Dark is Beautiful, Indeed

This past Memorial Day, I opened the medicine cabinet at my aunt’s house looking for toothpaste only to find a tube of Fair & Lovely staring back at me. My heart sank. I yelled for my 10-year old cousin. “What is THIS?” I asked her, holding the tube gingerly.

“What?” she said innocently, “It’s just suntan lotion so I don’t get dark.” I looked at the ingredient list. Indeed, among the ingredients was “sunscreen.” I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was the same girl who had teased her seven-year old darker-skinned cousin so much that a year later, the poor kid still adamantly states “I’m not pretty.” Little wonder given that our mothers come from a country where bridal makeup still means you pancake the woman in white foundation from the neck-up and then hide her hands under her dupatta so the color disparity doesn’t show. Strangely enough, I never realized the extent of the South Asian obsession with light skin until I was in college. Growing up with mostly Pennsylvania Dutch peers who were openly envious of my “natural tan,” the context in which skin color figured in my upbringing was limited to the African American literature I read in school. Novels like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, about a young girl’s desire to be white and Fannie Hurst’s The Imitation of Life, about a young black girl who decided to “pass” as a white girl certainly impressed upon me the importance of skin color in America. I just naively never considered its impact on South Asian culture.

My mother’s preoccupation with skin shades wasn’t revealed until the time my little sister and I went off to camp for the first time, when I was in college. In addition to sunscreen, she bought us both floppy, wide-brimmed hats “to protect your complexion.” When I made a joking reference to tanning, she went ballistic. “Tanning is for goras [white people], not for people like us. We already have enough color.” The topic came up again, after college, when I dated a guy from India. “Make sure you don’t get any color this summer,” she warned me. “Your in-laws won’t like it.”

I thought she was crazy until the guy told me the same thing. “At least wait until after my parents see you,” he groaned, when I told him of of a pool party. “I don’t want them to think you’re darker than you really are.” I was speechless.

Incidents like that are why I’m so happy that Women of Worth, an organization based in Chennai, is promoting a “Dark is Beautiful” campaign. (Thanks to Gem, a mutineer from Colorado who passed on the tip to Nilanjana.) The organization purports to erase the notion that “the beauty and value of an Indian woman is determined by the fairness of her skin.” Check out their video:

Thank goodness someone is trying to counter the obsession with all things fair. Especially since Hindustan Unilever Limited’s Fair & Lovely continues to market itself as a female-friendly brand via promotions such as their “Fair & Lovely Foundation: 2009 Scholarships for Empowering women” contest, as noted by SM’s Vasugi on Twitter. Yes, because fair skin tones are exactly what I need to feel empowered. Keep in mind, this is the same company that released ads like this:

175 thoughts on “Dark is Beautiful, Indeed

  1. No Raj,

    It’s you who’s the troll. Saxon is being sarcastic and his sarcasm is showing how offensive your statements come across.

  2. Can someone look into Saxon’s postings … all indications of trolling and flaming.

    Raj, raj, I am on your side homie. How can you not see that? How can you call me a troll for agreeing with you that dark=ugly, always and everywhere? Is it flaming to call you the wisest poster here?

  3. Sanjaya’s dark good looks has kept him in the fame because all of the tweens are in love with him. He is very nice looking!

    Uh oh. Please don’t go PC on us raj. Sanjaya is too indian looking to be good looking. It is delusional, as you wrote earlier, to think darkies can be attractive.

  4. But beauty does not fully determine mate preference, just as mate preference does not fully determine actual mate choice.

    Interesting statement from evoandproud blog.

  5. I’ve seen that nonsense. If I ever get my hands on those books I’ll look into it. But meanwhile check this link out. 6th paragraph.

    As far as ebony magazine is concerned their advertisements showed preference for mixed race. I hear, like other print magazines it is in trouble.

    No it doesn’t! I just flipped through an issue of Ebony at the library!

  6. gem wrote:

    But meanwhile check this link out. 6th paragraph.

    gem, I think you’re referring to the following passage:

    “The children born here are black enough; but the blacker they are the more they are thought of; wherefore from the day of their birth their parents do rub them every week with oil of sesame, so that they become black as devils. Moreover, they make their gods black and their devils white, and the images of their saints they do paint black all over.”

    • Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) writing about people in and around present day Mylapur in chennai.(From The Travels of Marco Polo, The complete Yule-Cordier edition, Pg. 355)
  7. Here is something interesting:

    “Traditionally, Hindusim has never shown a preference for skin colour and dark skinned people can be found in all castes of Hindu society. In the Mahabharata, the character Draupadi, or otherwise known as Krishnaa was of dark complexion but was an epitome of beauty. The incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna himself (widely revered by Vaishnavites), was said to be “as black as a full raincloud”.


  8. Can someone articulate more clearly for me the “level” of issue this colorism in desi culture holds? I’m of two minds–one the one hand, yes, colorism is bad–why put these artificial divides up among people? On the other hand, the actual issue of color in my family would come up way under (i.e., less important than) education and professional status, religion, family wealth and status/connections, nationality-status, height/fitness, in terms of a marriage match. So, it seems kind of small-bore in term of actual effect compared to those factors.

  9. Time to close the thread, perhaps? It’s long since changed from a dispassionate analysis of color perception and a skewering of prejudice into an endorsement and defense of it.

    It may be human to have unconscious biases, but it also makes us more human to recognize them, confront them, and overcome them. An abject submission to them is not helpful.

  10. It may be human to have unconscious biases, but it also makes us more human to recognize them, confront them, and overcome them.

    Can you say more about that? I think it’s important not to harm others. Am I harming others when I want my sister to marry an educated man, as opposed to an uneducated man?

  11. Jitendra

    Ping Pong (62) means we should have no preferences .. be it colour, height, race, age, sex, species, language, religion, education, attitude et al.

    Anybody who reads the threads has to come to that conclusion.

  12. Excellent post!

    My parents watch copious amounts of SunTV, and there was an ad for some sort of soap recently that really upset me. Basically, a preteen girl is about to take a bath, and her mother is frantic she’ll use the wrong soap, end up with a bad complexion, lose all self-esteem and thereby become a complete failure at life. It made me more sad than angry, I think. (SunTV is six hundred kinds of wrong in other ways, but this was just advertising).

    Why is it that a woman’s complexion is so important when a man’s face can look like a moon crater, but have no consequence to either his self-esteem or his future success?

  13. Why is it that a woman’s complexion is so important when a man’s face can look like a moon crater, but have no consequence to either his self-esteem or his future success?

    a mans height is sort of the same way…

  14. a mans height is sort of the same way…

    Fair enough. But I still think there is a degree of difference in the practical effect of dark skin vs. short height. A short man may have some negative experiences associated with his height, but it doesn’t get the same amount of attention as a woman with dark skin, IMO. Partly, this is because the short man can’t really do anything to change his condition. But the dark-skinned woman is expected to alter her natural complexion in order to be successful.

    Or maybe I’ll just shut up now.

  15. Am I harming others when I want my sister to marry an educated man,

    Quit your strawman-building. My comment wasn’t aimed at you, so I don’t know why you’re taking needless offense. And anyway, if you “want your sister to marry” a certain type of person, you come across as a big-brother-knows-best paternalist. (Couldn’t you have just as easily said “I want to marry an educated person” instead? Why project it onto someone else?)

    If my earlier point wasn’t clear, I was saying that we all have prejudices: some of them for evolutionary reasons, some from social pressure, and some from personal idiosyncrasies or fetishes. We can choose (or not) to overcome each prejudice that we identify, with whatever priority we wish to assign, and some of them will take more effort than others. That’s what personal growth is all about — it’s about being less-than-ideal and striving to become better. Your question really was about what priority we should assign to one of these prejudices (skin color) vs others (education and wealth and stuff), and I have no particular preference — do what you’re comfortable with for yourself. You weren’t denying that they’re prejudices of some sort and I wasn’t saying that you were defending one of them by propping it up with others.

    What I do object to is the attitude exemplified by raj in comments 64, 133, 142 and 163, that since we will never be fully free of prejudice, therefore we shouldn’t even make the effort to confront one of them, and continue to wallow in the fetid pool of the biases that were handed down to us. Comment 163, had it been said 100 years back, could have been used to justify any of a host of prejudices, including some that we’ve collectively rejected today. If raj has a preference for pale skin, that’s his personal prerogative and it reflects on his attitudes than on anyone else, but he’s flat out wrong in projecting it as static, immutable, and above all “natural”, which is what his earlier comments have stated, and which is bull. If raj is incapable of getting over a skin color fixation, it’s nobody’s problem but his own.

  16. India is mainly a nation of dark skinned people. But they like fair skinned politicians, bollywood actors, daughter in laws.

    While India has predominance of light-skin people in Bollywood, US has predominance of blonde, blue-eyed people in Hollywood or on television, and neither is good. It is also well known how extensively media in US covers the missing reports of blonde-blue eye people compared to completely ignoring similar plights of people with different looks.

  17. Does sunscreen keep people from getting darker? I thought it just protected you from getting burned?

    So sad. But I always remember Tagore’s poem Krishnakali and think in some families it must be different:

    In the village they call her the dark girl but to me she is the flower Krishnakali On a cloudy day in a field I saw the dark girl’s dark gazelle-eyes. She had no covering on her head, her loose hair had fallen on her back.

    Dark? However dark she be,
    I have seen her dark gazelleeyes.

    Two black cows were lowing, as it grew dark under the heavy clouds. So with anxious, hurried steps, the dark girl came from her hut. Raising her eyebrows toward the sky, she listened a moment to the clouds’ rumble.

    Dark? However dark she be,
    I have seen her dark gazelle-eyes.

    A gust of the east wind rippled the rice plants. I was standing by a ridge, alone in the field. Whether or not she looked at me Is known only to us two.

    Dark? However dark she be,
    I have seen her dark gazelle-eyes.

    This how the Kohldark cloud rises in the northeast in Jaistha; the soft dark shadow descends on the Tamal grove in Asharh; and sudden delight floods the heart in the night of Sravan.

    Dark? However dark she be,
    I have seen her dark gazelle-eyes.

    To me she is the flower Krishnakali, whatever she may be called by others. In a field in Maynapara village I saw the dark girl’s dark gazelle-eyes. She did not cover her head, not having the time to feel embarrassed.

    Dark? However dark she be,
    I have seen her dark gazelle-eyes.
    -- Rabindranath Tagore
  18. so much angst over so little. Dark people want to be lighter. Pale people go to tanning salons. same thing.

  19. Thanks for that elaboration TTCUSM! Do you have the book? It would have been interesting to know what Marco Polo would have found had he went further inland. Btw, what does TTCUSM stand for?