social capital operated in early twentieth-century India, this thesis also examines how colourism functioned alongside caste and class mobility in mass print literature that targeted women beginning to identify as ‘middle-class’. Furthermore, this thesis historicises the use of skin-lightening commodities. Sociological and historical scholarship on South Asian consumption attributes the presence of skin-lightening products in India either to the marketing of Fair and Lovely by Hindustan Lever in 1975 or to economic liberalisation of the late 1980s. This thesis rejects this assumption — and argues, instead, that colourism and preferences for fairer skin were commodified in colonial India via a racialised imperial-capitalist economy and were discursively adapted by Indian producers and consumers. Overall, it argues that the commodification of beauty assigned new values to ways of being healthy and modern for aspiring women during a time of extraordinary change, when emerging urban identities and the crystallisation of religious and caste identities set a new framework for global domesticity and consumption.