by Sneha Goud

I was six or seven when a fellow Indian playmate informed my skin was darker than hers because I didn’t bathe enough.  Even at that age, I was aware her claims were false.  But it didn’t stop me from staring at myself in a mirror when I got home that day or on all the other days I looked at my body and wished for my skin to be lighter since.

It’s no secret India isn’t the only country to prefer light-skinned women.  This phenomenon is worldwide and as old as the first civilization.  Those with dark skin were laborers who worked outdoors in the sun and their social status was determined accordingly.

But why now, when those rules are considered outdated, does Indian society still value light-skinned women (and men, though to a lesser extent) over darker-skinned ones?

Actresses like Shilpa Shetty and Kareena Kapoor are routinely airbrushed in magazine shoots and films.  Heavy makeup and lighting covers up their true skin color.  In a country where culture and history is valued, why do we insist on changing ourselves to look different from our ancestors?

The “most beautiful woman in the world” as she is dubbed by some, Aishwarya Rai, has very light skin and green eyes.  She certainly does not represent a majority of Indian women.

Take a look at any Indian wedding arrangement ad on the Internet or in a newspaper – all the woman describe themselves as “fair skinned.” Everyone can’t be fair skinned, but is stretching the truth the only way to snare a husband?

I always thought I was ugly because of my skin color growing up, though my relatives assured me it would eventually lighten. My mom encouraged me to apply homemade face masks like she did while growing up to become lighter.  I always brought a tube of Fair & Lovely back home when visiting India and vowed to use it every day.  It never worked and I usually lost patience.

Young girls looking up to an ideal that physically cannot be achieved is damaging to their self-esteem.  And skin-lightening creams have proved to be more and more dangerous.  As the Internet grows are and transportation becomes easier, toxic steroid creams are becoming widely available and inexpensive, causing health problems in users not educated in their risks.

But Indian society and Indian-Americans in America are rapidly changing.  There is reason to think this obsession with light skin will eventually fade.  To hasten this process, I offer some suggestions:

  1. Embrace the cultural variety in India. Brown IS beautiful.  Honor our ancestry by refusing to be ashamed of our skin color.
  2. Encourage the media to portray more dark-skinned women in their natural shade.  Even if we can’t march into movie studios or magazine offices, take a closer look at the stars you admire and see how their appearance is altered in photographs.  Write a statement denouncing airbrushing on your facebook, twitter, or blog.  Technology has become a great equalizer – we can all share our opinions and important people take notice.
  3. Share your feelings with younger female relatives.  Most of my relatives had lighter skin so I felt self-conscious in pictures.  It’s always great for younger girls to have a positive female role model, especially at the tween/teen stage.

I will be waiting for the Indian community here and abroad to move away from outdated stereotypes about skin color.  In the meantime, I will do my part by simply accepting my own.

Photograph by Thuy Ly