N° 20 – Our Obsession with the Wrong Fair

Posted by Leila Janah on

In 2003, I traveled to India for the first time. Though my parents are Indian and I’d gone as a baby, I had very little knowledge of family’s homeland and had never traveled there as an adult or teen.

For the most part, I loved it. Mumbai was chaotic, with life exploding from every pore of the city. It was messy, colorful, and musical. I felt as it I’d uncovered a lost part of my soul.

A few weeks into my internship with Ashoka, a social entrepreneurship organization, I decided to treat myself to a haircut. I went to a nice salon in Bandra, a chic neighborhood in Mumbai, and got comfortable in the salon chair. Just after she evaluated my tresses, the stylist popped a question I thought I heard wrong: “for someone like you, one of our signature skin lightening facials would be good, no?"

No way, I thought. No way is this stylist telling me I’m too dark. I’m in INDIA! This is the one place where I’m supposed to celebrate being brown, where my skin color is the norm, not the exception! Where the women on the billboards look like me and the department store clothes are made to fit body types like mine! 

I told the stylist off, and said that India’s obsession with white skin was a throwback to the colonial era and a subconscious attempt to identify with our former British oppressors. She looked at me strangely, surprised that I was so offended, and proceeded to cut my hair in silence. 

What’s with India’s fairness obsession? Over the years since the whitening facial debacle, I’ve polled friends of all ethnicities to get their perspective. Most of my American friends tell me that this isn’t such a big deal, because India’s obsession with whiteness mirrors America’s obsession with being tan.

“Are you kidding? Those creams are just as bad as our tanning beds and Hawaiian Tropic oil.” 

They have a point. I never thought I’d see the day one of America’s presidential candidates would show up to a convention looking embarassingly orange. Americans alone spend close to $1B annually on self-tanning products, and $2.6B on tanning beds. For white Americans, having a tan is a status symbol — it shows off time spent in the sun, presumably enjoying leisure activities.

Being naturally tan is a luxury few factory or cubicled workers can enjoy for more than a few weeks a year. 

It would seem that the skin whitening obsession has the same root — paler skin in a mostly agrarian economy connotes status and wealth. If most work is done outside in the fields, leisure means staying in the air-conditioned luxury of the great indoors. And in terms of market size, the entire global skin whitening industry is about $10B, not so far off from the tanning industry figures cited above which apply only to the US. 

But I think our obsession with the wrong kind of fair is far more problematic, and stems from something much deeper than economic status anxiety.

Unilever markets a cream, Fair and Lovely, that promises to reduce melanin in the skin. According to Aneel Karnani’s Fighting Poverty Together, “Unilever’s Indian subsidiary claims Fair & Lovely is doing good by fulfilling a social need. [Their] research says that ’90 percent of Indian women want to use whiteners because it is aspirational, like losing weight. A fair skin is like education, regarded as a social and economic step up."

Girls in India have burned and maimed themselves trying to become lighter with home remedies spiked with bleaching agents. And it’s not just India. All over Asia and Africa, women are told that beauty and good character are associated with whiteness. 

When I was an English teacher at a school for the blind in Ghana during a gap year before college, I had my students write a page of their future autobiography and read it to the class. A few of them described themselves as “fair in complexion.” Mind you, these were blind and partially-sighted kids in their early teens. In West Africa. Where most people are ebony-colored. When I probed deeper I understood that my students wanted desperately to fit in, that being “fair” was another way of saying “acceptable.” It broke my heart.

A few years later I remember being told by a Malaysian shopkeeper in Borneo to carry an umbrella because I was "getting too dark.” It was summer in the tropics. I was lugging a giant backpack with gear for two months around Southeast Asia, and his comment made me explode. I yelled at him, and he told me I’d have trouble finding a husband if I didn’t take better care of myself. 

Decades after Black is Beautiful, young Indians, Africans, and Asians are absorbing the message that fair is lovely and dark is ugly. That their natural skin tone isn’t good enough or acceptable. That without treatments and expensive creams they will never achieve high status or even fulfill basic life goals like getting a good job or having a family.

The American tanning obsession just isn’t the same.

It’s possible to be elite in America and also very white. The upper echelons of Congress, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Wall Street aren’t dominated by orange-hued whites obsessed with getting darker. And to the extent we do spend money on looking tan, our country is not obsessed with darkness. Let’s be real. We’re obsessed with sun-tinged whiteness. 

The comedian Leslie Jones left Twitter briefly because of the torrent of hate comments she received after starring in the remake of Ghostbusters. Many of the comments referred to her gender and skin color and weren’t deleted or marked as abusive until days later. It took Twitter too long to ban Milo Yiannopoulos, known for saying things like “campus rape is a fiction,” after he encouraged his fans to harass Jones on Twitter. This isn’t free speech, it’s hate speech — the kind of rhetoric that incites violence. 

Let’s take a stand against the subtle violence of “fair means lovely” messaging. For me this means being proud of my skin’s natural darkening in the summer and making a conscious effort to highlight *ALL* beautiful skin types in LXMI’s marketing efforts. Let’s refuse to succumb to pressure to change our skin color — in either direction — and celebrate what we were born with, our #GodGivenSkin. 

Day one, with my fair skin:

Our Obsession with the Wrong Fair

Day eight, with my sun-kissed skin: 


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