An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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India’s Obsession with Fair Skin

August 16, 2014

One aspect of contemporary Indian culture that bothers me is its obsession with ‘fair’ skin and ‘lightness.’

Perhaps it’s because I married someone with darker skin. Or maybe it’s just because as an educated US citizen, I decry discrimination against anyone because of their skin color.

Indian businesses and others in Asia have long sold ‘skin whitening crèmes’ or other methods essentially bleaching one’s skin, making it ‘more attractive,’ presumably to the opposite sex. I have not read scientific studies about the health risks inherent in this behavior, but since the goal is altering one’s skin pigmentation, I would never try it.

Bollywood’s A-list, both men and women are always light-skinned. The only famous Indian cinema stars with darker skin complexion than light bronze are Southern, where the color obsession is less pronounced.

India’s newspapers usually have a personals section, but unlike Western ones, they are not written by the person looking for their match, rather they are posted by the single person’s family.

Reading through India’s matrimonial advertisements, reveals the mindset regarding skin complexion.

  • Slim, fair, 30yrs, looks much younger, never married, 5 feet, sweet, homely, caring, responsible, intelligent, Chartered Accountant, well versed in all home-related activities, extremely good cook, exceptionally sincere & dedicated, emotional & sensitive

Notice that ‘fair’ is the second attribute mentioned.

What a strange way to look at marriage prospects. This example is not an anomaly, most of them read similarly.

Sasmita’s parents tried to secretly marry her two different times.  Both times the parents of the potential groom said she was ‘too dark’ and not ‘attractive’ enough for their sons.

Being rejected for marriage as a woman with dark skin is common. Countless darker complexioned women in India never marry because of their skin color, staying single their entire lives.

Even wealthy darker skinned Indian girls have trouble, but because they have means, their parents can afford to bargain with the family for their daughter’s hand.

Advertisements for the skin lightening creams are decades old, but on my recent trip I studied the underlying messages that Indians receive watching commercials. Two stick out in my mind as particularly egregious and disturbing.

The first one features a slightly frumpy girl with darker skin. She’s purposely not wearing attractive clothes and minimal make up. She looks plain and even worse (the commercial implies), she has dark skin.

She and her father are discussing marriage. The girl says to her father something along the lines of ‘I’m not pretty enough for marriage because my skin is too dark.’ He gives a sympathetic look saying, ‘you’re mother wasn’t ready either, until she tried this’…and produces a skin whitening lotion.

The next scene features the girl and both parents in their kitchen. Her mother remarks how light and fair skinned she looks now and she’s stylishly dressed. That dad says to the mom, ‘I think she’s ready for marriage, she looks like you (meaning the mother) now.’ The girl agrees, because she has light skin like her mother and all three of them are hugging and smiling at commercial’s end.

That commercial implied far from subtly, that no one would marry this young girl unless she had lighter skin. Her father even agreed that she was not ‘attractive enough for marriage’ until and unless she had fair skin like her mother.

The other commercial introduced a young boy, about 9 or 10 years old. He’s despondent after school and does not communicate with his family. A second later, the mom asks her son what’s wrong and he replies that his skin is too dark and the other kids tease him about it. Not only do they make fun of him, he is unwelcome around them.

His mother has compassion on the perceived plight of being ‘dark skinned’ and immediately says she can make it better. Next, she gives him a skin lightening crème, saying, ‘start using this and you won’t be lonely anymore.’ The next shot we see, the boy has visibly lighter skin, and is having a wonderful time playing cricket in the street with other kids. The final shot is of the mom and the son seeing each other smile. The boy is no longer a social outcast.

These two commercials represent the very worst of the light skin mania in India, because they very obviously indicate that one’s life as a dark skinned person is terrible, lonely and makes it abundantly clear that having light skin will change your life.

Darker skin people in India are typically associated with being lower-caste. In a sense, India’s obsession with skin fairness perpetuates caste-discrimination in a socially acceptable form. This also reinforces class differences, as impoverished Indians cannot lighten their skin with expensive products.

This fixation stands in stark contrast with the United States. As someone with skin that looks a little darker than permanently tan, I lost count of the people through the years who have said they were jealous of my skin tone and that I never had to worry about tanning..

White American culture wants darker skin. The number of tanning salons and ways to darken your complexion are myriad here. Before you say, India is the same, they just want light skin, I counter with this: Indian societal mores make it very clear that having dark skin is detrimental to your public perception and that one will not be fully accepted unless they have fairer skin.

That is radically different from the US and Western idea, where being tan is nice. But I have never seen any marketing in America suggesting one’s life is worth less with lighter skin.

There are not commercials here making it blatantly obvious that skin color affects your social standing. Tanning commercials of course show one having a better perceived life, but do not add the second component of India’s marketing, which says your life is less valuable with a different skin tone. That is uniquely an Indian viewpoint.

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