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Health and Wellness

By Rohina Phadnis

Being Fair-Skinned in Today's World

In the “Matrimonial Brides” classifieds section of the May 27, 2005 issue of India Abroad, 10 out of 54 listings advertised the fair complexions of brides-to-be. One listing took it a step further than just fair: “Parents seek professional match for US-born extremely fair, slim and beautiful Ph.D. student.” Of the twenty-six groom's ads, one noted the groom’s fair skin color and one asked for a “fair” bride.

How did a light skin tone get lumped together with all the other characteristics listed in matrimonials?

Roksana Badruddoja Rahman, a sociology doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, believes it is related to a post-colonial mentality, in which lighter skin is seen as belonging to those in power. Rahman says British women in colonial India wore full-length white clothing that covered their bodies, and carried umbrellas that shielded them from the sunlight. White skin, she says, was like “protected territory” and it was the white man’s duty to protect it. Brown women, on the other hand, were subjected to the sexual advances of both white and brown men. From a colonial perspective, whiteness equaled power while darkness equaled something barbaric, she explains.

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 side effects.

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, 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.

Rohina Phadnis is a fourth-year journalism major at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland-College Park.

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