A History of Fair-skin Preference in South Asia

Recently, the Vogue India magazine’s cover took head on the well-known preference for lighter or fairer skin as a sign of beauty in the subcontinent. This preference has been commented on before, with many interpretations of the phenomenon. In this case, for example, one interesting insight by the piece linked above talks about the capitalization of this preference by beauty product companies.

Fuelled by the appearance of light-skinned Bollywood stars and models, the demand for skin-whitening creams – from brands including L’Oreal and Unilever – grew 18 per cent last year and is set to increase by a predicted 25 per cent this year, the Times reports.

This is a significant aspect of the phenomenon. There are billboards, magazine ads, and TV commercials throughout South Asia that play on the standard of ‘fairer’ skin being more attractive. This fits a standard post-WWII late-capitalist model of subjectivity construction. A standard of the body is set as either preferred or as undesirable, marketing sets out to construct a narrative with the aim of inducing anxiety about reaching the standard (cover up undesirables, concern to reach desirables), and products are disseminated to temporarily relieve this anxiety. But, of course, there are so many things to be anxious about, late-capitalism aims to make us perpetually anxious consuming subjects. This narrative is pretty standard and is playing out in the particular case of fairer skin in the subcontinent. However, we do have to be attentive to the local conditions that make this particular manifestation play out in the way it does. So, to my mind, any analysis of this phenomenon should take into account a number of historical trajectories that impact light-skin beauty standards in India.

1. In the Vedic material, we see a quite explicit differentiation between the light-skinned Aryans and the darker-skinned indigenous populations that the Aryans are said to have conquered. The narrative of the Vedas here clearly connects the notion of nobility and skin color. Aryan can be translated as ‘noble’ and has associations that me might analyze as class differentiation (in a very broad definition of class here). To have light skin is to be more associated with the Aryans. And thus throughout Indian history, as people refer back to the Vedas this association becomes reified and becomes loosely connected with status and purity/pollution.

2. In the colonial period we see the solidification of caste as an ideological standard and the previously loose connection becomes more crystallized. Shudras (lower castes) are associated with dark skin and Brahmans/Ksatriya (‘warrior’ caste) with lighter skin. Much of this has to do with the colonial essentialization and privileging of the Vedic textual material. The Vedas become read in the 19th century as the prehistory of Europe itself. Just as race becomes increasingly an important category in European discourse the Europeans are encoding race with data from the Vedas. We see these connections, of course, being applied most efficiently with German Romanticist Orientalism that led to the particular ways that Nazi-Socialism constructed its mythological history.

3. So, connected to the indigenous South Asian understandings of lighter vs. darker skin we find, in the colonial period, this being connected to a more global construction of racial identity such that the most fair, the European, becomes intersected with the model first spelled out in the Vedas. Attach the subtle play of representational power that connects global capital power and domination with the light-skinned European and we have a doubly-reflected semiology of light-skin being connected to privilege (from Aryans and from Europeans).

4. Finally, the Vedic connection between fair-skin and Aryans, as read by Europeans and certain elite Pandits, was then foiled against the Indo-European hypothesis where the Aryans, who spoke Indo-European Sanskrit, had conquered the darker-skinned Dravidians. This was connected to their contemporary South Asian setting, where the fairer North Indians are in some ways still set off against the darker skinned South Indians. An underlying tension between North and South India is connected too with this skin pigmentation symbolism since the colonial period.

Feministing has an ad in their analysis by Fair and Lovely, a company that markets skin-lightening cream:

If you watch the ad, you can see an number of themes reflected here

1. The father and “darker-skinned” daughter wear more ‘traditional’ garb, as opposed to the ‘modern’ , ‘lighter’ skinned clothes of the obviously higher-status people in the video.

2. The father gets his skin-lightening inspiration from some sort of ancient text, which connects back to many of the points I make above. Interestingly, this can be analyzed as a kind of reference to the antiquity of the preference for light-skin, or the valorization of tradition that is often necessitated to validate accepting ‘modern’ ideas. Also note that this is explicitly referencing the romanticization of Ayurvedic medicine as a privileged source of special knowledge applicable to the too-modern contemporary scene.

3. Once the daughter’s skin is lighter, she dresses ‘modern’ or even ‘western’. Again, we see the subtle connection between Aryan/European as light-skinned.

4. This is also a narrative of acceptance and assimilation into the globalized Euro-american bourgeois middle-class equivalents in post-colonial settings. The narrative plays out as the father and daughter seem like supplicants in the architecturally ‘modern’ skyscraper’. This is contrasted to their ‘traditional’ home architecture. Once her skin is lighter, the daughter can become part of this bourgeois in-group. Again, this is the connection of identity and capitalist anxiety. The goal is not to overturn the modern/tradition divide, but to become part of and excel within the ‘modern’ part of the binary through the use of romanticized ancient Ayurvedic inspired skin-lightening cream (which it obviously isn’t). It seems to me that this commercial is not much different than the modern Hollywood high-school cinderella story where the protagonist becomes accepted by the popular crown through the strategic use of his/her non-standard local knowledge (i.e. nerd, or artist).

5. She gets the man. She travels on a plane. Class, race, bourgeois hopes and dreams, fame. These become symbols of success. And the first step is skin-lightening cream.

So, there is a lot of complex things going on here, and this is just a sort of basic analysis. What I find so interesting about this particular commercial is the incessant continual semiotic referencing of the modern/traditional binary. I think this commercial is an excellent site to analyze the way that modern and traditional are not natural or given categories, but rather a constructive ideological binary pair that is continually put into strategic play in order to motivate and construct subjects in certain ways. Contrast this commercial, for example, with nationalist movements which often privilege the traditional over the modern (of course in a very selective way) in order to mobilize people for quite different ends. Honestly, there is so much to say about that topic, it could be its own post.

The last thing I want to note is the irony that the women on the cover of the India Vogue magazine are not really all that dark in the spectrum of South Asian skin-color variety.

Hat-tip: Feministing

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18 Responses to “A History of Fair-skin Preference in South Asia”

  1. Jha Says:

    Wow, thanks for this analysis! Light skin preference also runs deep in South-East Asia (where I’m from) and I have idly wondered before that it was like in India. This was a really interesting read, esp. the historical analysis.

  2. fuzzytheory Says:

    Hi Jha,

    Thanks for the comment. As far as I know, the historical situation in certain parts of South-East Asia has some general similarities with the situation in South Asia. The Buddhist-Hindu conglomerate that was taken up for such a long time in a significant part of South-East Asia may have had a similar impact. Undoubtedly, though, I think there are many other things going on in your neck of the woods that would have an impact. I’ve seen Thai versions of the Fair and Lovely campaign and I’ve wondered how much of the kind of things that impact it in South Asia are similar in South-East Asia. I just haven’t had the time to look into it into that much detail. Most of my research on South-East Asia recently has been about gender and sexuality and its transformations in modern period.

  3. Siah Says:

    Great analysis – that was succinct, yet very informative.
    I’m glad Vogue has decided to contribute to the discourse on the Indian Subcontinent’s obsession with skin color. However, your point regarding the models posing on the magazine cover still not accurately representing the skin tone of the average South Asian woman, is exactly what I was thinking.
    Not only are South Asians bombarded with light skinned Bollywood/Kollywood stars, but many of these venerated (and well-travelled, educated and supposedly socially aware) actors and actresses actually lend their names to skin lightening brands. It really infuriates me that celebrities, such as SRK and Priyanka Chopra, who are seen as epitomes of success by many around the region, play an important role in endorsing such damaging views.

  4. fuzzytheory Says:

    Thanks Siah,

    One thing I didn’t mention above is the connection to puja. If my Hindi isn’t too terrible, the father and daughter come into a skyscraper looking to do puja. Puja, of course, is associated with ‘tradition’. So, the supplicants come to the ‘modern’ looking for ‘tradition’ and are mocked. So they go back home, repackage the ‘tradition’ to fit the ‘modern’ and the daughter becomes ‘successful’ (as noted above).

    Another interesting thing to question is what is going on here about the two asking for puja. Is it that there is a cynical “let’s make these bumpkins look totally clueless” vibe to contrast with the daughter’s metamorphosis into a clue-full modern subject? Or, is it more subtle? Perhaps we can imagine a temple was once there and the two go in the new building that replaced it looking for a trace of the temple. That would reference the notion of progress and the modern tension with clearing a way for the ‘new’. Or, could it be that the fashion office they enter is ACTUALLY the temple for capitalist puja, and the people mocking the two are the bumpkins? If so, then isn’t it the case that the daughter and father actually transform their religious practice so effectively into the new “stylish puja” ritual setting and practice BECAUSE of their connection with tradition (i.e. Ayurveda, which in reality is actually in the commercial ANOTHER deity of the fashion gods).

    There is just so much going on in this commercial. It astounds me.

  5. Anjana Bhana Says:

    Hi, I was just doing a bit of research and I came across your blog. I’m a South African Indian and all those prejudices about skin colour in the Indian community are alive SA. Although it may not be as blatant – I can say that even with my parent’s generation . For the most part here, it doesn’t make a difference in terms of career, marriage prospects , education. But the idea is so deep-rooted that people may not necessarily be overtly prejudiced but in their heads they’re thinking “Gee this person is so fair/dark”

    The commercial, I could not believe it. I just sat here gaping at it – it’s wrong on so many levels. It ties the predjudice to culture, religion, ayurveda.

  6. fuzzytheory Says:

    Hi Anjana,

    Thanks for your comment. As I am generally unfamiliar with South Africa, except for some general knowledge about the South Asian diaspora and bits and pieces of historical knowledge about Apartheid: I’d like to thank you for your comment.

    Theoretically, I would argue in the case of South Asians in South Africa, that there is a doubling of the discourse happening here. Not only do South Asians have to face the history of fair-skin preference that is retained from South Asia in diaspora but in South Africa there would also be a more directly colonial discourse of “black” and “white” and post-Apartheid symbolic economy that shapes cultural understandings of skin color preference there. South Asians would have to mediate both. I know that in America, there is a complex politics of fair/dark skin politics within the black communities, so I would just assume that there is a similar (though, undoubtedly unique) phenomenon in South Africa, where Apartheid would be the big elephant in the room of skin color politics. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this, and some perspective “on the ground” (as they say) about what the politics of skin color is among black communities, multi-racial communities, white communities and how that impacts the “brown” community there.

  7. Requests? « fuzzytheory Says:

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  8. Nethra Says:

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I am researching a connected topic for one of my classes, and am wondering if you could cite some of the sources you used in relation to Vedic references about fairness.

    Thank you!

  9. fuzzytheory Says:

    HI Nethra,

    You might want to try Nicholas Dirk’s work.

    FT

  10. Democracy is ethnocracy? | Brown Pundits Says:

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  11. oradianto Says:

    Do you still continue to blog here?

    • fuzzytheory Says:

      Hi!

      I would love to. I’m on a little hiatus til mid-July though due to work. I’ll be back at it eventually. Thanks for reading!

  12. Dark Skin is Beautiful | alleur speaks Says:

    […] civilizations, light-skinned Indo-Aryans conquered darker-skinned indigenous populations of India, setting the perception for power in the Indian subcontinent for years to come. Indo-Aryans founded the caste system with the […]

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  15. yoyo Says:

    Not really true. Ajanta paintings show elite people of all skin varieties. Krishna’s and Krishna’s (Draupadi’s) names literally means black i.e. dark skinned ones. Still they are described as handsome and beautiful. Only after Islamic conquest did the association happened. Also interestingly both in Mughal paintings as well as in Bollywood films, the skin standards for males are more relaxed and even darker skinned males are portrayed as lies or heroes.

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  17. When ‘White Privilege’ Becomes Uncomfortably Familiar | The Familiar Strange Says:

    […] Whiteness is one of the most universal markers of privilege. In India, skin tone is a marker of status; the fairer one’s skin, the greater their (presumed) advantage. This is well documented in relation to the arranged marriage market, in which ‘dark skinned girls’ are, appallingly, often thought to be less beautiful. Many have observed that this oft-called ‘obsession’ with fairness is an echo of India’s Vedic traditions and colonial history. […]

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