The Fair and Lovely effect

Published: February 26, 2013

South Asian media puts pressure on South Asian women by idolising images of women with lighter skin tones. PHOTO: REUTERS

I recently saw Killing Us Softly 4, a documentary in the Killing Us Softly series by Jean Kilbourne, acclaimed author and filmmaker. Although the movie centers on the image of women in advertising, as submissive and obedient to their male counterparts, it brings to light the importance of race and the appropriation of the Caucasian look — something that has assimilated into Pakistan’s mainstream and popular culture.

Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad are bombarded with billboards advertising skin lightening techniques, creams and makeup that are designed to enhance the tone of your skin. Ironically, women of all socio-economic backgrounds in cities like New York and London, frequent tanning salons often.

The fact that women vie for an appearance that is not genetically theirs is interesting.

Pakistani women judge their daughters by the fairness of their skin; mothers-in-law measure up their prospective daughters-in-law against their own skin tones during their drawing room rendezvous and the typical Pakistani man desires a woman that is fair and has looks that are almost Caucasian.

When asked about the typical South Asian woman’s quest to lighten her skin, South Asian men have said that the more positive view on lighter skin is so deeply ingrained into the culture that it’s impossible to oversee it; rather it’s accepted by both male and females that this pressure is a part of society.

Products like Fair & Lovely have become household names because it is ingrained in the culture that to be more beautiful, you must have lighter skin. South Asian media puts pressure on South Asian women by idolising images of women with lighter skin tones and who have qualities that are more ‘Caucasian’ such as light eyes.

The fact that Pakistan doesn’t seem to appreciate the ‘tanned’ look that most of us naturally have might be attributed to the fact that our mindsets and social perspectives are still developing and changing.

Coco Chanel popularised tanning in a time when aristocracy was associated with fair skin, (Pakistan, anyone?) and darker skin was symbolic of poor workers and labourers.

We may not consider tanning to be as fashionable as our western counterparts do, the same way that pasty white skin in the west is considered unfashionable or passé.

We as Pakistanis may, in the future, accept that our tanned skin is fashionable, or acceptable in all generality, yet also understand that lowering our self-esteem because we can’t have what someone else does isn’t right.

So whether we’re heading to the tanning salon or the nearest cosmetics stand, perhaps it’s time we reconsider and begin valuing our diversity.

Read more by Mohammad here or follow him on Twitter @mziaadnan

Mohammad Adnan

Mohammad Adnan

The author is a student at the American School in London. He tweets @mziaadnan

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

  • Parvez

    This has been done, many a time now, YAWN…………..what you should have done was to make it funny, so as to make it interesting. Recommend

  • Shahzad Janjuah

    I think the way marketing is being done on such large scale alongwith projection through film and dramas, that we as a society in general and not particularly whether people live in west or east, it’s all the same, it’s different marketing startegy in different places, this have made us psychologically weak in controlling our desires, wishes and needs all together, we do things that we shouldn’t be doing it and want things that we don’t need. Recommend

  • daactar

    its mediterranean white we men are looking for…like the women in ishq mamnunRecommend

  • Stu

    Although this article is good, it is actually factually incorrect.

    Pakistanis are Caucasian,you need to understand that caucasian doesn’t necessarily mean ‘white’.

    The light-skin obsession isn’t just a South Asian thing, even if you visit Japan/Korea or Latin America you would notice that people there are also obsessed with ‘light-skin’.

    Most people around the world have a very Eurocentric standard of beauty, even Hollywood does, most of the ‘People of color’, casted in Hollywood are usually ‘lighter-skinned’.

    Tanning is only an obsession amongst ‘white’ people, famous artists like Beyonce and Alicia Keys bleach their skin.

    Colorism is a universal problem, not just in Pakistan, the only difference is that people in Pakistan are a bit blunt, whereas in the west people are usually polite., and mince their words.

  • mes

    stopped at the headline itself.

    women??? it’s not just women, even men do these stupidity.This really portrays of how much advanced we are or how much we will advance as a nation or society. The color of the skin is the gift of the nature, embrace it.Those who fell ashamed of their color, well,if there is anything that they are dreaming to achieve, they are wet dreams, when you cannot appreciate your own self, anything what you will do will never be of appreciation worthy.Recommend

  • Turbo Lover

    You see, we may be independent but our colonial mindset hasn’t gone yet. Here, whites are viewed as a superior race. Even most of the foriegn born desi crowd looks down on the Pakistani population thinking that they will score some points with the foreigners.Recommend

  • Huma Azhar

    Is not South Asian women, its South Asian SOCIETY that is obsessed with being white. Kindly change the title.Recommend

  • Stranger

    whats wrong in wanting fair skin. the westerners want dark skin. do you shout at them for being ‘racist’ . Its a person’s personal choice .Recommend

  • Duah

    Hello writer. Thanks for your narrative article. Firstly, why don’t you ask this question from your own family women, mothers or others and you will know the “real”answer very well. The search for a “gori bahu” is never ending drama in Pakistan. Even if one’s own daughter is duskier, families blatantly ridicule other people’s daughters, sisters by rejecting them on basis on color, height, sharfiness (by this I mean she must be a robotic dumbo to be controlled) etc etc. Need I go on…?! And blame is not solely on women’s feet but our whole society at large where such discriminations are accepted and practiced. Recommend

  • Clarus

    “the typical Pakistani man desires a woman that is fair and has looks that are almost Caucasian.”

    Man you are wrong, a typical Pakistani man desires something else.Recommend

  • Asim

    I live in Germany. And Girls really love with dark complexion, they like dark complexion boys. Most of the girls here used to go sun bath to burn skin into darkness. Not white but dark skin is more attracted in european society.Recommend

  • Stranger

    @Clarus :U have aroused my curiosity. what does he desire ?Recommend

  • aziz

    I think this is beautifully written and very relavent to Pakistani society Recommend

  • I am a Khan

    Dear Author…This issue has been broached many a times before, but no one seems to be able to come up with a solution. You can see the comment of @daactar, and most men are like him, wanting fair women. Not sure if it is only a south asian thing though. I have lived in Africa, and believe me the men there have an even greater craze for fair women. It is human nature to desire beauty, and most men see beauty as something which is rare. Hence African and South Asian Men desire fair complexion and light eyes, as it is rare among the South Asian and African Women. However European men desire tanned and dark haired ladies, because that is the rarity for them. Bottom line is that no one is satisfied with what God has given them. We should rather thank God for what we have and leave the fulfilment of our wishes when in paradise. So work in this world for obtaining paradise, and be happy with what Allah has given you- thats the best advice I can think of.Recommend

  • Pakistanian

    Chief, you should be concentrating on other things which are far more important in life than one’s complexion …….. coming from a man is a bit weird but I am sure there is nothing more appropriate you could write about!

    What a waste of time Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    As a general rule, people must always be encouraged to be satisfied with their natural appearances. And an obsession with changing the way you look is always unhealthy.

    That does not mean its ignorant to have certain cosmetic preferences.

    People can be trained to stop placing so much emphasis on a person’s physical appearance, but they cannot be trained to stop liking certain features like fair complexion, slim figure etc. That preference will remain, and there will always be some people (say, models and actors) who would be struggling to achieve these features.Recommend

  • Zaara

    Writer of this article, when telling his mother of his top requirements in his future bride, will put “fair-skinned” and “light-skinned” somewhere on the list. He WILL reject atleast one girl based on her dark skin. Recommend

  • Anon.

    This is just one of the many complexes we south asians are left to deal with post colonialism.

    It is quite true that the standard of beauty especially in Pakistan is fair skin and a caucasian appearance (light hair, coloured eyes), no matter how unremarkable their features might be while many striking women with honey tones or olive skin are left to suffer. Mostly, the standard of beauty in developed countries is the grace of being able to carry ones self and confidence in your own appearance regardless of what others think. Recommend

  • Interesting

    Kindly enlighten us =)Recommend

  • Nobody

    It’s true that there are still elements of a preference for light skin around the globe; however, many countries are progressing past it and they don’t base beauty on skin color alone anymore. It takes time for people to mature past something that has been so accepted for so long but it’s far stronger in some regions than others. Western nations, particularly multi-cultural ones are getting past color, slowly, and people will not deem you as beautiful simply if you are white skinned (or tanned among white people), and you’ll be hard pressed to find an average person here list ‘fair skin’ as a pre-req for a marriage partner (tall dark and handsome anyone?). I’m against skin whitening and tanning both..Why do things to make yourself something you’re not? Grooming yourself and looking your best is one thing, altering your genetic appearance is another. Confidence goes a long way folks. Light or dark, be confident in your own appearance and people will hesitate to criticize (or maybe they won’t but at least you won’t care anymore). Recommend

  • Maria

    Can’t ET come up with any new subjects? Moreover the article isn’t even factual. Racially, the majority of Pakistanis are in fact caucasian – even if that means darker skinned caucasians, they are caucasians racially. There is much variety in skin colours in Pakistan. We also know that the issue of dark skin complexion being frowned upon is more an issue with Urdu speaking migrants who came from India to Karachi since in India, skin colour is related to castism. In Pakistan, many poor people from native races are naturally fair skinned or lighter skinned than other South Asians. For example, Gilgitis, Chitralis, Pashtuns, North Punjabis, Baluchis and Kashmiris tend to be fairer skinned compared to other South Asians but this has nothing to do with caste or status. It is just a result of genes and geopgraphy. We all know that being dark or fair doesn’t make one better or worse. A blue eyed, blond haired North Pakistani is no better or worse than a dark skinned Makrani.Recommend

  • Ayesha Pervez

    I looked at the title of the blog and then at the writers picture and couldnt help but laugh … whats a young boy like you doing writing a blog on this topic? :P Anyway my two cents: Im wheatish colored and am very happy with my color, have never been subject to any kind of discrimination or rude remarks for it. Ive never, ever desired fair skin and feel it odd for anyone to desire it. My message to all fair skin worshippers: Be happy with what you have and make the most of it!Recommend

  • Brenda Conlan

    Mohammad – You make many excellent points. I remember being so taken aback when I visited a school in Senegal and the female students explained how aggressively skin lightening products are advertised in Africa. I guess I naively assumed it was acceptable to be black in Africa…apparently not. Sadly, both genders, as well as people of all nationalities and ages often feel insecure about how they look – we tend to compare our insides to other peoples’ outsides (which have likely been manipulated by photoshop). This is why I spend time trying to have a rich inner life and I use no beauty products other than soap and shampoo! Keep writing and thank you for your insights.Recommend

  • Rothschild

    Not only women, men are joining too.Recommend

  • Rakshinda

    Oh please! why is it such a big deal???
    The goras want to get tanned, Asians want to get fairer, lawyer wants to be a chef, chef wants to be a writer and so on…
    It is what people choose to be. So let it be. Stop making such a big deal out of something that is absolutely not debatable. Recommend

  • gp65

    “Why are South Asian women obsessed with being white?”
    Because sadly it has been drilled into their heads that marriage is the primary goal of every young girl and equally sadly SOuth Asian men for some reason have a strong preference for gori ladki. So until either of these things change, thei behavior of SOuth Asian women can be considered as rational as SOuth Asian men wanting to become doctor/engineer/MBA because that assures them of a decent job.Recommend

  • Anoop

    Great topic!

    I pity the people who don’t like the color of their own skin. I pity more who think less of someone because of the color of their skin.

    Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, people should be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin!Recommend

  • ABKhan

    To all of those who are blaming “Gori bahu” or marriage, please get a hint of reality. I know so many women doing stupid things and the justification for it is “Khod ko acha lagta hay aisa karna”Recommend

  • Salman

    Everyone like naturally bright and sharp things, Fair skin has more attraction then dark skin. It gives your looks extra advantage, you don’t look as bad even when you sweat, or have rough beard. People who like fair complexion are not crazy, rather people hating to accept that fair is better are crazy. And ET please stop this topic once and for all, it is getting bored now.Recommend

  • SpiderDude
  • Clarus

    @stranger @interesting.

    In either case Typical Pakistani man desires BMW but he only ends up with a White Mehran.

    Hope you can read between the lines.Recommend

  • afsheenjafry

    Q. “Why are South Asian women obsessed with being white?”
    A. Obsession is compulsion in our society and rationality is far from keep counting ;)Recommend

  • NP

    Because the Indian Subcontinent has repeatedly been invaded and ruled by fair skinned peoples from the Aryans to the Mughals to the British. Being fair skinned is a symbol of status and power. It’s the same reason people in the West like being tanned. It shows you can afford to vacation in warm climates.
    It has also been theorized that humans are hard wired to trust fair skinned people more than dark skinned people. This may come from early human history where it was easier to see fair skinned people in the dark and therefore feel less threatened by them.Recommend

  • doom

    Pakistanis are Caucasian?? Absolutely not. Not a scientist myself but I believe no scientist would consider us Caucasian: South Asians are a mixture of races of which caucasian is a part.

    And we are certainly not Caucasian in the colloquial sense…try telling someone you’re caucasian they’ll think you’re mad. And if you’ve ever filled a form where race/ethnicity was asked you certainly wouldn’t check “Caucasian”. There is a separate box called “South Asian”. Recommend

  • Sterry

    @Parvez: Double Yawn – maybe people have been watching too many Indian movies – notice how all the actresses have painted faces but dark bodies? Yes orientals, Arabs, Indians, Africans are all worried about being too dark. For those people who want a ghori bhau, maybe they should all go to Swat or Kohistan in Northern Pakistan to find a bride if all they want is fair skin and coloured eyes! End of problem for dark skinned mother!Recommend

  • GIndian

    Can you imagine African blacks or Australian aborigines with white skin? The modern definition of Beauty = Caucasian physical feature + fair skin. Genetically speaking ice age is responsible for whitening of human skin. This event happened in the last 10,000 years. Before that our ancestors were all dark. Blue/Green eyes originated 5,000 years ago near Russian Black sea area. We are all one species, originated 200,000 years ago.Recommend

  • Parcha

    Pakistani so bad want to associate with dark Indians. Better move to India n marry dark skin indians.Recommend

  • Anoop

    I earlier talked about pitying the soul who hated his own skin. This hating his own race and aligning oneself to completely different one is just another level!

    I am an Indian, brown skinned, who follows the culture of Sanatana Dharma, from the land of Gandhi,from the land of Buddha, from the land of Kamasutra and Yoga and spirituality. I cannot be prouder of myself and my heritage.

    I have nothing but pity who want to be Arabs or White or Caucasian or whatever.. The genius of the man who has come up with all this stuff(@Stu).Recommend

  • Usman

    It’s not the women, it’s men actually who are behind this, everyone want to marry with princess Diana, men create complexcity, there so much similar to this, so when women see this she also want to be like them and do all this I guess Recommend

  • Stu

    @Anoop Caucasian isn’t an ethnicity nor is it a skin tone, there only about 3-4 races

    1.Mongoloids.(East Asians and Amerindians)
    3.Caucasoids.(Europeans,Middle eastern and some South/Central Asians)
    4.(I can’t say it.)

    Anyways, most South indians are Australoids similar to the Aborigines of Australia, whereas most Pakistanis and North Indians are Caucasian

    @Doom If you look at the U.S census beurau’s form, nowhere does is there a ‘Caucasian box’, the boxes there are:

    1.White (If you have origins within the original people of Europe,North Africa or the middle east0.

    2.Black or African.

    3.Asian(East Asians including Indians/Pakistanis)

    4.Pacific Islander,Alaskan Native or Native American.

    Then there are two further options ‘Hispanic’ or ‘non-Hispanic’.

    You can deny the fact that most Pakistanis are Caucasian the same way you can deny evolution.Recommend

  • ioer

    Dark colored people can be good looking too. If people can drool over drake, beyonce and rihanna, then I guess the color is not the problem. There are more factors that determine beauty. I used think that only light skinned women can be beautiful, but that changed when I saw her. Recommend

  • Syme

    There are many shades of white (not the usual Asian white but European white) just like dark skin tone. Although they (Caucasian) discriminate very subtly but still they do. More often they relate it to the skin types. Recommend

  • http://[email protected] Burjor

    South Asia has been ruled by white people for over 200 years, we have learnt “mirror mirror on the wall who is the fairest of them all” from childhood, our values have been ingrained, by our parents, grandparents, great great grand parents, for 200 yrs. We remain yours sincerely!!!!.Recommend

  • ibn arastoo

    To the outsider it seems that the fair people of Europe love being “tanned”. The reality is that the fair get tanned because they can afford to get tanned. After getting the tan they return to their snow covered lands to become fair again. It is similar to exercising to burn fat and then returning to the table to replenish the body. Exercising would not be advisable to people who are suffering from dehydration or malnutrition. Just like gyms are not likely to be overflowing in the midst of drought stricken and famine stricken lands. Similarly people who are already dark cannot afford to tan. Another analogy is that of a rich man who rolls money into the form of a cigar and smokes the cigar. Why does the rich man engage in such ostentatious act of burning his own money? The rich can waste money because they can afford to burn money. When they burn their money (or their fair skin) they are saying “I have lots more of it”. It is counter intuitive (does not make sense) but it is impressive and it creates an “exclusive zone” (or an exclusive club) in which only a few may maintain membership. If a poor (or dark person) attempts to imitate these rich (or fair) people by burning their money (or their skin) they will only worsen their lot and suffer further isolation and prejudice.

    I have attempted to explain this phenomenon in detail here:

  • Omer

    Please leave the Urdu speaking people alone.
    But unlike your totally bigoted comment on dowry, I think this comment makes more sense. But still we dont want white Pathani girls as our wives.Recommend

  • Oz

    Well-written and very true. Recommend

  • stevenson

    @Burjor: Interesting to note that South Asia has always been ruled by lighter skinned races from Central Asians, Afghans, Iranians and finally the British. I t makes sense for people to equate dark skin with being ruled or inferior. Many parents would say, don’t spend too much time out in the sun or you’ll look like a “Kala Shah” . I think this is part of the same belief system.Recommend

  • Ashoka

    This lie is a common one. South Asians do not want to be white. White is a pale, Irish/English/Nordic person who does not see the sun. These same people tan often and yet they are not accused of wanting to be brown. South Asians do want to be fair. Fair is not white. Fair is a vague idea though. It is not pale and it is not tanned. It is chasing a beauty ideal.Recommend

  • justmythoughts

    Most indians i know can’t stand pale white Caucasian tone, they find it dull and ghostly. Many aspire to have pinkish golden hues . so the title of this article lacks specifics! Recommend

  • http://blogs indian south african

    it’s not about wanna be white !!….it’s about wanna be one or two shade lighter!!!…there is a one wanna be western European white, it’s dull and ghostly lolRecommend