by Ismath Mohideen
I will admit: I’ve avoided the sun so I wouldn’t get darker. I’ve gone swimming at night instead of during the day to avoid tan lines. It’s completely and utterly ridiculous. I should enjoy the sun’s warm rays and get some exercise! But where do these thoughts come from? We weren’t born with the innate ability to distinguish between skin colors and assign meanings to them. But for some women, the fair skin battle draws them into deeper depths than just avoiding sunshine during the day.
In South Asian tradition, a light skinned woman is supposedly more beautiful than a dark skinned woman. This belief can be traced back to early invasions of India by the Turks and British. As light skinned people inhabited India and wielded their authority, natives who sought power and beauty likened fair skin with power and status. Some say the Caste System also contributed to these attitudes, with light skinned higher caste members dominating the lower caste members with darker skin. Additionally, history might indicate that lighter skinned people enjoyed a more fanciful life, while darker skinned people worked in the fields.
For an even more blatant and modern perpetuation of this stereotype, watch any Bollywood movie’s actors and actresses. The movies tend to feature ultra-fair-skinned heros and heroines, while villains and village women tend to be portrayed by darker complexioned actors.
Can this be a realistic depiction of South Asian people? Do South Asian women strive to appear like the beautiful women seen in the movies? The majority of South Asians are not as fair skinned as the movies portray. They range in hues from ivory to caramel, from mocha to ebony.
(As a humorous side note, check out some of the matrimonial ads seeking fair maidens.)
Furthermore, the South Asian skin product market is littered with skin lightening products. Everything from our aunt’s Fair and Lovely to our dermatologist’s hydroquinone is being consumed for the purpose of a fair complexion. Some of these crèmes are harmful for the skin, and can lead to irritation. It’s amazing to observe the lengths some women will go to, sometimes dangerous lengths, just to achieve a slightly lighter shade.
However, Fair and Lovely is now the topic of controversy in South Asia nowadays, where a movement led by the All India Democratic Women’s Association finally begins to bring some justice to the issue of skin color.
This issue doesn’t just concern South Asians. African American celebrities like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Halle Berry are so beautiful and talented in their genres, but in all actuality, they’re considerably fair! In fact, an MSNBC article posed the question of whether Vanity Fair lightened Beyonce’s skin for a cover photo (which they vehemently denied). A darker skinned woman like Fantasia Barrino doesn’t get nearly the same spotlight, despite her enormous talent. Some African American bloggers speak of similar sentiment concerning skin color in their communities as well.
It’s clear that American Desi girls feel the fair-skin pressure because of the media coming at them from both sides of the world. Both Desi culture and American culture subconsciously allude towards the idea that a lighter complexion is more beautiful than a darker one. It’s not easy living in a society where vanity and visual appearance speak volumes before a woman even speaks!
The vast diversity in our skin colors is just one of the visual aspects of our heritage. And there’s so much wonder woven into our heritage to fret over skin color! So, feel free to bask in the sun and be proud of your glow!