Rahman conducted a 2002
survey of South Asian women in New Jersey; most were Hindu married
women who immigrated to America and some were first-generation South
Asian Americans. (The findings will be published in the upcoming volume
of the South Asian Graduate Research Journal (SAGAR) in 2005.) She
asked these women about the influence of skin color in the marriage
market. Most first-generation South Asian Americans were not as concerned
about fairness as previous generations, she says.
“[Fair skin] is not as salient as it is in the immigrant community,
but it’s still a factor,” Rahman says.
“It’s talked about, but it’s in
passing,” she adds, remarking on the occasional casual comment
of a bride’s skin color.
The desirability of fair skin takes place in what Rahman calls the
“second-generation marriage market,” the South Asian community
networks in America in which singles often meet.
Zareena Grewal, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Vassar College,
surveyed Muslim women in Michigan, including South Asian Americans,
about issues of race, religion and marriage. In her interviews, she
encountered women who bleached their skin or followed old wives’
tales such as not drinking tea to preserve a lighter skin tone.
“The anxiety that these women feel about their color is real,”
she says. Although there is no proof that fair women marry earlier
or with less angst, some of these women perceived a direct relation
between light skin and success in finding a spouse, she explains.
Grewal raises an important aspect of looking at skin color in the
21st century. She says that even if lighter skin color is simply an
aesthetic preference, the desire to be fair carries a politicized
message in a post-colonial society.
“Whiteness means a lot of things to Indians that it didn’t
mean before. It has a different charge,” Grewal says.
The Dark Side of Skin Lightening Creams
Many South Asian women, and other women of color,
desperately try to protect their skin not only for fear of cancer,
but for fear of a tan. Although protection from the sun is important,
using skin lightening and bleaching creams is entirely different.
Often, women use these creams and end up suffering from unexpected
In early January, a woman in New York used a skin
lightening cream that caused mercury poisoning. The product, purchased
from the Dominican Republic, contained large amounts of mercury. “While
the FDA limit for mercury is 1 part per million (ppm), the tested
sample contained more than 6,000 ppm of mercury,” stated a press
release from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
and the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs.
The product is called Recetas de la Farmacia - Crema
Blanqueadora (Recipes of the Pharmacy - Whitening Cream). Many imported
creams do not list mercury as an ingredient, if they list any ingredients
at all. Mercury exposure can cause a host of problems such as damage
to the brain, kidneys and nervous system, as well as skin rashes and
irritation when found in a topical cream. Mercury can also cause birth
defects, such as brain damage and malformations in the fetus due to
poisoning, the release stated. The release also cited the following
products as containing mercury: Recetas de la Farmacia Normal - Crema
Blanqueadora, Miss Key Crema Blanqueadora, Santa Cream, Dermaline
Skin Cream and Jabon Germicida.
There are some instances when a skin lightening cream
is necessary though. According to Healthatoz.com, conditions such
as hyper pigmentation, which causes skin to become darker than usual,
can be corrected with the use of a cream. The best way to know how
to treat any skin condition is to speak with your doctor.
Tina Madan, owner of New York-based Gorgeous Brides,
says her makeup service has never encountered a bride who asked for
a skin-lightening treatment. She says that the salon has been fortunate
enough “to work with brides who know how important it is to
find the right shades to complement their skin tones rather than make
them look like something they are not” when it comes to applying
makeup. “We go out of our way to get makeup that matches their
skin color,” she says.
Madan has seen pictures of women who have had makeup
done by artists who are not as sympathetic, and says that many are
pictures of women with makeup much lighter than their natural colors,
which makes them look unnatural. Her salon, she says, does not offer
any skin lightening creams or lotions.
Fizza Qadri, a makeup artist for Picture Perfect
Makeovers in Fremont, California, says some women have asked for skin-lightening
treatments before their wedding days. Although she does not provide
a lightening service, she suggests that clients interested in lightening
their skin color get a facial or use a drugstore lightening cream,
such as Fade Out Gentle Cream Bleach or Stillman’s Skin Bleach
Cream. Qadri describes these creams as “high-factor sun block”
which “will maybe lighten you a shade in about six months.”
They do not give permanent results, she says.
Being a darker shade is not necessarily a bad thing.
Rahman offers this insight: While many South Asian women think of
dark as bad, in parts of America where the sun does not shine as brightly,
a nice tan shows that you have the money to fly to Hawaii for a vacation
or the time to lie on a tanning bed. “They have the power to
get brown,” she says.