White-skinned beauty

Many theorists have pointed out that the features commonly held up as being the most beautiful are those typically possessed by Caucasians. The features that are typical of other races are denounced as being inferior, less beautiful, and even defective. One manifestation of this is in the huge plethora of skin-lightening creams aimed at dark-skinned races. Here’s an Indian advert for a Ponds lightening cream:

The story of an Asian girl winning her man back by bleaching her skin is continued in later adverts.

12 thoughts on “White-skinned beauty

  1. This HAS to be an instance of a company going with something so outrageous that they know they’ll get so much extra press from people being outraged that it will be free advertising to millions. ???

    And they figure women will buy it secretly anyway.

    I mean, is this real???

  2. In the case of light skin, I wonder if the reason lighter skin is considered more attractive in so many places might not be unconnected with European dominance. It might have more to do with the fact that aristocrats spend less time working in the sun and so would have tended everywhere to have somewhat lighter skin than peasants. All cultures consider signs of high class attractive. I suppose it would be instructive to compare light skin to other Caucasian features that are widely considered attractive; presumably the other features couldn’t be explained in this way, so if the tendency to prefer them is equally pronounced, my theory would probably be wrong.

  3. Littleshotlarry – no, it’s for real. You can find loads of examples of skin lightening creams advertised in this way.

    Aaron Boyden – this could well be a historical reason why lighter skins are preferred. But the preference now feeds into the identification of beauty with caucasian features.

  4. I am glad this topic has been opened for discussion. Born and raised (for a long time) in India, I would like to volunteer in offering my own impressions on this issue.

    First, I should mention, that despite the emphasis on “white” in the Ponds ad, the stress is really on “fair” skin. “White” skin is what Caucasians have and “fair” skin is what Iranians, say, would have. Contrary to popular belief in the West, Indians aren’t too enamored of white skin because in a sense such a characteristic would be too foreign or alien to associate with, but fair skin, on the other hand, is a very precious “asset” to have for both men and women. Of course, women are much more likely to be impacted by the color of their skin for reasons I will mention in the paragraph below. No doubt, we have to look at historical, cultural and sociological factors to explain such a phenomenon. Anyway, we must bear in mind that for Indians, “white” is synonymous with “fair.”

    Second, there is certainly a “hierarchy” of sorts in the Indian “marriage market” based on skin color. One almost always encounters couples where both partners are fair-skinned or that both are dark-skinned or that the husband has a dark complexion while the wife is fairer (to various degrees) than her husband. But, it is almost impossible to find couples where the husband is fair-skinned while his wife is dark! In other words, the proportion of couples where both partners are either fair-skinned or dark-skinned, in my opinion, is significantly higher than the proportion of couples where the wife is fairer than her husband, and the proportion of couples where the husband is fairer than his wife is almost minuscule. So, a girl’s skin color significantly impacts her access to potential male partners in a country where even today at least 80% of marriages are “arranged” and where two-thirds of women still consider that their parents are the best people to “consult” with when they enter the “marriage market.”

    Third, though this isn’t a universal phenomenon, but most fair-skinned Indians happen to come from higher castes while most dark-skinned ones happen to be members of the lower castes. Of course, as emphasized, there are plenty of exceptions to such a correspondence but on the whole a person’s skin color is a cue to his or her social/caste standing. To add to this, Indians who have a tribal background – there are officially, at least, 80 million Indians of tribal origin – mostly tend to be dark-skinned except the ones originating from Eastern India where they mostly tend to have Mongoloid features.

    Third, the “fair skin” phenomenon is very prevalent in Bollywood, which is India’s Hollywood, as many people may already know. One can virtually count the number of dark-skinned Bollywood actresses on one’s fingers! What is more, in the film industry of Southern India (where more revenue is generated than is done in Bollywood, by the way), one finds a plethora of fair-skinned actresses, with many “imported” from the North! So, one finds a very peculiar phenomenon in films made in Southern India where the lead actor (or “hero”, as they say) may or may not have a fair skin, but the “heroine” is invariably fair-skinned. I doubt if there is any exception to such a rule.

    Ah, I could write more on this issue, but I guess I should stop for now.

  5. So if Vishal is right, is the preference for fair skin in Asia essentially unproblematic? Is it merely one innocuous aesthetic preference out of many?

  6. Aaron,

    I think you could be right. In the western/numerical minority ‘world’ it used to be the case that fair skin was considered attractive for that reason – a tan indicated that one worked. Since the UK became elevated into the labour aristocracy through the exploitation of nonwestern countries and oil dependency, the aesthetic has inverted as a ‘tan’ no longer signaled fieldwork as we have significantly fewer field laborers and began to signal the financial ability to holiday abroad (and thus a higher status). Now, almost everyone wants to be tanned all the time.

    Being part of the arbitrarily formed ‘white’ class, however, I’m not really aware of how much sun exposure tends to impact the pigmentation of people from other ‘racial classes’. In the event that it doesn’t tend to have much impact, I’m not sure what (other than the recognition of the ‘white’/’fair’ classes as materially/socially privileged on a global or national scale) would explain this behaviour.

  7. Odiscordia – non-whites can go quite a bit darker in the sun. My dad, e.g., is pretty dark to begin with, but he tans a lot darker. The worry I tried to express in my response to Aaron was that even if that is part of the explanation of how the preference came about, the preference for lighter skin might now mean that typically caucasian features are those that are valued as beautiful.

    Amy – thanks for the link.

    Vishal – thanks for the info. Do you not think that the prizing of fair skin ends up merging – at least to some extent – with the trend for prizing Caucasian features?

    Lyle – I’d want to argue that the preference for fair skin is still problematic, even if it turns out that I’m completely wrong about it being connected with the idea that Caucasian-ness is beautiful. It’s problematic because it’s linked to success, and people are then encouraged to go to great lengths to try and achieve it. A bit like the way that looking young is prized in the US and UK (probably in other places too), which means that people are encouraged to try and retain their youthful looks for as long as possible, and resort to dangerous and unnecessary surgical procedures to do so.

  8. The thing is, with emphasis being on how much leisure time you got… now tan is the “new white” being raher fairskinned myself, which I don´t like and hard to tan in a country where most of us are mestizo, tan is very much apprecciated. It tells the world that youhave the time to go out in the sun instead of working in an office.
    Thanks for the insight in Indian culture… very much like ours by the way…

  9. @Lyle: The observations I jotted down were meant to convey the same with a certain degree of “objectivity”, so to speak. However, as you already implied, the preference for fair skin amongst Indians (as well as other Asians, if I may generalize) isn’t (to borrow your words) “merely one innocuous aesthetic preference out of many.” In my opinion, the ramifications and the social costs (with the two being tied together) arising out of such an “innocuous” preference are really huge. The costs remain hidden to a large extent because it is almost impossible to show empirically what those costs are. But, I am sure, there are indirect methods of determining such costs. (Hey, this could be a great area for academic study!)

    @Monkey: I agree with you. Indeed, I think the prizing of fair skin ends up merging with the trend for prizing Caucasian features to a great extent!

  10. In Korea, at least, I think it’s very similar to the tanning phenomenom in the States. I’m not sure how much it’s tied to wanting to look Caucasian, though, and more a social construct about what is beautiful (much like Tabi, above, said about being tan). Women there don’t just use lightening cream, but they also stay out of the sun (I knew one young women who went tanning in the summer, and she was quite Westernized). I also noticed a generational divide–the older women, who mostly led very hard lives under previously repressive regimes were both slimmer and darker, both (it seemed to me) from sun damage and from no effort to lighten their skin. [Note: being slim is sought after too, but since traditional Korean food is quite healthy and young women eat a lot more Western food, it makes sense that the older generation is, overall, slimmer and shorter].

  11. The other issue of “fair” skin is relating to a larger myth from the Vedas that the Aryans, the “noble” conquerors of South Asia, those whose understanding the Vedas represent, were conceptualized in the Vedas as being of fairer skin than the indigenous population that the Aryans conquered.

    This mythical history had some bearing in the collective imaginaire in India though its post-Vedic history, but hit it’s apex in the 19th and early 20th centuries with European imaginings about the Indo-European connections between South Asia and Europe–and Europe’s own search for origins and racial essentialism. When Hinduism was being reconstructed by Brahmanical elites and British administrators and scholars, this fair skinned myth took a prominent position in the collective imagination of both Europe (i.e. see German Romanticism) but India as well.

    Undoubtedly, however, the post-WWII capitalist forms of representation of white = normalized/ideal also played a part in this. I couldn’t really say to which degree these two ideas combined, but Vishal Lama’s first post above shows some of the consequences of the “fair-skin” mythical history today. It has a long history, and the late-capitalist connection to its contemporary manifestation, while a transformation from the past (but much more heavily connected to 19th century understandings), has undoubtedly framed it in much more exaggerated ways.

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