India: Who’s the fairest of them all?

Published: July 21, 2012

The ad that got the activists and social commentators’ up-in-arms was the one on vaginal fairness. DESIGN: ERUM SHAIKH

While I sat lazing one Sunday morning, I received a frantic phone call from a friend,

“My naani (maternal grandmother) thinks I will never be married!” she yelled.

“She says I am 28-years-old and dark!” she exclaimed.

Fairness was central to the lives of our older generations (I keep asking why that was, to no answers!). Even long before the British arrived in the subcontinent, the fairer among the Indians were well received in social settings and marriage markets. I remember my grandmother referring to her grandmother as being “as white as snow” (and hence being immensely beautiful). Therefore, the subcontinent has always been an easy target for big cosmetic firms as they can further an existing cultural bias and lure prospective customers into buying fairness products. Advertisements in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan compare little to the huge fairness market that India seems to posses.

There have been several commercials in India, over the decades, which have spoken about how young men desire women who are fair, and how fairness in women is a precondition to success. However, the ad that got the activists and social commentators’ up-in-arms was the one on vaginal fairness.

The ad hit the screens early March, but the shock and distress that it caused to bloggers and columnists alike is such that the matter is still kept alive on the blogosphere and twitter. Adding insult to injury, the ad-maker justified it in one of his columns for a popular weekly:

“The only reason I can offer for why people like fairness, is this: if you have two beautiful girls, one of them fair and the other dark, you see the fair girl’s features more clearly. This is because her complexion reflects more light.”

Why am I still not angry with him?

I understand the psychology of a capitalistic society which thrives on selling useless products to the masses. Such ads hold up a mirror to our society, the ad-man and the like are only feeding on the fodder that the society provides them with. Our responsibility as a generation that has inherited a deep-rooted bias, is to ensure that colour of the skin becomes nothing more than that – the colour of the skin, a biological factor that differs from race to race. The minute we link it with societal structures like caste and class, bifurcations of superiority and inferiority seep in.

While I was a student in New York, during our usual coffee table talks, a white American friend whispered into my ear,

“I hear men these days want women looking fair all over! I have stopped wearing a bikini to the beach!” she half-giggled.

This caught me by surprise as I had thought that people in the West wanted a sexy layer of tan on their bodies. After a little bit of searching around, I found, just like all capitalist-consumer products, virginal whiteness is also a borrowed concept. The US has had vaginal and anal whitening creams for a few years now, and researchers are now looking at their possible health risks.

Dr Sachin Dhawan, a well-known dermatologist and beauty consultant to many leading skin clinics in New Delhi and Gurgaon said,

We need to know the proper effect of such products that seem useless playing on fancy notions of beauty in the minds of women.

Dr Joyeeta Basu, from Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, New Delhi, said the long-term effects of whitening products are still unclear.

“Studies have not been conducted over many years to study if these have harmful effects,” she said, “so [they] cannot be condemned conclusively for any toxicity until proven.”

Considering vaginal whitening creams have just been introduced in India, I guess, we know what to expect next.

Read more by Raksha here, or follow her on Twitter @Raksha_Kumar

Raksha Kumar

Raksha Kumar

The author is a Bangalore based video journalist freelancing for the New York Times and the BBC. She graduated from the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University in May 2011 where she majored in TV news. She is a Fulbright Scholar and has worked in various media outlets in India. She tweets @Raksha_Kumar.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • BlackJack

    A rather distasteful angle that confuses the issue; I am reasonably sure that the target segment for whitening (if there is an actionable market in India for that – a country where men are ashamed to even ask for condoms at the store, I can just imagine the plight of a girl who wants to buy this ridiculous product) is different from ordinary whitening creams, which are targeted at teenage girls, although actual usage is spread across multiple demographic segments including men. There has been an in-built bias for thousands of years starting from the Indo-Aryan migration wherein color of skin was assumed to be correlated to racial purity which eventually resulted in higher caste status; however, current genetic tests show that the mitochondrial difference between most Indians (high or low caste) is marginal and thus disproves these theories, and hopefully with time these antiquated concepts of beauty will also disappear. However, as of today, if your friend is 28 and dark, it seems highly unlikely that her less-than-attractive prospects would have dawned on her without warning in the manner that you describe (unless incredibly stupid can also be added to the feature list). Recommend

  • Nobody

    Vagina lightening products??? Sickkk, what will people think of next. Last time I checked, the color of ones genitalia had no impact on it’s functionality. More to the point, I wish with a flick of my wand I could rid the world of this obsession with skin tone, dark medium light black brown white yellow red purple, why does it matter??? Beauty’s from within anyway, if you’ve got a black heart, doesn’t matter how white your skin is. Cheers! Recommend

  • Gullible Nomore

    Uh oh! An atomic religious explosion will go off in the collective minds of religious zealots the minute they’ll read the word ‘vaginal’. Their moral high horse rides will start in 3…2…1…Recommend

  • Ahmedullah

    Wait a minute!! Can you produce any evidence that fairness was considered beautiful before the Brits came? When the Brits came, they of course created all sorts of theories: aryan invasion theory, using the word varna incorrectly to put themselves on higher ground. These are pretty much debunked now with modern science. All evidence is that ancient Indians considered dark skin to be more beautiful. That is why handsomest characters in the Mahabharata are dark – krishna is dark, Arjuna is dark, etc. This of course makes sense. when you have one of the most advanced civilizations in the planet, you tend to think you are the epitome of beauty. It is a natural human delusion. Just like the roman’s thought that a hooked roman nose was gods gift to humans at the height of their power and sculpted everything in that image. Why would a much longer and at least as distinguished indian civilization think they themselves define beauty?Recommend

  • mr. righty rightist

    I my opinion, all so called fairness products should be banned.

    Not only are they fake, they are unnecessary.

    I wonder if anyone has ever become fair by using these products! Also, to have products that increases fairness is to say that darker complexion is bad.

    But then, what’s the use of writing such a blog for Pakistanis. of all the people in the world, Pakistanis are the worse racists. Worse than Indians.

    Isn’t 1971 a result of also racism? Wasn’t it about fair beef eating Martial race against dark rice eating inferior race?Recommend

  • Pakistani Agnostic

    Malvaris are really the most darkest people outside Africa. You can easily spot them walking in Dubai malls with the most outrageous of outfits and physique Recommend

  • Sane

    What lousy subject? Is this a problem of a common person?! This is self induced perception beyond reality.Recommend

  • manish

    well, atleast about that particular part of body, i just do not get it, what’s in colour…..
    afterall it’s KARMABHUMI…not SUAVARNBHUMI.Recommend

  • manish

    @ RAKSHA:
    what is your personal preference?
    @ ET:
    since most of you moderators are ladies, what do you think about the product……Recommend

  • Noor Muhammad

    Express Tribune is increasingly looking like “Evening Special” newspaper, with “mirch” and “masala”, that too imported. Sigh!!Recommend

  • @BlackJack:
    Aryan Invasion theory is incorrect.
    Watch the video where Prof. Nicholas Kazanas, Director, IMILOS Meleton Cultural Institute, Greece, delivereg a lecture on ‘The Collapse of Aryan Invasion Theory and the prevalence of Indigenism’ at a special lecture organised by Vivekananda study circle, IIT-Madras on 26th February 2011.
    I think Lord Krishna used to complain his mother about him being Dark & Radha being fair..Check out the song yashomati maiya se bole nandlala..
    The problem is Indians are of either Dark, semi-dark or fair complexioned & this psychology of fair skin getting a fair deal is inherited & these fairness cream companies are taking advantage of this mindset.Recommend

  • Sane

    Considering vaginal whitening creams have just been introduced in India, I guess, we know what to expect next.

    What to expect next is not a riddle. At least bottom of all Indians shall be white.Recommend

  • antony

    I generally feel dark over there is not beautiful at all .However when passion takes over you accept what it is ! .Recommend

  • manish

    as if all you pakistanis are white englishmen incarnate….Recommend

  • manish

    i love the moderator in this shift….she is letting even the most cheesy comments pass through…
    what are your shift timings mam….on most of the days…Recommend

  • Ali S

    I’d take a desi girl with a healthy tanned brown skin over a ghastly white one any day of the wake. And isn’t it ironic how Caucasians are now are trying to achieve our skin tone artificially!Recommend

  • reality check

    ohk so to the ladies even if you are white as snow ,men would still cheat on you ,break your heart and trash you ,physical attraction doesnt last longer, and trust me a fairer skin tone would not prevent any of these things, been there, experienced that.
    So stop this obssession with getting fairer to get a man , get your own lives straightened up where by a man should not be the cause of your happiness or sadness!Recommend

  • Sexton Blake

    I have very light skin, but consider that South Asian women are absolutely gorgeous. Love their looks, dress sense, and personalities. I have never met any South Asian women who did not compare favourably with Western women. Western women can be great also, but we should not worry about the colour of skin?
    P.S. Although cooking is not the most important asset I require in a partner most South Asian women are excellent cooks, which is a plus. Recommend

  • Parvez

    If the are actually marketing and selling this stuff and people are buying it…………..then more power to them. This was a hilarious read.Recommend

  • Trojan

    I love Dusky complexioned women! Give me Bipasha and Malika over Katrina and Kareena any day.Recommend

  • The Reader

    Some people may not find this topic relevant but it is true that dark skin and tanned complexion make life hell for a lot of women. I have written an article on how my dark complexion made my life problematic and how long it took me to get out of the deeply seeded inferiority complex. For anyone who is interested ==>

  • BlackJack

    This is ridiculous – in my comment when I said vaginal/ anal whitening you have removed those words as offensive which make my entire comment meaningless (however, I find them in many comments since then, so you seem to have had a change of heart); pls delete my entire comment or restore the original, and pls try and edit content after understanding what is written.Recommend

  • Sane

    I love Dusky complexioned women! Give me Bipasha and Malika over Katrina and Kareena any day.

    OK. Take them. Aren’t you have any interest in Vidia Balan. Take her too…..complimentary. Now, tell more………Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Fair point. But the Mahabharata was one of the latest epics written over a period of 700 years extending to CE – since it was smriti, and not sruti, it would have also been subject to changes over time. As I remember, the Rig Veda talks of the hotris as people with fair hair and light-colored eyes, and repeatedly describing Indra as fair-complexioned (he was a much more important God in Vedic times) and speaks of the Dasyus as dark/ black skinned people whom Indra vanquishes – black skin is spoken of disparagingly in this text and fair skin is generally shown a marked preference. The Rig Veda is probably at the right time to chronicle any admixing of cultures and the racial differences that existed. This does not prove the AIT but speaks of the preference for fair complexion being far more deep seated than in British times.
    @[email protected]:
    If you read my post, I have not mentioned AIT but Indo-Aryan migration which is related to the Indo-Iranian language group within the broad Proto-Indio-European language families – the linkages in linguistics among these groups is fairly well-recognized. I am aware that there are multiple theories and no single one has managed to rule out all the others – typically those who speak against migration refuse to countenance the linguistic similarities by claiming that archaeological and migratory evidence does not support it – they will generally pick up points that do not fit and ignore the ones that do (I don’t know which is right). Nevertheless, I will listen to your video too.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    @[email protected]:
    Ok I have now listened to the video; while I humbly agree that he knows much more than I do on this subject, I think he has not handled the questions well at all and he does not address several points:
    1. His hypthosis is based on the argument that the Rig Veda is much older than current Western estimates (highly possible) and that there was an Aryan Invasion – only that it was from India outward. This is not supported by sevaral modern linguistic studies which shows that Indo-Iranian is only one branch of the Proto-Indo-European languages.
    2. He says that the Aryans existed before the Harappa-Mohenjodaro civilization but has not satisfactory explanation on why they spoke a different language and had an urban culture vs the Aryan pastoral one. Archaeologically it shows that there was a completely different culture between Harappan and Aryan groups although they both occupied the Sapta-Sindhu region – this is highly unlikely.
    3. He speaks of no horse remains being found which should support the fact that there was no migration inwards. However, the word ‘asva’ (horse) is mentioned 250 times in the Rig Veda which shows a high degree of familiarity with the animal.
    4. He completely skirts the Dravidian issue – if there was an outward migration of Aryans from Sapta-Sindhu that resulted in such a close similarity between Sanskrit and Germanic/ Latin/ Slavic languages, then why is the Dravidian language group so different except for some loan words (they lived quite nearby including in Harappa/ Mohenjodaro). It also does not cover the differences between Proto-Sanskrit and current Sanskrit which has borrowed ligatures and other unique elements from Dravidian indicating that the exposure happened at a later date.

    Now, I don’t have the answers, that would be highly presumptuous – but this is a subject of deep interest to me and I have done my share of reading as a layman. And so to assume that the migration theory is debunked on the basis of this video is also not possible.Recommend

  • Raw is War

    This is the case in the whole world. Even in USA, black women are the most discriminated in the marriage business. 30% of them never get proper partners. Even black males go for white women- in greater proportions.

    I guess the situation is not much different in Pakistan either.Recommend

  • Ayesha

    I read an article about how Black women in the USA are the least desirable and most likely to remain single. It was very sad. Recommend

  • RAW is raw

    Your comment about whats next should be awarded for best comment of the year. Recommend

  • @BlackJack:
    Thanks for the reply. yeah i got it wrong.You were not speaking of AIT.
    I really found the video too exhaustive,could not understand many things,did not watch it completely.thanks for the summary.:)
    I have stayed in Chennai,for many years & found that my Tamil friends still believe in AIT.I found it strange.Recommend

  • NO JOY

    add Janmabhumi to that list, on a differen note i am seriously contemplating suing all these fairness creams with all the possible bizarre names,for they have not changed my skin tone one bit,irrespective of my tonnes and tonnes of applying them.Recommend

  • Ahmedullah

    A lesson scientist have learned in the past century is that linguistic affinity has nothing to do with ethnic affinity. Look, I am speaking english with you and my kids don’t know a word of any indo pak language. Yet I have no English blood in me. Thus, the so called aryan invasion is nothing but a migration of language and not much of a migration of people. And there is good reason to believe the original indo European speakers were brown rather than white. Finally, I have read the Vedas in its original myself and I don’t find any mention of superior skin colors. Neither do most sanskritists I know.Recommend

  • sasha

    Why is there such an uproar when girls want to be fair? Why not attack the other stereotypes of beauty? Lots of women want to be tall and be thin… there’s nothing wrong with that, so why can’t they want to be fair and have big boobs too?Recommend

  • Nothing

    @ET mods…. Just read my post, and I definitely had a line in their about the male genitalia and how bleaching cream would be next for them (joke, ha ha) yet you’ve conveniently censored that part…. so you’re telling me the word vagina is ok to say (as many others have on here) but penis is a bad word? Do explain please. I’m all ears. Recommend

  • BlackJack

    I am in broad agreement with your post; another example that supports your point are the Arabic speaking nations and how many of them are actually ethnic Arabs (and not Berbers/ Moors); however, there was a cultural migration of thought and possibly a number of people who managed to superimpose their ideas on the native culture/ language – which could have happened in the case of Sanskrit as well (you would not be writing in English if you had no exposure to the language, which was imposed as a means of communication by a minority of powerful individuals – of course, if your kids are in a foreign country, the rest of the discussion is moot). Whether the migrants were brown (and how brown) is possibly conjecture. I have read the Vedas, but not studied them, so my knowledge is not likely to be as good/ deep as yours; I do recall reading of Indra being fair-skinned, but I have read other interpretations where it can also be translated into pure and radiant, and do not know of a single authoritative source; similarly in the case of the Dasyus (like the slaying of Vritra), there are descriptions but it is difficult to tell if there is a racial aspect to the narrative. Good discussing this with you, have admired your posts.Recommend

  • fia

    @Blackjack, *However, as of today, if your friend is 28 and dark, it seems highly unlikely that her less-than-attractive prospects would have dawned on her without warning in the manner that you describe (unless incredibly stupid can also be added to the feature list).

    good one!
    The simple fact of the matter is that the concept of ‘all men are created equal’ is fundamentally flawed. God has created differences and people with fairer skin or beauty have advantages of higher self image, greater benefits in society and the world. However, this is the same as the advantages of nature given to people who are born into rich households, higher class of society, have greater intellect, greater charm, better dressing sense, greater confidence, artistic abilities, athletic prowess, etc etc
    There are differences in nature and rather than crib about emphasis on beauty, should utilize and concentrate on your own unique talents and abilities and make the most of them. Recommend

  • x

    Genetically I have fair skin, good height and features, I can honestly say while looks may be an advantage for me, I know of many who are much prettier and it is ultimately the personality, the conversation and the intellect which can make a person attractive.
    Ultimately it depends on individual priorities. People who lack personality will always have shallow criteria.
    I was with extremely good looking boy a few years ago, who was not intelligent or well read or interesting or witty or secure in himself or in any way having an attractive personality. needless to say, the relationship fizzled out and I look back on it as a youthful mistake , during an age when most people are too foolish to look beyond the surface.
    Now I would need someone with whom I have mental compatibility rather than physical attraction which is hollow and temporary. Recommend

  • ParaShankara


    I am interested in further exploring some of your thoughts. As they would be of little interest to the general ET readership here, would you be kind enough to share them with me privately at [email protected]

    Many thanks in advance.Recommend

  • Women United Against Cheating

    @reality check: Do women also cheat on their men?
    Only women can stop this cheating business. Woman should not sleep with some one who is married.
    Women United Against Cheating. Can start registering all married men and non-Married men. Any woman before intimate with a man can call a toll free phone and get all the information on any man

    By the way I am a manRecommend

  • Tariq

    wow that’s new for me.. i guess demand creates supply. this would have definitely involved lot of surveys, R&D and manufacturing, and no company is stupid enough to invest millions in such product.

    i think Bollywood can change this fairer skin obsession among indian men. They should start introducing the real life dusky indian girls in the lead roles, instead of made up beauties(which may be less the 5 percent of their entire population). This will help i guess, because when a guy comes out of cinema and look at every second or third girl, they are not willing to lower their standard for beauty what he just set after watching katrina & kareena. Recommend

  • Nobody

    @Women United Against Cheating:
    Sorry to jump into your conversation, but I’m confused. How is this relevant to the post and more to the point, how is it a woman’s responsibility to stop cheating? The woman (women) who slept with someone else’s man also involved a man who is responsible for his own actions and equally to blame. It’s every individual’s duty to remain faithful, man or woman. Only the weak blame others for their own wrongdoing. Recommend

  • amjad

    I think that the skin colour obsession is more pronounced in India than in Pakistan. Whereas Indian TV and movies show abnormally fair Indians ( by Indian standards), Pakistani TV and media often show dark skinned Pakistani actresses and models. This is not surprising since the majority of the actresses and models come from Karachi and the Indian migrants there are darker than native Pakistani races. For example Maria Wasti is a dark skinned actress who is very successful in Pakistani media.Recommend

  • Sane

    @RAW is war

  • Sexton Blake

    Dear fia, Blackjack and others,
    This has become an interesting topic with psychological overtones. Silly me thought this was all to do with whether females with a non-white skin were as attractive as women with white skin. I must admit the concept of inspecting the colour of a woman’s private parts had me a little baffled initially, and I have to confess that I have not requested an inspection in those areas when attempting to determine if I should require the company of a female. Obviously the concept of male/female private parts is related to the ubiquitous nature of the human genome, and I have always taken natures design of the female form as a given without pondering whether the external reproductive organs of one woman were as attractive as another. To make the matter really complex the readers may have noticed that the word “Bifurcation” was used. I do not intend to move into Bifurcation Theory, differential equations, Topologically Equivalent Systems, or the Kupka-Smale Theorem., because I do not really understand them enough to get a clear point across, which is probably why Ms. Raksha Kumer only briefly covered Bifurcation.
    Moving on, my brief studies of psychology do indicate that the combination of good looks in a women together with wealth do give some advantages to their progeny. Taken simplistically it means that a beautiful woman attracts a wealthy man, the children grow up in a healthy environment and are given a good education. However, the situation is a little more complex. For example, it was always thought the black Americans had a low I.Q. when compared to whites. However, this was blown out of the water when a scientific investigation determined that blacks were living in a different environment from whites, and when they were asked the right questions their I.Q.s moved into the normal region. I think you will find a similar situation in South Asia. When moving through the slums of India many of the females appear to be very elegant and attractive. I am reasonably certain they have an I.Q to match. Moving up the ladder a notch, I think you will find that Indian/Pakistan females have nothing to fear from their Western counterparts. I cannot think why they would want to bleach various parts of their anatomy. They usually have great dark hair. Why peroxide it? To my mind it would look ridiculous. To finish off, India has a population well in excess of one billion which is rapidly rising. Indian women, with their darker skins must be doing something right. Recommend

  • Intelektual

    If there is a demand there is a supply it never goes the other way round atlest not for a long term basis .. Its not the corporations fault to state the obvious and supply what is demanded. Their fault is lying and exagerrating !!
    Also its a scientific fact how we c the world and how we crave beauty as humans you cant change that !! more the light is reflected in monotone or coupled with shades of pink off a skin the beautifull its going to look unless and until there is a strong social imperitive against it, its a fact !
    Providing these morally and politically correct theoratical explanations are only building a false hope just like the fairness creme adds build up !! The fact is 95% of the populace anywhere is gonna Judge u based on ur looks and their standards of beauty what you need to do is accept who u are and build urslf strongly with that self awarness and hope to find a good human being pertaining to 5% of the populace…. Recommend

  • Jaydeep

    The aryan migration theory has no scientific support. There is no genetic support for any migration in India anywhere close to 1500 BC. Archaeologists unanimously reject any migration visible in the Harappan civilization. And it is practically impossible that a miniscule no. of people entered Indian subcontinent in the midst of a very populous & advanced civilization and left no genetic or archaeological trace yet dominated the original people in such a way as to totally obliterate any trace of their language. River names are the least likely to change & yet all river names in the northern half of India are derived from Indo-aryan names. How is that ? Aryan migration theory is just wishful thinking. If you believe linguistic study proves it, even there you are wrong. Read ‘Rigveda and Avesta – The final evidence’. You will know. Firstly, Sanskrit is not the mother of all Indo-European languages but nor is it the mother of all Indo-aryan languages. There are many words in the old Prakrit languages which are not derived from Sanskrit yet they have etymologies in other Indo-European languages. There are kentum languages like Bangani & Burushaski which are not derived from Vedic Sanskrit but have affinities with other Indo-European languages. Moreover the Rigveda’s earliest books describe eastern India and in only the latest portion there is knowledge of western lands like Afghanistan where Iranians dwelt originally. The Iranain language is acknowledged to be much different from Vedic Sanskrit and their similarities are due to a long period of common co-existence and due to common inheritance from Indo-European. Unlike Iranian, Vedic Sanskrit is the most well-preserved of all indo-European languages. This is also a factor against its migration into India. Also, there is no Indo-European language except Vedic where the entire known Indo-European mythology is preserved.Recommend

  • Nicholas Sharaf

    I don’t really understand the point of publicizing Indian Society on a predominantly Pakistani forum. Recommend

  • kh

    I like fair skinned women and I really don’t know why anybody else should have any problem with that.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Dude – relax. If you read my posts, I have stated my points with far less certainty than you have, and most of the points you seem to refute so emotionally were not in my post at all. Let’s drop it at that. Whew!Recommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    More than men, saasu maas are obsessed with getting a chaand si bahu for their sons so that the projeny is also beautiful. Imagine the saas-to-be coming for a rishta and saying “zara larki ko inspection ke liye bhej dein”. Pathetic!!!Recommend

  • Ammarttitude

    Well if you’re an indian, you WON’T be fair.. :)Recommend

  • Nobody

    I like fair skinned men as well, but I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue lies with too many south asian’s considering dark skinned people “ugly” or unmarriageable. Personal preference of each individual is and should still be accepted. Recommend

  • Vikram

    Some one deleted my comments, I wonder why? Did ET add a new member to manage comments? I think same person went thru my other blogs and deleted more comments.Recommend

  • s

    Why whats wrong with that.Its a question of personal choice. When we have suntan products to make us look darker ( or bronzer) , why not use products to look a few shades lighter. We use lipstick to have bright lips so why not fairness products for other parts of anatomy?Recommend

  • s

    Whats wrong with this. Do we complain when fair people use suntan lotions to look a shade darker? We use lipsticks to brighten up our lips so why not fairness creams to brighten up (unmentionable ) parts of our anatomy ?Recommend

  • atif

    The average Indian is as ugly as hell. The only solution to their scourge is genetic modification.Recommend