Fair Skin, Foul Play

Image via Shreyasrkrishnan.blogspot.com

Recently, a friend and I were talking about the newborn baby of another friend. We were discussing all of the usual mundane stuff, like whom the baby resembled, when she commented, “at least he’s fair-skinned.”

What the…?

I couldn’t believe my friend had said that. Hasn’t my generation moved beyond this crippling, oppressive, racist mind-virus? My generation is supposed to be past such a parasitic meme. We’re supposed to accept beauty with a more ecumenical embrace, aren’t we? I suppose some viruses are tough to eradicate.

In India, where light skin is an obsession, skin-lightening creams are a 500-million-dollar industry. The obsession can be traced back hundreds of years to the time of the British Raj, when a clear distinction between dark-skinned Dravidians and light-skinned Aryans was used in conjunction with an ancient caste system to create the 1872 All India Census.

Indians were subalterns to the white British. British colonization ingrained upon Indians the notion of fair skin being superior to dark skin, even amongst the people of India. And so it came to be that fair skin went hand-in-hand with class and privilege.

Women were more affected by the skin color distinction than men (numerous socio-anthropological studies have found this to be the case amongst many cultural groups and ethnicities). In India, the ideal model of beauty came to be associated with the white woman. Though one might have expected the emancipation of India to have diffused such ways of thinking, the growing availability of modern luxuries, namely television, had ironic consequences. The influx of Hollywood into Indian homes only further perpetuated the notion that light skin and light eyes were the ideal symbols of beauty.

Light skin is a commodity, particularly amongst women of India. Light skin is thought to improve one’s chances of finding a favorable suitor. Indian newspapers run “matrimonials” where skin color is listed third only to religion and caste, but before education and likes/dislikes. India’s Hindustan Lever Limited company, a subsidiary of the international company, Unilever, manufactures the popular Fair and Lovely brand of skin creme and capitalizes on the cultural concepts of beauty. Interestingly, Unilever owns the Dove brand, which launched an aggressive Campaign for Real Beauty some years ago. The dichotomy in marketing speaks to the almighty dollar-driven nature of these corporations.

Last year, Vaseline launched a Facebook app in India where users can upload their pictures and digitally lighten their skin to create new avatars. Racist much? Obviously, this caused quite a stir amongst consumers, not excluding Indians, and to my knowledge the app has been taken down.


The dangers of the chemicals aside, the psychological and mental oppression from this antiquated way of thinking is worrisome.

Incidentally, the active chemical in true skin-lightening products is hydroquinone, which inhibits the synthesis of melanin, which produces skin pigment. The inhibition is via blockage of a key enzyme, possibly through DNA alterations. Hello. Anything that alters DNA could potentially cause cancer, and thus these skin lightening creams containing hydroquinone are banned in the U.S., as well as other countries.

I wasn’t immune to this way of thinking. My grandmother lived with us here in the States, and there was a daily struggle when it came time to meet my friends outside to play. She never liked me to go out before 4 PM, insisting the sun was too strong. “Kali ho jayegi,” she’d say. You’ll get dark. (She could have let me out at 3 PM, but I’m fairly certain she kept me around from 3 to 4 PM so I’d translate General Hospital for her.)

Growing up, I studied classical Indian dance, Bharatnatyam. It is a dance with origins in southern India, where because of the proximity to the equator, the population has evolved to have more pigment in their skin. And yet, the dancer’s makeup involves caking on layers of ivory-toned powder on her face in an effort to show her beauty.

When I was 19, my sister and I went on vacation to Cancun. There not even a week, the Mexican sun gave us the most amazing tans. I looked like the postcard for tropical tans. When we came back to New York, I remember my mother yelling at me, “Itni kali kyon ho gayi? Kal shaadi pe jaana hai!” Why did you get so dark? We have a wedding to go to tomorrow! Well, I still went to the wedding, but not without getting tons of looks of horror and a few comments to match.

Of course, having had my hair done in cornrows didn’t help my effort to blend in. I may have had to hear my fair share of comments about how lighter skin is favorable to darker skin, but in truth, the more I heard it, the more I rebelled against it (hence the almost charred Cancun tan).

It’s funny sad aggravating to me how much faster we are dispelling skin color irrationalities here in the U.S., noted by the booming tanning business, whereas in India, the culture is stuck in quicksand. Kind of makes me appreciate those Jersey Shore cats.

GTL, guys. GTL.

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  • Sounds to me that it’s all about wanting what we can’t have – no matter what skin color we’re born with. And, ironically, the ways to change it (tanning, lightening creams, etc.) could all lead to cancer. Bummer!

  • GTL, baby! G. T. L. !

    I don’t think I’ll ever understand the obsession with, or even preference for, lighter skin. I know it’s mostly a societal/cultural thing and I won’t doubt our culture will make a shift back again at some point, but, for now, I LOVE my women with a nice dark tan (as well as my sexy self).

  • I wish my skin were green with pink polka dots. 🙁

  • my college roommate whose parents are Sri Lankan was forbidden to go outside without a hat, while meanwhile I, fairskinned and freckled, was always envying the perfect tans of my classmates who seemed to have endless time and money to spend at the beach or tanning salon. Even when you know the standards of beauty are ridiculously contrived, it’s hard not to buy into them.

  • After my parents moved to Africa when I was very small, they didn’t really care one way or the other about my skin becoming darker as I spent more time outdoors. My mother was still careful about not letting me play in the sun before 3pm but that had more to do with UV radiation than a concern for the colour of my skin. My extended family in India, however, would express shock and outrage every time I went back with cafe au lait skin. It made little sense to me then and even less now.

  • It’s funny…I went to the US Virgin Islands last month. Before I went, my mom gave me one piece of advice over and over again: Don’t let your skin tan; you’ll get too dark.

    Of course, I’m not a fan of skin cancer or of smelly sunblock, so I made efforts to stay in the shade or, when that wasn’t possible, to tolerate the smelly sunblock. And yet, the sun is strong, and it will find you. Being from South India, I already have darker tones and a tendency to darken in the sun, so…when I got back, my mom’s words were: Did you fry yourself? Why did you sit in the sun? You’re so dark now!

    *sigh* Some things may never change.

  • When I had my son I was shocked that he was born a very pale, white child and not the golden skinned one I had imagined. He now is one of those enviable people that get the perfect tan from even a little time outdoors but I’ve turned into one of the moms that freaks out over how dark he’s getting. Sure, I don’t give a crap about what color skin my friends or anyone else has but when it comes to my child, I’m glad he’s white. He’s just going to have an easier time in life. As much as we want to believe the world has moved beyond skin color it really hasn’t and being lighter is still an advantage.

  • Not that staying in the sun all day is healthy, though. If skin-lightening is bad for its being carcinogenic, so is tanning. And besides, tanning also has its classist origins–when more and more lower class people in the West began working in factories, a tan became a fashionable way of showing one had the leisure to do be outside during the day, lolling around, swimming, or playing sports. So its an all-around unenlightened practice as well.

  • I haven’t finished reading, but just so you know…

    “The inhibition is via blockage of a key enzyme, possibly through DNA alterations.”

    Possibly. Only possibly. There are many, MANY ways to block enzymes that leave DNA well alone.

    I will continue reading now.

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