Skin colour, Indian politicians, and an age-old prejudice

Published: March 18, 2015

When extreme procedures, such as changing the shape of your body, hair transplants, liposuction, skin tightening and peeling can be done, why are we so touchy when it comes to skin colouring?

A few days back, an Indian politician passed a remark about South Indian women being dark.

“Here people are awed by fair skin. Matrimonial ads also ask for fair skinned brides.”

He further added,

“In the entire country, there are more saanvle (dark-skinned) men. The women of South are beautiful, their bodies… their skin… We don’t see it here.”

Perhaps he said it as a joke or perhaps he spoke carelessly without realising. Whatever the case may be, it led to a predictable barrage of reactions from foreseeable corners; feminists, anti-racists, anti-fair skin activists and the anti-sexists.

However, I felt this hype and attention was unwarranted. Truth be told, he never insinuated that dark meant ugly. Let me clarify, I am not defending the remarks made by this individual. I am merely listing the salient arguments from all angles on the age-old debate between fair and dark-skinned individuals.

Starting from the Rig Vedic period, people have prayed for health, cattle, war loot, numerous wives, children and clear white skin. Umpteen recipes are mentioned in the ancient texts for long and lustrous hair, sparkling teeth, jet black eyes, and above all, fair skin. Innumerable mantras and slokas are written and chanted when one is born with clear and fair skin.

Many people attribute skin colour to our ancient caste system. Over a period of time, at least in the North, the upper-most caste of priests came to be associated with fair skin. Brown-skinned people were co-related to meagre jobs, such as cleaning, skinning animals and tannery.

On the contrary, in a few remote villages of South India, a dark girl is preferred for marriage because it is believed that she will not hesitate to go out in the fields, sweat under the scorching sun while tending to cattle without worrying about getting tanned. A fair-skinned girl is generally understood to be cocooned at home and is not fancied on the marriage market.

I for one disagree with colour-based discrimination. Inhabitants of a certain region carry a certain skin tone. Individuals from areas further away from the tropical region, such as individuals from the north, are fairer in comparison to their southern counterparts. Fair and dark-skinned individuals exist in all castes and religions. Therefore, skin colour should not even be an issue. It is just a geographical marker.

But mankind, by nature, is never content with what it has.

In the West, truckloads are spent on bronzing and tanning treatments. Worldwide, girls with wavy hair go for expensive hair straightening treatments. Women with straight, limply hair want extra volume and waves, hence they spend a lot on shampoos that increase their volume. Salons and spas are filled with women, as well as men, wanting to change or enhance their appearances, such as shaping their eyebrows or getting a double chin reduction.

On top of all this, there has been a massive boom in the cosmetology sector. Plastic surgeons are booked to the hilt with clients wanting to restructure their cheeks or other bone structures. Today, it has become a common place practice to opt for a toe or rib removal – the procedure is as long as office lunch hours – just to fit into the latest Jimmy Choo pair of shoes or a Versace gown. Tattooing and piercing are just some of the unusual things people do to enhance their looks.

Since time immemorial, people are known to have resorted to extremes to get the ‘perfect body.’ The Chinese system of foot binding is believed to develop strong vaginal muscles due to the small steps they take, which enhances the carnal pleasure of a newly married couple. Thus, small feet gradually began being identified with attractiveness.

Today, the building of the ruptured hymen, which could be due to a sports injury as well, is a common procedure. Creams for vaginal shrinking and whitening are available in many super markets.

However, all these aspects come with their own brand of double standards.

If a girl uses recipes for whitening her skin, provided to her by her grandmother, like turmeric or saffron, only then will she be termed an old-fashioned girl. If she buys the same product produced by a multinational company, she is bombarded with the usual salacious comments associated with racism, vanity and narcissism.

My mother was worried about my marriage prospects since I was brown skinned. I confess that I too used to apply Fair and Lovely in my high school days. But I must have looked like an awkward multi-coloured parrot with a fair face and dark hands and knees. I realised my folly and stopped soon after. Eventually, I did get married to someone who incidentally is several shades lighter than me. I suppose he preferred my personality over my skin colour.

Traditionally, fair skin has been associated with purity, innocence, vulnerability and modesty, whereas dark skin has been associated with virility, danger and machismo. Little wonder that women want tall, dark and handsome husbands and men want fair and dainty maidens as wives.

A person should be free to decide how he or she wishes to look like. Majority, if not all, of the people favouring for fairness creams are educated. The demand is so much that now fairness creams for men have also started doing well.

When extreme procedures, such as changing the shape of your body, hair transplants, liposuction, skin tightening and peeling can be done, why are we so touchy when it comes to skin “colouring”?

Supriya Arcot

Supriya Arcot

She works for a software house and is a mother of eight-year-old twins.

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

  • Nandita.

    Appreciate your honesty, Supriya. Takes guts to admit stuff that many women will want to hide.Recommend

  • Ali Tirmizi

    I support freedom for South Indians, they’re a great people with advanced civilization compared to racist self-hating central asian wannabe Hindi-speaking North Indians who are obsessed with Pakistan.

    We have nothing against other Indians, only the cowbelt ones who rule India, we support the freedom for Dravida Nadu, Northeast India, Khaalistan and western IndiaRecommend

  • Milind A

    “Perhaps he said it as a joke or perhaps he spoke carelessly without realising.”

    “Truth be told, he never insinuated that dark meant ugly. ‘

    Madam you seem to be on shaky grounds when I read your above two statements. Either Sharad Yadav disparagingly referred to dark skin (which he did no) or he appreciated the fact that dark can be beautiful.
    Its common sense that people from the South of India are dark in skin tone. In fact looking at the misogynistic history of Sharad Yadav, he seems to be doing well – he appreciated the beauty of a dark skin, which most of us fixated with ‘gori chamdi’ miss.
    Unfortunately we are turning into a nation trying to create controversies out of non-issues.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    Err, the ‘dark’ in tall, dark and handsome refers to dark hair, NOT dark skin.Recommend

  • ab1990

    “Many people attribute skin colour to our ancient caste system” What a lie and utter rubbish!!

    Provide proof for this claim and then type articles with senseRecommend

  • Sara

    White humans are more beautiful, intelligent, hard working and creative as compared to colored and black humans. Aesthetically, Fair skin is more pleasant as compared to dark skin.Recommend

  • Parvez

    A tricky subject but pragmatically handled.
    The cosmetic industry’s monetary clout to mold public opinion in order to sell its products come across as unsavoury…..but the choice to fiddle with ones complexion must be left upto the individual..
    On this subject, I think Nandita Das is presently in Pakistan and she is not fair complexioned…..but Ooooff, you’d have a hard time finding a more attractive lady.
    Plato or some guy was right…… ‘ Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder ‘.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    No there r no statistics or proof. Its just a usual stereotype / understanding. Recommend

  • ab1990

    I am from higher caste and my skin colour is near to dark brown. Our house servants who are from lower castes look fairer and more whiter than me.

    It is a pity that a lot of of people in our country like you have a bad habit of stereotyping/understanding.

    There are a ton of upper caste people all over india like me who have dark and very dark skin. My own relatives and family members are proof of my claim.

    Even I am from hyderabad. It is a big shame that you havent travelled a lot but I have.Recommend

  • ab1990

    true that. Not only that many white and fair men and women belonging to other races of the world have perfect geometrical face features which colored and black skin people seriously lack.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Same pinch to the first sentence.Recommend

  • islooboy

    Its just bad fashion sense and using mercury(bleach) on their skin that makes bronze skin girls look weirdRecommend

  • islooboy

    Am i the only fair guy who has a thing for bronze girls?Recommend

  • tungi

    i ve never heard and aunty go crazy abt a kaala dude hereRecommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    The last sentence is true ( to a large extent) of course , nothing wrong accepting that .Recommend

  • wb

    What a cowardly, unoriginal, bland piece full of googled trivia.

    Such drivel is not a blog ET. Guess, we can’t expect better from you.Recommend

  • Parvez


  • Nandita.

    YesssSsssssss. Dark hair ie black, dark brown etc. It does not refer to dark coloured skin. Recommend

  • selfiephobia

    It would be the best day of your life, wouldn’t it?
    dream on, India is one and it will remain united…we take pride in our country for being so diverse and diversity is what is holding the country together.
    Whether one is from Assam, Tamil Nadu or Punjab, we are one.
    Just look at your country…you wanted Pakistan for Muslims. Now what have you got…Muslims fighting Muslims.
    Sorry dude but we understand that once you start dividing people, the division never ends until you are the only one left!Recommend

  • RSK

    It is ok for the author to present opinions as opinions. But it is *not* ok for the author to present opinions as facts. This article is full of poorly researched stereotypes, some are so bizarre that I must say that the author never even made an attempt.

    There is no evidence of skin whitening schemes in Rig Vedic times. In fact, many of the canonical people who were considered handsome/beautiful ideals in Indian history were dark colored. For instance, Krishna (the name even means black and he is considered the standard for male beauty), Draupadi (famously dark colored and described as the standard for feminine beauty), Vyasa (famously dark considered intelligent), Arjuna (also dark skinned), etc.

    If you think about it for a second, it shouldn’t be surprising. Ancient India was a powerful country, being one of the largest civilizations in the world for thousands of years.No dominant people in the history of humanity have ever thought of themselves to be ugly. Powerful people always consider themselves beautiful, and India was no exception. All this skin lightening stuff is a result of colonialism and slavery.

    I would also dispute you on relating caste to color. There is no evidence except the name varna which can take a number of meanings in Sanskrit including color (it is also used as a synonym for temperament, vocation, and many others). But that is a longer story. I will just mention that there is now hard genetic evidence that the subcontinental people had a loose definition of caste (more like a worker’s guild) and were not endogamous till it hardened in the medieval era as a result of invasions.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    There are many recipes in many texts ( including KS ) to advance / enhance one’s physical beauty – I mean things like removing pigmentation/ wrinkles / dark marks on the body / erasing injury marks . All this does not necessarily / compulsorily mean fair skin but ( lets say ) a clearer skin . U might be right about colonialism leading us to belive that fair skin is pretty . In my blog I have questioned if this is as wrong and immoral as think compared to other body shaping procedures.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Precisely what I said and meant. ” I felt that this much hype was unwarranted for ” .Recommend

  • Critical

    I’m a South indian who come from the state which opposed Hindi as official language and even protested all over the streets in 1960 and I tell you to MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS ……

    Yes,we did pull off a bluff called Dravida Nadu just to bring Nehru back into senses when he tried to impose Hindi on us but never have we ever thought of leaving India….

    Shiv Ayyadurai,APJ Abdul Salam,M.S.Swaminathan,C.V Raman,Chandrasekhar,Kasturirangan,Srinivasa Ramanujam,Chidambaram have contributed so much to our indian scientific community and we are as much Indians as anyone….

    Sitting in paki land and reading some articles written by Zaid Hamid doesnt make u a scholar about tamilian’s aspiration

    தமிழன் என்று சொல்லடா தலை நிமிர்ந்து நில்லடா.Recommend

  • Ravi

    Lord Krishna was dark skin.Recommend

  • Adpran

    Arjuna is dark skinned?. Hey, I never heard about it before!.

    I am not Indian. I am Indonesian from Javanese ethnic. But I am very familiar with Mahabharata because this is part of my culture. Javanese was Hindu ethnic in the past. In Javanese version of Mahabharata Krishna is described as dark skinned. But Arjuna?. There’s no any text that describe Arjuna as dark skinned person. Description of Arjuna is symbol of handsomeness.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Looked it up……..and OK, you are half right. It all depends on the thinking of the looker. Some people even like ‘ dark ‘ personalities. So we’re even :-)Recommend

  • Skpd

    No way. It’s about skin color. Again I am someone who has always found black men more attractive than white.Recommend

  • siesmann

    ISN’T ONE OF THE MEANING OF varan colour?Many deniers of caste system in Indian society makes this argument about varan.Recommend

  • siesmann

    So you are “high caste’?And yet you have been arguing incessantly about no caste system in Indian society!!!Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht

    ET how can you allow hate comments like these? Do you have any self respect? Is this ‘wb’ mailing you a money order? Paks are known for corruption. Who knows Rs. 10 might do it for you. Understood this is
    a hindu paper, but this person is abusing this hindu blog writer?Recommend

  • ab1990

    If I dont argue about caste the author is going to stereotype however she wants.

    There is no caste system in indian society but most of them speak about it only on internet and not in real life.

    Caste system has nothing do with skin colour and it has nothing to do with descrimination.

    Caste system is just how indian society was divided by jobs during ancient times during ancient india.

    The modern indian society is not all divided like it was during ancient times.

    India now has a constitution and everyone has to follow it .Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht

    You keep repeating the same mantra. In every other comment.
    Under a phony name, to boot. It’s like a broken record/CD. Recommend

  • ask

    Caste took shape due to invasions? Wow! Next what, Dravid, Dasyu, Dasaa, Anarya, Chandala, were all created by Shah Jahan & Warren Hastings?Recommend

  • Nandita.

    Why don’t you look up the meaning of tall , dark and handsome? Read this:

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht

    ET moderators you allow hindus to post poison here.
    You edited a polite comment ? Why?. We know you are
    pro hindustan.Recommend

  • Gulchand Mehta

    Right. Dark refers to hair color. Not skin color.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    Sweety Wibsy – Do U work for ET ? How else will your comments like this get pub ? U called me names in another blog. Is no one moderating your comments ? I am not angry BTW .Recommend

  • Nandita.

    I was referring to the term tall, , dark and handsome. There is only one meaning to it-dark refers to the hair color. Meanings of terms do not change according to our likes and dislikesRecommend

  • Alann

    Likewise, I support freedom for Balochistan and the rest. Except for Punjab, no other province has ever got developed in Pakistan. They have only suffered discrimination and been killed ruthlessly for being a Hindu/Christian/Jew/Shia/Ahmedi. Of course I don’t have anything against Pakistanis, only the ones who rule Pakistan.Recommend

  • Parvez

    I also looked up ‘ tall, dark and handsome ‘ …….so obviously what you looked up is different from what I looked up. It said most commonly dark represents the ‘ Latin ( bronzed ) look ‘ but some take it to mean dark hair.Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht

    You are a higher caste? That means you are a Dalit.?
    But they are only allowed to work in leather curing or
    as sewer workers. How can you have servants?Recommend

  • seismann

    No caste in indian society,yet you say you are high caste;that explains it.Recommend

  • seismann

    No caste in indian society,yet you say you are high caste;that explains it.Recommend

  • ab1990

    talking about caste on internet is very different than talking about caste in real life.Recommend

  • ab1990

    talking about caste on internet is very different than talking about caste in real life.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    In the west, ‘dark ‘ refers to darkcoloured hair. Most people accept this meaning..Recommend

  • Banana

    You tell him man. Whenever I visit any of the Pakistani websites where there is a discussion going on about India, some ignorant nitwit posts a comment like “Tamils wills separate” and all such nonsense. I myself am from deep south which was a hotbed of anti-Hindi agitations, and I can vouch that Tamils will be the last people to secede notwithstanding the loonies who dream of Akanda Eelam. Heck, even I grew up with the Tamil nationalist fervor, but still would want to be part of India while asserting our own identity. I don’t know who feeds these trolls with the idea that there will be a Dravida nadu (or as another idiot wrote elsewhere Tamiland!!??). For all these talks, it was TN that gave the highest amount in donations to the Indian Army during Kargil.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nooooooooooooo….and OAO ( stands for : over and out ) until the next time on some other subject.Recommend

  • Ченнаи картик

    Correctly put broRecommend