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Skin tanning versus lightening: An unfair comparison

TanningWith the rise of the tanning industry in the West, it has been often argued that the fairness industry in the ‘Oriental’ world is not racist. However, the complexities of lightening your skin colour are quite different from the fantasy of darkening your skin and need to be recognised as a damaging repercussion of the history of imperialist rule, writes Asyia Islam.

10 April 2011

There was a time when all you’d use Fair&Lovely in India for was to get married. But Fair&Lovely grew with time; now you want to be fair not only to get married but also to get back at a boy who has been ignoring you all this while (because you were dark and dull) and to get a job (especially if you are interested in becoming a model or an air hostess).

And now Fair&Lovely has discovered that boys might want to be fair too in order to win girls, so they have been blessed with Fair&Handsome. No more stealthy use of your sisters’ fairness cream!

Quite often termed Indians’ ‘colonial mentality’, the obsession with being fair (read beautiful) afflicts the Indian population to this day.

On the other hand, ‘tanned’ skin seems to be all the rage in Europe and America. I have seen tourists baking themselves in the scorching heat of India to get that ‘tan’. I believe part of that is aimed at going back to their home country and enticing reactions such as “Oh, you look so tanned! Where have you been?” which obviously helps to brag about the ‘adventurous’ holiday in the dark Orient.

I was aware that the ‘bronze look’ is catching up in the West but it was only after I came to London that I discovered how huge the tanning industry actually is. The risk of cancer doesn’t seem to dampen spirits either.

Is it the ‘imperialist fantasy’ of the sexually charged and promiscuous Oriental Other that fuels the tanning industry?

Some would argue that both the industries (fairness and tanning) are exact equivalents — both capable of imparting Otherness; both products of consumerism targeting women as their biggest potential market; both make women believe that they have to change their skin colour to be more attractive and ‘appealing’.

But leaving aside the health risks involved in the process of changing one’s skin colour, somehow the idea of Westerners trying to make themselves dark does not seem as offensive as the constant bombarding of adverts for fairness creams on Indian television.

I have never been able to accept that both industries have the same implications.

After all, I have never come across a European or American girl who lacks self-confidence and believes she is ugly because she is ‘too fair’.

The opposite is not true. There are plenty of Indian girls, who for the sole reason that they are dark (maybe only slightly darker than the ‘average’ colour), have receded into a shell cursing their luck that they were born so.

And it is obvious that this debilitation of confidence is caused by the way parents or the society looks at the girl child.

A particularly dark Indian girl child is looked upon with pity and a kind of remorse from the moment she lies in her cot because of the long string of societal connotations (and negative implications) attached with the girl’s dark colour.

A white baby girl, on the other hand, is not ‘judged’ or considered to be ‘doomed’ for her skin colour per se. Undeniably, as the white girl grows up she may feel the need to be more sexually appealing by changing her skin colour, but that does not make her consider her natural skin colour to be a curse.

The difference in the two situations is the difference between ‘colonial mentality’ and ‘imperialist fantasy’. While tanning, as an imperialist fantasy, does not make white skin colour any inferior, fairness as a colonial mentality, strongly establishes the degraded status of black/brown skin colour.

The point being that tanning, as a fashion statement in the West, is not institutionally racist like the fairness propaganda in India is.

But perhaps there is a ray of hope here — the adaptation of tanning or dark skin colour as a fashion statement in the West has been inevitably picking up in the Indian film industry as well, with actors boasting of their tanned or bronzed look.

Nevertheless, we are still a long way from rescuing skin colour from the chains of racism and consumerism.

Asiya Islam works in Equality and Diversity at the London School of Economics. She holds a Masters degree in Gender, Media and Culture. She maintains her own blog ‘Why am I a Feminist’ and is also involved with the online magazine ‘The Vibe’ and a feminist news portal ‘Women’s Views on News’.


+2 #5 Dingbat 2011-05-04 23:40
"After all, I have never come across a European or American girl who lacks self-confidence and believes she is ugly because she is ‘too fair’"

I think its less of an issue for girls but as someone of Celtic descent who does not tan at all I can tell you that in sun blessed Australia I have often felt ugly because my lack of a complexion.

As for skin lightening in India I agree that colonialism is part of the issue, but I would suspect the historic Aryan and Mogal colonisation of India is more of a factor than European colonisation and when we see figures of power or beauty depicted in ancient Indian art they tend to have much lighter complexions than the average Indian you see on the street.

Social elites do not need to go out in the Sun so a lighter complexion could have been an indicator of social status just as growing ones fingers long, showing that a person did no manual work, was a sign of status in other parts of Asia.

As for skin whitening in Africa I suspect the popularity of African American celebrities with some European ancestry may be part of the issue.
0 #4 David Skidmore 2011-04-13 23:51
Growing up as a white boy in NSW in the 1970s, I received the message that tanning made you look healthier. Now I know that it increases your chances of developing cancer as well as making you look like an old vinyl couch.

Still, it is so depressing that particular looks - including skin colour - enhance or degrade status either in India, Australia or elsewhere. And I can only imagine what black people go through because my skin colour is considered nondescript and not an issue where I live.
0 #3 Asiya 2011-04-12 03:56
Thank you, FRan!

Breeze Harper - thank you for your very interesting comment. If only getting tanned and being black were the same thing! But unfortunately, getting tanned is a privilege, something very different from naturally being a darker skin tone.
0 #2 FRan 2011-04-12 03:16
Brilliant article.
0 #1 A. Breeze Harper 2011-04-11 20:13
Thank you for writing this. This is an incredibly complex and emotional subject for me. The first thing that came to mind when reading this was growing up in an all white rural school system in the USA as a black girl in the 1980s and 1990s. I can recount numerous times when, after a white child got a tan while on vacation, he or she would return to school would grab my arm and show me their arm and make a comment like, "See, now I'm black just like you," implying that getting a tan as a white person = being black. Of course most were too young to really understand the color complex, or were simply not ever taught by their parents that 'being black doesn't mean getting a tan,' and that white tanned people are not subject to anti-black discrimination in the USA. Interestingly, I got similar comments from the white college students at Dartmouth College that I attended from 1994-98.

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