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The Color Complex: Is the Fixation Really Fair?

For as long as I can remember, along with thousands of women in Asia, I have been fed a beauty myth so entrenched in our consciousness it is unfortunately often considered a part of our culture: Fairness is beauty and a lighter complexion is your ticket to getting ahead in life, landing the man of your dreams and the job you’ve always desired1. I can only attempt to track how this over the top association with light skin was first instilled in my perception. Our culture attaches a certain prestige to whiteness, as though it possesses a magical power to swing open doors for you and instantly make life better.

Some sociologists speculate that our colonizers’ complexions have become our standards for beauty. Others blame South Asia’s “class complex,” pointing out that those who are from lower social classes tend to be darker because they’re exposed to the sun more in their work, thus linking whiter complexions with higher education and class2. Whatever the reason, the statistics of the fairness cream industry in South Asia speak for themselves.

Didier Villanueva, country manager for L’Oreal India told the Times that skin bleaching creams make up half of the company’s market in India, stating that 60-65 percent of Indian women use these products on a daily basis.3 Since 1978, Hindustan Unilever’s Fair & Lovely has sold its skin bleaching creams to millions of women, dominating a majority share of the skin whitening market in India. Fair and Lovely’s steady growth has prompted several major western cosmetic brands to market whitening products in the region4.

Dior, La Mer, Garnier, Avon, Lancome, Yves Saint-Laurent, Clinique, Elizabeth Arden and Revlon all have skin bleaching products you would never find on the shelves of your local CVS, yet they flood the market shelves from Delhi to Colombo5.

Growing up in Bangladesh, it’s hard to think of a road that is not lined with some massive billboard advertising Fair and Lovely’s bleaching skincare products–the face of a light skinned Indian beauty peering from behind a dark skinned image of herself, with sense of relief and accomplishment shimmering in her eyes.

What is even more striking is that the color complex is not only limited to South Asia, and indeed extends into the rest of the region. Asians, divided by everything from language to ethnicity, actually find some common ground in sharing this deeply rooted cultural belief that lighter skin is more attractive6.
Consider the words Asians assign to darker skin tones: In Thailand, dam tap pet (black like a duck’s liver) and e dam (black girl) are used to describe women with darker complexions7. In both India and Bangladesh to be called kalua (Benagali for dark) is derogatory, while gori (white skin) is synonymous with being beautiful, commonly sprinkled in romantic Bollywood songs to praise the beauty of the heroine.

The story of Maisha Khan, a close family friend, makes me realize who the real heroines are. Maisha’s burnt ash complexion caused strangers and relatives alike to treat her as though she had some kind of skin disease. She was always pointed out as a recluse because she was dark. All through her school days she was tormented and teased for her darker skin color. Her grandmother bathed her in hot oil in efforts to lighten her skin. Her own mother told her repeatedly that no one would ever marry her because she was a kalua. By the time Maisha was in her mid-twenties, she left Dhaka to become a permanent resident in the UK because living in her native country of Bangladesh was too unbearable with her skin tone.

Ironically, Maisha’s skin color was closer to the majority of South Asians. But her tone clashed too sternly against the lighter skin tones in the elite social class she belonged to. And her story is anything but isolated. Her story is a testament to the frightening truth that skin color, specifically white skin color, is a very real and present obsession in Asia.

The region’s colonial history plays a particularly important role. South Asia was invaded repeatedly by waves of white conquerors, in particular the British.8 The arrival of the English into the Subcontinent brought uncountable hierarchies, but the racial ones were especially unique to the British Raj. While the French ruled by using language as an extensive tool of colonialism, imparting the attitude that if you spoke French, you were French, the British created racial boundaries by instilling the attitude that you will always be inferior because you are not white.9

While the debate rages on, beauty concepts in South Asia are changing. Slowly. But they are changing nonetheless. There are many more stars and celebrities (think Bollywood icons like Bipasha Basu and Kajol) who have managed to become silver screen icons despite their darker complexions.

How can we hold the people of a region which is home to thousands of diverse dialects, religions and cultures hostage to one concept of beauty? And that of a skin color which is not even natural to us? Is Asia’s obsession with fair complexion a bad case of a colonial hangover? Or is it just a case of what we have been fed through mainstream media, and a case of wanting what you do not have?

After all, we cannot overlook the West’s obsession with tanning, and giving their skin that sexy sun kissed glow10. — Anushay Hossain

10 BBC, “A Whiter Shade of Pale?, (Accessed February 14, 2008)

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