The obsession with fair skin in South Asia

This article looks at a controversy that arose over a photomontage of the finalists for this year’s Miss India contest where observers noted that all the contestants looked pretty much the same: light skinned with straight black hair, leading some to jokingly wonder if they were all photos of the same woman.

It has led once again to a discussion over the obsession with fair skin that has resulted in a huge market for skin-whitening products, also seen in Sri Lanka.

With their tame, glossy, shoulder-length hair and a skin tone that is virtually identical, some quipped that they all looked the same. Others wondered out loud – albeit as a joke – if in fact they were all the same person.

As the picture gained traction on Twitter, critics made the point that while there was nothing wrong with the image of the women themselves, the lack of diversity in skin colour has once again highlighted India’s obsession with being fair and lovely.

‘Fair and Lovely’ is the brand name of the most widely used skin product. Its popularity has led to products marketed at men such as ‘Fair and Handsome’.

This is a touchy issue. On the one hand, equating fair skin with attractiveness is clearly prejudicial, handicapping those who happen to be born darker to fewer chances for achieving their professional, social, and personal ambitions.

Commercials for such creams and gels promised not just fair skin but also peddled them as means to get a glamorous job, find love, or get married.

[C]ampaigners point out that this obsession with fair skin is grossly unfair – the “superiority” of light skin is subtly, but constantly, reinforced and that perpetuates societal prejudice and hurts people with darker complexions who grow up with low self-confidence. It also impacts their personal and professional success, they say.

There has been a small backlash against this tendency.

But as I write this piece, a heart-warming piece of news is just being reported: South Indian actress Sai Pallavi has confirmed that she rejected a 20m rupee deal to appear in a fairness cream advertisement earlier this year.

“What am I going to do with the money I get from such an ad? I don’t have… big needs.

“I can say that the standards we have are wrong. This is the Indian colour. We can’t go to foreigners and ask them why they’re white.

“That’s their skin colour and this is ours,” she was quoted as saying.

Pallavi’s comments are being hailed as a breath of fresh air by commentators, especially as they are seen in context to the Miss India collage where all contestants look the same – whitewashed.

On the other hand, one can view this as a women’s rights issue, that they have the right to choose what they do with their bodies for whatever reason, be it using cosmetics or dyes or hair-straightening products, and that for others to criticize what they do is a form of controlling women and denying them agency. It is a debate similar to the one in the US black community about hair straightening.

Ultimately this is a specific case of a more general question of whether one should try and conform to the norms set by society on some issue or defy them and try to change the norms to be more inclusive of a wider range. It is perhaps best left to each person to decide for themselves which side they want to be on.


  1. says

    A while ago I wrote an overview about female beauty standards throughout the ages —
    Those are arbitrary and change a lot.

    While I do think that every person has a right to choose for themselves and do with their body whatever they want to, I strongly dislike it when fashion magazines, TV, celebrities, marketing people, etc. promote some beauty ideal and try to indoctrinate us into believing that failing to conform to this arbitrary standard makes you ugly.

    Back when I was a child, I learned that suntanned skin was beautiful. Being pale was ugly. I remember how my entire family would go to the local beach in summers for the purpose of getting suntanned. Back when I was about 12 years old, I and my cousin would compare which one of us had more suntanned skin. The only problem was that we were all naturally pale in my family, and our attempts to darken our skin during sunny summer days resulted in more sunburns than actually getting suntanned. Oh well, at least I never paid for the privilege of using tanning beds. At school, many of my female classmates used those to maintain their “suntanned” skin during winter months.

  2. says

    By the way, in my part of the world most people have naturally straight hair. Thus, of course, having curly hair was considered pretty. My aunt used to pay hair stylists for permanent wave on a regular basis. My mother used to curl her hair with a curling iron. Back when I was six years old, there was a celebration, and mother wanted to make me pretty for it. In addition to making me wear a disgusting dress, she also curled my hair. Already at such a young age, I had learned that my naturally straight hair wasn’t pretty enough. The same was true also for my naturally pale skin.

  3. Mano Singham says


    I followed the link to your article and wanted to say that I thought it was excellent survey and analysis of this very tricky issue.

  4. says

    Like, do what you want with your own body, sure, but also have a good think about why you want to do the thing, and what social pressures might be affecting your choice. That goes double for doing things that result in permanent changes (i.e. surgery, tattoos, etc).

  5. Roj Blake says

    Perhaps the women in the Miss India photo had been retouched for a lighter look.

    I was unaware of Sai Pallavi, so did a quick google image search and found her to also be quite fair in comparison to many Indians I have known, some of whom are as dark-skinned as a Somali.

    Is there any people, anywhere, who are satisfied with the way they look and don’t feel the desire for modification? Perhaps when you struggle to feed yourself, looks are the least of your worries.

  6. file thirteen says


    Perhaps the women in the Miss India photo had been retouched for a lighter look.

    Yes, this was mentioned in the original article.

    The pageant’s grooming expert Shamita Singha told the BBC the original pictures had to be retouched as the contestants looked “like plastic”. She insisted the Photoshop team were told not to alter skin tone, but blamed a tight publication deadline and newspaper print for the change in appearance.

    “This is not the skin tones of the actual pictures,” she said, adding that some of the show’s past winners like Nehal Chudasama, Srinidhi Shetty and Anukreethy Vas had darker skin.

  7. tororosoba says

    Many moons ago, I (a middle-of-the-road European) traveled to South Africa, when Apartheid still ruled. At the time, shops sold skin-whitening and hair-straightening products, which made me very sad. How screwed-up a society must be where (some) people reject their own natural image.

    I wonder if such products still exist.

  8. says

    Roj Blake @#5

    Is there any people, anywhere, who are satisfied with the way they look and don’t feel the desire for modification?

    I also wonder about this one. I suspect that marketing people wouldn’t allow that to happen:
    Is your skin pale? Here’s a product that will make it darker.
    Is your skin dark? Here’s a product that will make it paler.
    Is your hair curly? Here’s a product that will straighten it.
    Is your hair straight? Here’s a product that will make it curly.
    Are you skinny? Here’s a product that will help you gain weight/muscle mass.
    Are you overweight? Here’s a product that will make you lose weight.
    Do you have too much hair on your body? Here’s a product that will get rid of it.
    Do you have too little hair? Here are some hair extensions/hair pieces.
    Are your breasts the wrong size? Here’s a clinic performing plastic surgery.
    And so on. Never mind things like make-up that everybody is expected to use regardless of how their body looks like.

    Making people unhappy with their natural physical appearance is profitable.

  9. mnb0 says

    “this as a women’s rights issue”
    It is. However it’s our right to point out that the obsession with fair skin is betraying a neo-colonial mentality, abused by big corporations to separate you from your money.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @10: I think it’s more complicated than that. There’s an Aryan/Dravidian distinction which is, to many Indians, ethnic as well as linguistic, and also very ancient. And there may be a caste component in there too.

  11. ardipithecus says

    Criticizing how a person chooses to look says “I don’t like how you choose to present yourself. please conform to my wishes.”

    Praising how a person chooses to look says ” I approve of your choices. Thank your for conforming to my wishes.”

    Rewarding conformity and punishing non-conformity are two sides of the same coin.

    Like Crip Dyke says @8. “The answers are pretty easy.”

  12. says

    ardipithecus @#12

    Criticizing how a person chooses to look says “I don’t like how you choose to present yourself. please conform to my wishes.”
    Praising how a person chooses to look says ” I approve of your choices. Thank your for conforming to my wishes.”
    Rewarding conformity and punishing non-conformity are two sides of the same coin.

    For practical purposes, there can be a difference. Being queer, I have chosen to present myself in an atypical way that differs from established gender norms. If people frequently told me “I don’t like how you choose to present yourself,” then that would disturb my daily life, because these kinds of conversations are rather unpleasant. On the other hand, an absence of compliments is not disturbing. I can calmly go on with my daily life without worrying that today nobody has complimented my appearance and informed me about their approval of my choices.

    Of course, I perceive it this way only because I already know what I like and how I want to present myself. I’m not insecure and I don’t crave compliments and approval.

    It was an entirely different situation for me back when I was a teen. My natural inclination was to be a tomboy, but adults complimented and praised me whenever I reluctantly did anything feminine. For example, my school forced me to wear dresses for various celebrations, and my teachers complimented me on how pretty I looked in feminine attire and even recommended me to dress as a girl more often. Back then these compliments really messed my mind. I was insecure, I had no clue how to present myself, I hadn’t yet even realized (never mind accepted) that I’m queer. Thus these well-meaning compliments from adults actually hurt me.

    Then later, as I switched to male attire, a few people told me that it looks cool on me and that they support my choices. That actually felt nice. Back when I contemplated making the switch, I had dreaded condemnation, so I was happy to realize that it’s OK and nowhere near as bad as I expected.

    A compliment can be either uplifting or harmful. It depends on the individual circumstances. Complimenting somebody with “you look stunning in those six inch high heels, I approve of your choice” can be harmful, because a person is praised for harming her own body. On the other hand, telling a trans person that you approve of their choice can be beneficial. It’s still their choice and it’s not like they need your approval in order to do with their body whatever they want to. Still, it felt nice for me to be aware that at least some people didn’t condemn my choice to live as I see fit.

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