Our obsession with fair skin

Published: September 2, 2013
The writer is a HR professional based in London and tweets @Terry_Atif

The writer is a HR professional based in London and tweets @Terry_Atif

I recently came across an online movement called ‘Dark is Beautiful’, a campaign that has drawn attention towards the unjust effects of skin colour discrimination in India. The campaign features famous Indian actress Nandita Das, who has urged women to throw out their fairness creams and abandon the belief that dark skin is ugly.

I was quite surprised to find out that Das is, perhaps, the only actress to have resolutely kept her dusky skin tone, despite the demands of the ruthless entertainment industry, where there is an explicit preference for light-skinned actors.

The same stands true about Pakistani society. We are also obsessed with fair skin in female appearance. Like many facets of our society, which is built around hypocrisy, opulent display of wealth and a growing divide between the haves and have-nots, there is also a clear disparity of ‘fair’ and ‘dark’ complexion of women. Racism runs deep in the subcontinent’s history, with its roots intertwined with caste and colonialism.

A majority of women in our society focus on their colour and body image upon reaching puberty. Teenage girls try to fit in by having fairer and flawless skin, and perfect bodies, all the while trying to be ‘cool’ and popular. They worry more about their appearance instead of their academic work. Girls who are not able to keep up with this fashion begin to suffer from low self-esteem and lack of confidence.

For me, it is not just an issue of self-confidence and self-esteem alone. I have personally come across many girls who have experienced adverse side-effects from the continual use of these fairness and bleach creams in order to find the ‘perfect rishta’.

Some of them had gone to great lengths to lighten their skin colour, even resorting to the use of steroids. Most fairness creams contain mercury which can easily penetrate into the skin and reduce the amount of melanin, making the skin more vulnerable to UV rays by thinning it. This may lead to serious problems like skin cancer, muscle weakness, osteoporosis and in case of pregnant women, it can cause damage to the foetus and the nervous system.

However, despite warnings from experts, the demand does not seem to be lessening and the credit for this goes to aggressive advertisement campaigns by the corporate sector. The media and marketers play a huge role in influencing young girls, by getting popular female media personalities to endorse their fairness brands. Most of these advertisement campaigns are designed to ‘hook’ gullible women into believing that happiness, success and romance are connected with having fairer skin.

Hopefully, things will change and get better. It is campaigns like ‘Dark is Beautiful’ which establish steps in the right direction. I believe we should have a similar campaign in Pakistan to stand up against such notions that generate discrimination based on skin colour. It is obvious that we need to take some action and help young girls understand that looks don’t always matter.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2013.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • Ayaz, Toronto
    Sep 3, 2013 - 1:57AM

    Tehreem, unfortunately the problem of young women’s battered self-esteem due to the complexion of their skin is just one manifestation of the emphasis of the Pakistani society on superficial attributes

    In terms of this particular issue, the blame lies not only with the marketers but also with the future bride-oriented mindset that Pakistani girls are subjected to since their childhood – from the typical drawing-room Aunty talk to the aspirations of the girl and her parents of finding an ideal ‘successful’ groom from an upper-class family.

    Though Ms. Daas’s example is praise-worthy, I don’t think the Ketrina-kaif crazed Indian society is much better than Pakistanis when it comes to the issue of fare complexion.


  • Maria
    Sep 3, 2013 - 5:11AM

    Tell me how many rural Pakistani women obsess about using fairness creams or bleach creams? I have never seen it in Upper Punjab or KPK where my family’s origin lies. Especially when you consider that so many rural Pakistani women would already have what would be considered fair skin for Indians. Maybe a small number of urban women fret about dark skin but the rural masses don’t obsess about skin colour. Go asked the fair skinned Patanis, Chitralis, North Punjabis Baluchis or Kashmiris whether they worry about skin colour or even sun damage because they are already fair skinned. There really is a disconnect between some writers and mainstream Pakistani society!


  • ModiFied
    Sep 3, 2013 - 5:25AM

    Nandita Das is not the first one to revolt against fair skin. many efforts had been made to celebrate dark skin through songs. Remember famous song by Noor jahan; “Kala sa kala, goriya nu dafa karo” ? Another famous Bollywood song picturised n late Mahnood; ” Hum kale hain to kiya hua dil wale hain”. Then there is famous classic song sung by Lata in film Bandini; “Mohe Shyam rang dei de”. However, all said and done, for some unknown reasons, 99% people world over have a weakness for fair skin. Right or wrong, this is the ground reality.


  • jssidhoo
    Sep 3, 2013 - 6:58AM

    @Maria: “Especially when you consider that so many rural Pakistani women would already have what would be considered fair skin for Indians.” Fair skinned racism seeping out ?


  • R
    Sep 3, 2013 - 8:35AM

    This does not belong on the op-ed pages of any newspaper…it’s too elementary and would run better in a fashion magazine, at best


  • Kiran
    Sep 3, 2013 - 3:37PM

    I fully endorse Maria’s views. Seldom seen this obsession while living in KPK…coz actually seldom seen a dark coloured girl… And proper high quality creams are not used to lighten skin but actually used to reduce blemishes….Well that is our ‘HAQ’…isnt it??? :)


  • Surya
    Sep 3, 2013 - 3:58PM

    The key is to not discriminate. You find a range of skin tones across the subcontinent. Every region has a variety, in varying proportions.

    My Kashmiri Pandit community is no different. I cannot love my pale, redheaded, grey eyed nani any more than my tanned, black haired, brown eyed nana! All I know is that looking at their wedding photos, both would’ve given any bollywood actress and actor a run for their money. The good looks still show, but obviously less today than 50 years ago. What has stayed unchanged are their good nature and high level of education. The first is a function of upbringing, and the second, is a function of our Brahmin background (unlike most other Kashmiris). Neither are down to genetics, which continues to provie that beauty is only skin deep.


  • Pakman
    Sep 3, 2013 - 8:06PM

    Fair complexion is a historical placeholder for caste. Higher the caste, fairer the complexion. In Pakistan while we have forgotten our original hindu castes from conscious memory, we have not the least bit done so in our collective subconsciousness.


  • atlanta
    Sep 3, 2013 - 9:14PM

    The media and the society has only s small bearing on defining our concept of beauty. Mostly, we follow the whims as programmed by mother nature. Just like good health, beauty is a gift from God to some and not all. One can improve one’s health only to a small degree. In regards to caste and skin color; it is not by chance that higher caste is fairer, rather fairer people became higher caste. The society universally agreed upon this notion of beauty that fairer is prettier all over the world with rare exceptions.


  • punjabi
    Sep 3, 2013 - 9:50PM

    @Maria: My extended family live in a village of punjab and most of the girls in our village do use whitening creams so I don’t consider this write up out of touch with the ground reality. In fact most of the girls in my class in uni use whitening creams too so yes the obsession with fair skin is everywhere. If you want statistics go ask the thousands of beauty salons offering ‘whitening facials’. In fact out of the range of facials offered the most expensive and most in demand is…you guessed it…the ‘whitening facial’!


  • Humza
    Sep 3, 2013 - 10:02PM

    @Pakman: What about parts of Pakistani where there was no castism? Olive skin or lighter skin in common in Gilgit, Chitral, KPK, Baluchistan, Kashmir and Upper Punjab and it has nothing to do with caste. This has to do with the influence of different races among native Pakistani peoples – not castes. I think part of the problem in this blog is that we are equating Indian caste based constructs to Pakistan where it does not always apply. Sure in Sind, parts of Punjab and the Muhajir community in Karachi who originate from India you can argue about a caste based hangover from Hinduism but it is unfair to apply this to the whole country.


  • Ansar Khan
    Sep 8, 2013 - 2:28PM

    Tehreem, I totally agree that maladies of obsession with “Gorapun” has crept deep into our society. I believe admiration for beauty standards is though somewhat ingrained in our nature but to a large extent its in our psyches. Craving for fair skin could be a learned behavior as we start hearing, right from our childhoods, elders overly praising and glorifying certain attributes of physical beauty and we start listening and reading fairy tales of Caucasian blonds. Media as you have rightly pointed out, has played a major role in misleading the young ladies in pursuit of its own commercial interests and consolidating the bond between “fair and lovely”. Great write, well done!


  • Hafsah Abdul Aziz
    Sep 15, 2013 - 1:05PM

    I for once already see a change in Pakistani society (atleast middle class). People are now more accepting of darker complexions then they were say…12 years ago. Media played an important role, we now have dark beauties as Vjs, actresses, singers etc who are confident, successful and most importantly comfortable in thier skin. Now as a darkie i can wear bright orange, shocking pink and white without bieng called a nigga (which i was as a kid) Definately a huge change in attitude.


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