Who’s the Fairest of Them All?


There is an ongoing trend of skin lightening in India, of which I was completely unaware. I am appalled by the beauty standards to which women are being subjected. I had no idea that skin color discrimination was an issue in India. Women are bleaching their skin at an early age, and getting married before their skin darkens. Even children are being discriminated against by other Indians for having dark skin.

Skin color discrimination likely began with the caste system. Varna is the Hindu term for the different classes of the caste system. The word Varna literally means outward appearance, color, and form. The higher class members remain light skinned, as the lower class members become dark from outdoor labor. Having dark skin is often seen as a sign of poverty.

Yet, Hindu Gods and Goddesses are depicted as dark. A popular Hindu god Krishna, literally means dark. The goddess of time, change, and destruction—Kali—is also depicted very dark. Her skin is a deep blue, which is a form of extremely dark skin. She is often respected as a symbol of empowerment.

V0045118 Kali trampling Shiva. Chromolithograph by R. Varma.

Goddess Kali


So if the divine Goddesses are depicted as extremely dark skinned, then why are women idolizing light-colored skin? Is there pressure from western influence? Almost all men in Dhrangadhra wear western clothing—button up shirts, graphic t-shirts, and jeans. However the women remain traditional with colorful saris and kurtas. Perhaps the men are pressuring women into also becoming more westernized.

“Facials are the first service women prefer and lightening treatments are demanded by 90 percent of women in their 20s before their weddings” according to The Times of India. Women are afraid they won’t find a husband if their skin is dark. I watched a documentary on the subject and a woman admitted that her photograph that was shown to potential suitors, did not look like her natural self. She wore orange to make her skin appear brighter, applied white powder to her skin, and the camera man used a bright light.

The documentary also shared a story of a young boy, probably no older than 10 who was being bullied in school for having dark skin. It has become acceptable for children to lighten their skin.

You can go to a salon, or buy skin bleach products from almost any store. The most popular product I’ve heard of is Fair and Lovely. I was watching television in a host’s home, and I noticed that 3 out of 5 commercials were for beauty products. All of the Indians in the commercials and tv shows were very pale skinned. I’m not sure where these pale skinned Indians exist in the real world, because even in America where the sunlight is not as extreme, most Indians I’ve seen are not as fair skinned as the ones in advertisements.


Fair & Lovely


Its pretty frightening to think about what harmful effects bleaching skin may cause. Most products contain chemicals and toxic ingredients. Women cover their skin from head to toe from the sun to avoid skin damage, but then bleach their skin, which seems counter productive.

Two female students in my group visited a local salon where women go to lighten their skin. There was no interview arranged, but they had the chance to ask a few questions. Fran asked the customer if she was bleaching her skin to be whiter—the woman seemed defensive and said no, she was trying to achieve a glow.

It is a sensitive topic for most women, so they won’t fully discuss it. I think the main motive behind it is for women to find a husband. It is common for women to get a full body bleach before their wedding. Indian men apparently prefer lighter skin, which I also learned from my arranged marriage interview. However, in the documentary a mother said that it’s not the husband who prefers light skin, it’s the mother-in-law. So is it women who are creating these absurd beauty standards for other women?

I don’t think there is one definitive reason for why Indian women lighten their skin; it’s a mixture of culture, castes, and the media. Somehow the whole idea has made me embrace my own skin color more. Americans are trying to get darker, while Indians are trying to get lighter. It seems like we all want we don’t have, which has made me realize how silly the whole thing is. We’re trying to change the thing that makes us unique from others, so why not just embrace it?


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