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Beauty, Biopolitics, and (Cruel) Optimism: (Re)Assembling Beauty’s Neoliberal Attachments in Global India

Sun, June 26, 5:00 to 6:50pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: 1F, 107


In 2009, Indian actress Nandita Das spearheaded a national media campaign in India called “Dark is Beautiful” that sought to address the deleterious physical and psychological effects of colorism (cultural preference for light skin) in India. This paper examines the unprecedented growth of skin-lightening products that surrounded the campaign’s emergence (including fairness creams for men and advertisements for vagina lightening/whitening), Das’ campaign, and the concomitant emergence of a diasporic beauty blog called “Dark, Lovely, and South Asian” that elaborated upon these effects in the global diaspora.

I argue that discourses of colorism and their feminist forms of redress—the latter of which counters the national vilification of dark skin with a celebratory reclaiming of it—operate as what Foucault has described as the biopolitical optimization of life under neoliberalism, in which individuals perform “a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thought, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault, Technologies of the Self 88) and as forms of what Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism,” “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic” (“Cruel” 94). These regulatory and affective frameworks—beauty as both “optimization” and “optimism”—provide ways of critically assessing Indian beauty’s neoliberal attachments and new ways of conceptualizing the political and cultural work of fashion and beauty.