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When All Is Not 'Fair' Play

When All Is Not 'Fair' Play

May 22, 2012

Will Indians ever stop obsessing about fair skin?

Ever since I was a little girl, I have had to hear comments about how unfortunate I was to have not inherited my mother’s strawberry and cream complexion. Some so-called 'well-meaning' aunts have even gone to the extent of attributing it to her marriage outside her caste leading to the birth of children who were not ‘fair’. Years later, when my own kid was born, I was once again reminded of that comparison as she had supposedly inherited that magic gene from my mother’s family  that had deluded me somehow [it’s another story that today she is a dusky teenager!]. 

Coming to the question, can there be fairness in India without fair skin? We are a nation of more than one billion people with a rich variety of people of different ethnic origins. Despite the diversity, many people across the country have two things in common: a dusky complexion and the desire for fair skin. The pressure is more on the ladies to be fair. Right from the time a baby is born there are remarks made about whether she is fair or dark. In Bollywood films that pull in the crowds, female stars almost always have fair skin. In fact the obsession to marry a fair girl is present even in those parts of the country where dark complexion is not a rarity.

It’s an aspiration that the mass media promotes widely
, perpetuating the idea that fair is lovely. This aspiration has created a massive market for skin whitening creams that come in single sachets that cost less than 10 cents to expensive jars costing more than 100 dollars each. Skin whitening cream advertisements fill the airways, promoting fair skin as beautiful. The fair girl is desirable, she attracts attention and envy. The content is deftly manipulated to spread the idea that beneath every dark girl is a fair one waiting to be unveiled. But increasingly ads like these raise a question, are they unfair and ugly, marginalizing other forms of appearance, women who are not fair being made to feel unattractive, unsuitable for marriage, even faring poorly in the dream-job market. In such a society, someone who is dark might find it difficult to have a positive self-image what with teasing by peers at school right through to the times when matrimonial ads making the preference for fair skin no secret . Even some top models like Angela Singh Bais, whose careers take off internationally, are often overlooked in India because of their dusky complexion that is seen only as second best. Dusky women are seen as sexy and sensual but not the images of ‘wholesome goodness’ that India likes to project as the incarnate Indian woman. Until recently dark skinned models did not make it to the cover of magazines, but slowly there has been a shift in attitudes as far as haute-couture is concerned, but it will take years before the mainstream makes this shift, if ever.

For three decades now Fair and Lovely has been the leading fairness cream riding high on campaigns that depict dark-skinned women being snubbed by men, by employers and the answer to all maladies lying in the magic jar or tube that makes the fairy-tale ending available for a few rupees. The ads touch a raw nerve as they tend to be insidious, playing on anxieties that plague the souls of people marginalized by their skin-tone. It is estimated that a whopping two-thirds of Indian women buy skin lightening products. I had myself got myself a tube once and would probably have continued to do so unless my mother had given me a whole new perspective to the meaning of beauty. One other modern trend, as is evident from TV commercials, is that more and more men use fairness creams as well, with top Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan, John Abraham and Shahid Kapoor endorsing these and earning hefty sums in the process as, reportedly, this is a half a billion dollar industry. In so doing they prefer to turn a blind eye to the controversy it creates in insinuating the idea that fairness is a required ingredient for being a worthwhile human being.

Our attitude to foreigners
, I dare say, is also guided by this obsession of the fair skin. At the workplace, I see this playing out so very often. When there are client visits from abroad, the fair skinned Europeans and the dark skinned Latin Americans or Africans are offered two different kinds of hospitality. We bend over backwards to make the former see best  face of Indian hospitality while we demonstrate  a much more relaxed, almost casual, attitude towards the latter. My NRI readers would undoubtedly correct me if I am wrong when I say that if the Indian guy or girl living abroad decides to tie the knot with a foreigner, there is less objection and resistance from the family back home if the new addition to the family is white. This is also apparent in movies where it is becoming increasingly commonplace to see the Indian hero being complemented by a bevy of seductive white-skinned foreigners.

This issue, obviously, is much more than skin-deep. Why do Indians nurture this deep-seated desire for fair skin? Is it a sign of living with the vestiges of colonialialism? Is it a sign of racism? Undoubtedly, it has an element of legacy from history and mythology. It has to do with the fair skinned Aryans coming to India and taking over the subcontinent from the original inhabitants, with the coming of the British and settling as the colonial rulers, with all gods and goddesses [Kali and Krishna, being rare exceptions] being depicted as fair, with associating the color of skin to economic and social power:  fair skin with aristocracy and dark skin with menial labor. Therefore we can neither wish it away, nor will banning ads of fairness creams and other skin lightening dermatological treatments change things. The shift in mindsets that have happened so far has only remained at an intellectual level, by no means is it widespread. That the skin color divide is not about bad versus good is far from black and white, pun intended.

Awareness will only spread through debates and discussions on forums like these, if at all.

Photo credit


  • jackie
    02.08.13 06:54 AM
    you are misusing the word "Dusky". dusky means dark, even the dictionary states this. Sushmita sen is considered fair, not only in india but worldwide. we all know the majority of indians are darker than sushmita sen, so please stop using bollywood light skinned actresses to call "dusky" its an insult to true dusky women. thats like me putting nicole kidman for dark skinned women
  • Sitanshu
    08.11.12 03:50 AM
    World’s most powerful Leader – Black
    One of the World’s greatest Golfers – Black – Tiger Woods
    The world’s greatest pop musician – Black – Michael Jackson (until he too became ‘white’)
    The World’s highest paid Female Model – Black – Naomi Campbell
    The world’s 4 greatest human beings from the 20th century – Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King – 2 of them are black
    There are hundreds of list. All what counts is inside.
    India is plagued with the same problem.
  • priya arora
    priya arora
    01.11.12 01:22 AM
    meri skin dark h and oily b hai plz kuch bataiye fair hone ke liye
    17.10.12 10:59 PM
    Any Indian girl is supposed to pay more dowry if shes wheatish or higher when shes dark. Shes supposed to compensate for her dark color with a higher salary package and huge educational degrees. Shes supposed to pay her husband for the rest of her life for being unbeautiful or ugly. And even then when her husband has an extramarital affair or a roving eye problem, shes the one blamed for it for not being beautiful enough. The problem with Indians is that they are truly hypocrites and beauty(read fairness) obsessed people. Even our film industry discriminates against dark skinned heroines, they are portrayed as vamps.
    17.10.12 10:48 PM
    We have been made a nuisance in our own country. Any average Indian girl is supposed to be dusky or wheatish only. Its high time we get jobs worth our own callibre.
    17.10.12 10:45 PM
    I do agree that dark skinned girls dont get a preference in jobs. Most of the girls aspire to be MBA HRs but the reality is that fair girls dont get hired for such front end jobs. And its nonsense that males are bothered about their skin color too. Dark boys get the same preference in marriage market as do fair ones. Indian women who are on an average dusky face the worst form of discrimination in the marriage market and the jobs. The worst part is that since they dont get jobs, they have to face nightmares in the marriage market also. Everyone wants a girl with a package and the back office jobs like programming, teaching, content writing require a lot of stamina in terms of education and pay less. The MNC's are hell bent on hiring fair women for front end HR jobs. Their coming into our country and their heavy advertising of their own beauty products featuring foreign supermodels has fuelled the desire among Indian men to marry someone like them. How can an Indian woman look like a foreigner or lets say angleina Jolie. Apart from fair skin,. Indian girls are now required to have straight hair but most of us have curly hair. Another irony is Our top actress is Katrina Kaif, highly loved and appreciated by indian men for her beauty, dudes shes not even of Indian origin completely. Her mother is a briton. then how can we have a complexion like her and even pouted lips which is a common feature with American and British women.
  • Vishnupriya Da
    Vishnupriya Da
    24.07.12 05:51 PM
    I am glad to see more articles like this being written. I have just made a documentary about the impact the obsession with being fair has on peoples lives, because I thought it should be captured on camera.

    Here is the preview

    It was filmed in Kolkata, and almost all the points in this post came to life. Perhaps the most touching for me was a ten year old boy I talked to who has been using 'fair and handsome' for three years hoping he will become fair - so people in his school will stop bullying him for being dark. When I asked him how fair was fair enough, he pointed to the american cameraman.
  • Supratik Sen
    Supratik Sen
    01.06.12 08:25 PM
    It is a very old form of looking at people. However much we say we have advanced, deep within, especially when it comes to such mindsets, we haven't really changed much. Your thought-provoking, firm yet softly written article supported by readers shows that there is hope, that there are some people who sit back and question. While reading about the differential treatment that clients receive in office, I couldn't agree more..I too see that happening all the time. Well the Aryans came to India and drove the real Indians away...what happened in the Americas is nothing different huh!
  • Ravi K
    Ravi K
    23.05.12 08:32 PM
    Bhavana, that is true, though the stigma of paleness in the West is not as strong as the stigma of darkness in India. It is primarily aesthetic in the West, and people generally do not make judgements about character, social standing, etc. based on the darkness or paleness of a Caucasian's skin. Ethnicity is another matter.

    It is easier for paler people to become tan through tanning beds and tanning spray than it is for dark people to lighten their skin. Someone who wants to become tan can solve their (perceived) problem with little more difficulty than getting a haircut.
  • indu chhibber
    indu chhibber
    23.05.12 06:55 PM
    Indians' obsession with'white skin'is being fueled by these ads-some of them are so stupid & silly.
  • Atheist Indian
    Atheist Indian
    23.05.12 05:09 PM
    Nice observation but the reasoning behind it may be not so accurate.

    The hospitality for whites has something to do with the impression that white people are wealthier, dominant and more suave than Indians. Most Indians still see Latin America and Africa as a third world quagmires like their own and hence, a more casual treatment.

    If you think white people are privileged, just ask Russian visitors and expats how they are treated vis. a vis. West Europeans or Americans. Russians are seen as 'poor' and hence recieve a kind of hospitality that is very washed down and in the Indian bureaucratic pysche, 'befitting of their status'. The Japanese on the other hand, are treated like whites.

    The treatment that foreigners recieve in India is based on perceptions of their status and hierarchy in the Asian collective framework, not their skin colour.
  • bhavana
    23.05.12 01:43 PM
    Grass is always greener on the other side--for both men and women. Men in India are also suffering from anxiety on skin color--seeking to be fair! While in the West people go to tanning salons and called "fair" as "pale" or "colourless" and rush to wear blush (some color) on their cheeks!
  • Bhavna
    23.05.12 01:03 AM
    Don't understand all the hype about skin colour. But yes I have to agree- having lived in Delhi all my life (which is supposedly a big modern city), indians are discriminatory about skin colour. Such a shame as dark can still be beautiful
  • Rajpriya
    22.05.12 03:26 PM
    “The ads touch a raw nerve as they tend to be insidious, playing on anxieties that plague the souls of people marginalized by their skin-tone”.

    How very true. Great post.

    Seems like my parents and I were the only exception to this insidious obsession looking for a white skinned woman. Mine was an arranged marriage and I saw the woman I was to marry only on the day it was taking place.

    There she came and sat beside me with her head looking down and it never occurred to me to notice the color of her skin to reject her. She was in fact a shade darker than me and that was fair enough for me. All I wanted was a good woman and companion on my side.

    Thank god I wanted her to be the way she was and she never had to use whitening creams to please me ever. She is the mother of my two sons isn’t that fair enough for me? Yes! That was more than fair enough for me. It never came to my mind to discuss each other’s skin color because we devoted our time to build a family and a life for ourselves.

    All I know is when I went to the hospital where my sons were born there were at least ten to fifteen German women standing before the glass window behind which the nurse was holding them and telling me (standing right behind on my toes to get gimpse) how cute they were with black eyes and lots black hair which they said was very rare in their own.

    To me they were my kids and did not matter if their hair was brown or black or whatever.

    Come to think of it that one-day all human beings white, brown or black skinned would end up six feet under to be eaten by worms I don’t think those worms would reject crawling and feeding on dark skinned people.

    The good thing we won’t see what happens to the lovely fair skin we were able achieve spending so much time and money to please the world. Think of MJ a cute looking guy who ended up looking like a zombie.
  • Stuti
    22.05.12 02:06 PM
    Indeed a good write-up and I second all the points you made. Every boy seeks fair girl and if a boy by chance falls in love with a dusky skinned or dark skinned girl, the mother of the guy will always be distressed looking at her. And by chance if the mother of the guy herself is fair, then the she surely feels superior. Even the definition of Beauty of a girl is more or less about the skin color only. And of course media takes this opportunity to make this issue more visible and companies try to sell the desire of being fair.
  • C. Suresh
    C. Suresh
    22.05.12 01:13 PM
    A truly insidious obsession that just does not seem to let go! Currently, however, what is keeping it alive and kicking are the skin-whiteners and their ad.s depicting success as an outcome of fair skin and fair skin only. I get truly worked up sometimes when I see one of those ad.s - and TV gives me multitudinous opportunities to get worked up on any given day.
  • Vinod
    22.05.12 06:11 AM
    Ms Sen
    You have exposed the 'unfair' skin of Indian psyche and cannot agree with you more!!! There is also this 'insecure' mind of young couples who worry about the skin color of the future baby!! This underlying worry is more about the fear of their child being socially sidelined for no mistake of him/her in our Indian social conditions!!

    You are very right in our attitude towards foreigners too. In my opinion,Indians are the most racially biased people in the world!!At least my experience tells me that!!

    Though not to create a controversy here, the 'unitedly divided' India has a story of north south 'divide' or north northeastern 'divide' or south northeastern 'divide' which is also about our perception of others being different from ones own color!!A madrasi is not someone from Madras or Tamil Nadu as we all know!When a Northie says Madrasi, the undertone is about all the people of the South and the undertone is again based on colored reasons.The South interestingly retaliates in a different manner. Well that would take the context of discussion away from what you have intended here!! I enjoyed reading your article and I hope to see you more here!!

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