Is South Asia Skin Color Obsessed?

Although pale skin in South Asia has been historically associated with wealth, power and prestige, we must re-evaluate what we consider beautiful.

south-asia-skin-color-obsessedYears ago once I was walking through a poor neighborhood in Lahore, Pakistan. Passing a government girl’s school I glimpsed at its name board, and I was totally surprised to see that it was sponsored by a skin whitening bleach cream.

The school billboard, rather I would say, had a large advertised picture of a blonde model with a description about the cream’s quick skin whitening properties. The actual school name was somewhere in between.

As I continued walking, I thought how long must we, the people of South Asia, remain silent about this contentious issue? What do darker-skinned girls think when looking at the billboard? How many of them became pale and white by using that cream?

And do these girls really wish to be pale like the blonde model advertised? Oh surely they will! But what happens when this cream does not work? In this case perhaps they have many other headaches than brightening their complexion!

In this article I will discuss color prejudices prevalent in the Indus valley and beyond in the East.

Human skin color and its societal impacts is an interesting yet under researched topic in South Asia. We see people of different skin tones surrounding us, and this difference is due to many biological as well as some environmental and cultural factors.

The color factor plays a significant role in social relationships in South Asia, and many examples can be found in the media, television, art, poetry, music and advertisements. Having pale skin in South Asia mean more acceptable social status such as better matrimonial candidates and better jobs – all due to the prevailing socio-cultural prejudices and stereotypes.

South Asia’s light-skin legacy

In the Indian subcontinent pale complexion historically resembled wealth, power, and prestige.

It is interesting to note that the Aryans, who entered in South Asia as conquerors, were of paler complexion than the aborigines. They ruled over the darker people; hence their complexion symbolized status. Later migrants such as the Sakas, the Parthians, the White Huns and the Hellenistic people had similar complexions.

The Muslim conquerors (Arabs, Turks, and Afghans) were also pale in complexion compared to the earliest settled majority population. Similarly the complexion of the English conquerors was paler than all other groups residing in the subcontinent.

As time passed, the color of the conquerors started tanning mostly due to inter-marriages with natives, but also due to other biological factors. On the other hand dark color also became pale due to marriage preferences. And so gradually color differences blurred, but not color biases.

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In South Asia it is commonly seen that skin color goes from darker to lighter towards elite groups and clans, and even within the groups the occurrence of pale color is more visible in the upper social strata. Similarly starting from Kabul to Calcutta, or from Hamalayas towards Deccans, one can easily spot skin complexion getting darker eastwards and southwards.

There is a strong caste system in the Indo-Gangetic societies, and most families prefer to live and marry within their groups or communities. The ancient caste system has never been fully eliminated from society and the Aryan color prejudices still prevail. People even after changing their religion remain in the lower strata of the society, and in many cases their color becomes a distinguishing mark having impact on their status in the social relationships.

Today many South Asians are passionate to look pale by staying out of the sun and by using different cosmetics.

Mothers do not allow their children to play in the sun even in winters, and when considering a bride for their sons, they are certainly considering a fair-skin girl. Typically they seek Chand si Dulhan or a “moon-white” daughter in law.

South Asians usually consider the blond Caucasians as very attractive people owing to their pale complexion. In this scenario people with darker complexion face prejudices in the Subcontinent, since they fall below the so-called beauty standards.

However, the importance of color in social relationships is different and was different in many societies. When Muslims ruled Andalusia (southern Spain), dark color resembled power and noble birth, as the ruling Arabs (most of them Yemenites) were darker in complexion compared to the Spaniards.

Similarly in many quarters of equatorial Africa, darker skin color represents beauty. To look more attractive, North Americans and Europeans are spending their time under the sun and on beaches to tan their color. But contrary to this, most South Asians want to be become pale.

Now is the time to re-evaluate what we consider beautiful. After all, these color prejudices are a neo-colonial corporate trap and nobody can justify these color prejudices if they think over it rationally.

We have to think sensibly and convince ourselves that our color is only skin deep, and has nothing to do with these invented social bigotries. We have to recognize that the diversity in human skin colors is as beautiful as the diversity in the colors of flowers.

What do you think about how society views different skin complexions? Please share this article on FacebookTwitter and Google+

Hammal Jan is a graduate of Government College University Lahore. He is a freelance writer and researcher on identity, politics, culture and environment.