According to the Great Indian Cultural Lexicon, being light-skinned or “fair” translates to being “lovely.” A look at commercials that promise a make-over, courtesy of Fair and Lovely skin lightening cream will attest to this.  The definition, of course, applies to women, for that is where a woman’s identity begins and ends – within the realm of physical appearances. When the product first came out some three decades or so ago, it was mostly about being able to draw the attention of a (very often ordinary-looking) guy; the fairness/ beauty rule does not apply to men. These days, things have “progressed”; the attention has shifted from the need to getting hitched to finding success in the workplace, as these messages scream out:
The last one is especially cringe-worthy. The lengthy commercial, meant to be a public service message of sorts, targets women in villages and smaller towns, and goes into great detail about issues of women’s empowerment, about how they ought to think of a career now that they are done with college rather than go the usual marriage route. One of the young ladies, Manju, aspires to be a Collector, a high-ranking government official, a post usually limited to males. She works hard, and she also gets Fair and Lovely to work hard, as she happily lets us know. She eventually achieves her dream, all thanks to Fair and Lovely, of course. You decide what the audience is to get from this.
Hardly surprising then that within the domain of beauty pageants, a big deal in India, darker skinned women are rarely title holders, and “fair brides wanted” not an uncommon refrain when negotiating marriage alliances. I once came across a matrimonial ad that felt the need to convey in no uncertain terms – lest someone miss the point – what the groom and his family were looking for: a “very fair (pink-complexioned) bride.” I kid you not. Bollywood’s leading women are often of a light complexion, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by many of my American friends. It even confuses children. A close friend of mine who lives in the UK, drop-dead gorgeous and dark-skinned (something “aunties” continually reminded her of when she was growing up – “you have nice features, even though you are so dark”; she could never make the Pretty list) is married to a British gentleman and often travels to Calcutta where her parents reside. One time, her nine-year-old son, confused by all the ads and billboards featuring only light-skinned people in a society made up of a diverse color palette, asked with bafflement: “Why are all these people so light-skinned?” My friend explained to him that “in India, the lighter a person is, the more beautiful she is considered.” I still well up many years later when I recall his genuinely confused reply: “But Mum, you’re darker than all of them, and you are so much more beautiful.”
This preference for light skin is rooted in history. Although it may be difficult to concretely co-relate the origins of the caste system to skin color, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the Sanskrit word for the hierarchical social set-up is varna, which simply means “color.” The conflation of caste with color is no accident. The light-skinned Aryans who came to India from present day Central Asia over three millennia ago, and who brought with them the caste system, considered themselves superior to the original inhabitants who were of a darker hue. Today, in many Indian languages, varna is used to specifically describe the color of skin; gora-varna and gahu-varna would translate to “fair-skinned” and “wheatish-complexioned” in Marathi, a language spoken in Western India. The word for color in relation to all other matters, strictly speaking, would be ranga. The system of caste is still a readily recognizable feature of Indian life, and the preference for light skin remains firmly in place, no doubt strengthened by the arrival of the white colonizers in the seventeenth century (I mean this in the sense of the reinforcement of the attitude that light skin equals power and privilege).
The depiction of Hindu goddesses further reflects the relationship between caste and gender. Goddesses of Aryan origin are portrayed as light-skinned and beautiful, and as consorts or wives to more powerful male gods, their “inherently wicked female nature” thus tamed and firmly under male control. Kali, on the other hand, who is probably of non-Aryan origin, is dark-skinned and terrifying in appearance, illustrating what an independent and therefore out-of-control woman might look like. Perhaps “fairness” within the Indian context is just another way of maintaining a tight leash on women? Fairness equals beauty, and so could the solution to avoiding a “female uprising” lie in keeping women preoccupied with their looks rather than their strengths which often lie elsewhere? Today skin lightening creams make up a multi-million dollar industry, and the business stakes very high, no doubt, but might there be a deeper, perhaps even unconscious, sociological aspect to it all?
That being said, I want to share a personal story with you, one from the other side, as a light-skinned woman. Although by no means a pan-Indian experience, not even one that extends across my entire family or circle of friends, my gora-varna has often been a source of unhappiness and irritation. I understand the larger context – a context that privileges beauty, for which the only requisite seems to be light skin. My god-given “beauty” placed me in such an exalted position that to be bothered by “petty” concerns reduced me to a shallow person who was blinded by the “too much happiness she has on her hands.” I was to ignore the myriad issues that confronted me on a daily basis. I was not allowed to voice color-neutral concerns that exhausted my overworked mind. My identity began and ended with my light skin.
I am not in any way making a plea for reverse-discrimination. Hardly. I am, however, looking upon with frustration at the various ways people the world over have reduced the material body to one small aspect of the totality of being human.
 While a preference for lighter skin may not be confined to the sub-continent, it seems to be deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche.
 In recent years, a Fair and Handsome product for men has become available. I am not sure what precipitated this need, since the same beauty standards do not apply to men. I have no idea how it is faring, although I get the feeling not too many men care for it. The commercials certainly aren’t as ubiquitous or “creative” as the ones targeted towards women. The obsession for “whiteness” reached ridiculous heights in 2014 with the launching of Dry and Clean, a “vagina-brightening” product.
 The dharmashastras or ancient legal codices state that only by performing virtuous acts as devoted wives can women redeem their basic sinful nature.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha moved to Albuquerque last year from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.