Fair's Unfair

The obsession with white skin in India is probably one of the most insidious and persistent legacies of colonialism. Anyone recalling Doordarshan programming prior to the heady days of oodles of satellite channels, will also remember the plethora of fairness creams ads at that time. Marriage classifieds have forever been littered with ads with various euphemisms desirous of that whiter shade of pale for women. Any middle class Indian growing up can tell you about that cousin or sister who is very attractive but sadly, not "fair" and hence probably doomed to a life of spinsterhood. Certainly, a doctor or IAS officer or NRI is out of reach in the bridegroom sweepstakes!

Given that skin whitening treatments in India are rather in the same league as teeth whitening here, I suppose it was only a matter of time before companies began targeting men as well. Biraj forwarded this CNN story making the rounds regarding companies marketing "fairness" creams for men:

Now there's no need to sneak into your sister's Fair & Lovely cream stash. Or rub talcom powder on your face (it doesn't work unless your goal is to look like Bozo the Clown). Simply walk to your nearest paanwaala's shop and apply away. Then proceed to walk, no, zoom up the corporate and social ladders.

Perhaps Bollywood can make a social issue out of all this - brown skin pride and all that? It would seem to be a tailor made subject, no? Sadly, what's happened instead is quite the opposite: masala dance numbers now prominently feature white chicks grabbed fresh from the Mumbai Airport. Home grown lovelies are no longer bleached enough. Aspirational trophy wallpaper, here we come!

I should probably add that this phenomenon is not limited to India - it's quite common in many post colonial countries. And no rant would be complete without pointing out the reverse irony in the West: the paler folks want to get tans and look darker. So it goes.


I was asked whether there could be other reasons for this phenomenon as well. Religion, perhaps? Caste? Well, I have no doubt my discussion above is way too simplistic. Regardless, if you look across:

  • religions - skin color preference in India is not limited to Hindus by any stretch of the imagination.
  • countries - many countries, typically ex-colonies, experience the same issue.
  • races - skin bleach for African Americans, anyone?

To me, there seemed to be the one predominant factor stretching across all, hence the focus.

Also, here's a nice article on how the issue affects the South Asian diaspora. A quote:

The mother of all fairness creams on the subcontinent, Fair & Lovely, was developed and launched by consumer goods giant Hindustan Lever in 1976. Fair & Lovely's reach has extended beyond India. Today it is marketed in over 38 countries and has become the largest-selling skin lightening cream in the world, but its biggest customer concentration remains in South Asia itself.


Rahman argues that the politics and implications of skin color in Indian community and among black Americans are extraordinarily similar, and the strict juxtaposition of black and white works well in understanding the implications of skin color and the definition of beauty among black Americans, Indians in India, and Indians living in the U.S.


As another informant, Sultana, says: “Well, in [South] Asian communities, because there are so many shades, most everyone prefers light skin. And if they are dark, they have to at least be charming and pleasant looking. If they are not, then they are in big trouble. And it is much, much worse here than in India and Pakistan because over there if you are ugly . . . if you have any kind of deficiency than at least you can make it up with money. “O.K. my daughter’s not beautiful, but I can give you a house.” But here no one needs money. They all have money and so they can’t compensate deficiency with money. See, we parents are afraid [of our children marrying dark skinned mates] because, if not for this generation, then the next generation, our grandchildren. Because dark color is dominant over light color . . . and the children will carry the dark color [because it] is a dominating feature . . . and it stays over the generations.”

Twenty three year old Asma, expresses her frustration: “I know people see me as dark, and I know people don’t ask me [for marriage] because of that. And I want to marry a professional person, so it’s hard.”

Twenty-one- year-old Zainab feels discriminated against because she is Indian American: “Everyone thinks Pakistanis are light and Indians are dark. For instance, I had a [doctor-suitor] once and he actually said to me, “Pakistani women are more beautiful than Indian women.” I was like, “You jack-ass, I’m Indian.”. . . Some people only propose to me because I’m light. Once someone asked me if I bleached [my skin] because how could I be so light naturally, being Indian.”

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- September 11, 2009 10:06 PM // India