The Fairness Complex

Colorism is one of the biggest problems plaguing the South Asian community. To combat it, we must show others how to let go of harsh, outdated values and create kinder ones.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Nearly every South Asian child is familiar with Fair and Lovely products. I remember first seeing the blush-pink ads on TV as a toddler. They depict a sad, dark-skinned woman who follows the advice of her work colleague, husband, or mother-in-law to use skin-lightening creams. Her skin experiences a sudden change from deep brown to pale white, and her smile blooms before your eyes. When she walks into work the next day, her boss compliments her, the men notice her, and the women ask how she pulled off such a feat. Sitting in front of the TV, I had a gut feeling that something was wrong.

At countless housewarming functions, a warm, welcoming auntie has grabbed me by the chin, turned my head from side to side, and asked my mother how I had become so dark. Was it the sun? Did I drink something darkly colored? My mother has always chuckled and shrugged it off. I wish I could express how many people have made this exchange with me and how long it has been going on, but because of the Fair and Lovely ads and these accusations from my family members, the memories are blurring together.

This experience has been passed down for generations of South Asian girls. My mother, cousins, and aunts were all accused of dark skin superstitions. Colorism is one of the largest problems plaguing South Asia and other communities because it ruins many opportunities for darker skinned citizens and can create unhealthy practices like skin bleaching. We must let go of harsh, outdated values and create kinder ones instead.

Superstitions from ancient social disparities created the backbones of colorism today. Darker skin was associated with lower castes in Hinduism and with Indians who worked in the fields, where their skin tanned under the sunlight. Later on, British colonialism established a system in which white people controlled every facet of life on the Indian subcontinent. People were disrespected, discriminated against, and essentially enslaved because of their skin color. This way of life taught that the fairer one’s skin, the more the British would respect them, selling the idea that white skin was equivalent to power. These values carry on today when parents teach their children to appreciate fair skin by using superstitions to support their claims, allowing colorism to be passed down through the generations.

Nowadays, film, television, and media across South Asia place heavy emphasis on light skin, making it harder for darker skinned people to find love, jobs, and opportunities. The Hindi film industry, commonly known as Bollywood, often uses film and music to communicate desired Indian ideals through their actors. Bollywood is notorious for choosing actors based on their connections and complexions, such as Alia Bhatt. Many other actresses reportedly use skin lightening creams and surgical operations to lighten their skin, even after reaching astronomical fame. For example, Priyanka Chopra Jonas has starred in commercials for skin cream. Celebrities who support skin bleaching and lightening have influenced their audiences for years, which is why approximately 61 percent of Indian women use skin lightening creams regularly. Young children idolizing these celebrities may form insecurities about their skin, further perpetuating the problem. The film industry teaches girls that fair skin is what society wants, making colorism a serious issue.

Colorism is also toxic for adults since many people look for those with fair skin for relationships. A 2012 survey from Jeevansathi, a popular Indian matrimonial website, found that 71 percent of women who use the site preferred men with fair skin while 65 to 70 percent of men on such sites claimed to have fair skin on their profile. Not only does this importance assigned to fair skin cause anxiety in prospective partners, but it also intimidates people already in relationships. Other times, families disapprove of dark-skinned partners, leading to many dark-skinned people being shunned and left behind. It is also difficult for people to find and keep jobs since being darker is associated with being “dirty” or “undesirable” in India.

Colorism has also led to an unsafe practice called skin bleaching, a medical procedure that lowers the concentration of melanin in a patient’s skin. While certain skin bleaching creams and injections are banned, they are still sold in international black markets where regulations are more relaxed and demand is skyrocketing. Countries like South Africa are hubs for these products. There are a multitude of potential side effects, such as mercury poisoning, dermatitis, and nephrotic syndrome, which is associated with damage to the blood vessels in the kidneys. Despite knowing these possible effects, people continue to bleach their skin, hoping to open up opportunities.

Fair skin bias follows the South Asian legacy across borders and seas. The struggle of having darker skin is scribbled between the lines of newspapers, scripts, and online messages, while the love for fair-skinned people is crystal clear in film, advertisements, fashion, and marriage. The best way to end this prejudice is to lead by example and show others how to let go of harsh, outdated values. Many of the efforts to reverse the fairness complex in countries like India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan have failed because they do not target the root cause: perception. From birth, we are taught to like fair skin based on what films, TV, and religion dictate. While we cannot target castes and religion since doing so would only fuel enmity and aggression, we need to educate people about the effects of colorism and implicitly change the perception of dark skin. One way we can do so is by hiring more dark-skinned, qualified people for jobs, especially in media, acting, and modeling. Eventually, people will look past skin tone and recognize others more for their intelligence and personality.