Whether watching a Bollywood film, flipping through Indian magazines, watching Miss India pageants, or reading matrimonial ads, there is one common feature in all of them: the women have fair skin.

The Indian fascination with fairness of skin is not confined to a mindset. Every year, millions of Indian women go out and purchase fairness creams, soaps, and lotions. One brand alone, Fair & Lovely, had an estimated consumer base of sixty million throughout India in 2002. Skin fairness products account for 60 percent of the country’s skincare sales - bringing in over $140 million to GDP. The skin fairness business is one of the largest industries in India.

Indian women use fairness creams that act to temporarily lighten skin color through chemical agents that reduce melanin production. Melanin is a pigment responsible for the darkening skin and is produced in the skin by melanocytes, which are melanin-producing cells. Exposure to the sun stimulates melanin production. Fairness products block melanocytes and prevents tanning.

The Indian fascination with fair skin isn’t a recent phenomenon. Rather, it is thought to originate during the days of British rule. Some say that the fairness fixation is a remnant from colonial days, when Indians had lower social status than the British. The fairer one’s skin was, the closer one resembled the white ruling class, and therefore light skin was considered a desirable quality. Indian murals and artwork from the period would depict dark-skinned people as manual laborers, while the royalty, landowners, and priests were drawn as fair-skinned.

Furthermore, it has long remained a phenomenon that fair-skinned brides became sought after for their beauty and brought the brides’ family dowry benefits. Today, Indian matrimonial websites, such as Shaadi.com, reveal how skin color determines a young woman's "marketability" in obtaining desirable marriage partners. Along with caste, religion, and family background, skin tone is one of the most noted characteristics when it comes to describing women to potential male suitors.

On Indian TV, Bollywood actresses are almost always fair-skinned. Whenever the “fair” look is not achieved naturally, makeup is applied to lighten skin tone. There are only a handful of actresses who have a dark complexion, such as Bapasha Basu. However, the occurrence of a dark skinned Bollywood actress is so rare that Basu has been called the “dusky beauty”.

In addition to TV shows and movies, magazines, and television ads are also flooded with fair-skinned beauties promoting fairness products. One such ad portrayed a young, dark-skinned girl's retired father dissatisfied that he had no son-in-law to provide for him, and that the daughter's part-time work provided insufficient salaries. Implied is the fact that the daughter can neither get a good job nor get married because of her dark skin. The girl then uses the cream, becomes fairer, and gets a better-paid job as an airhostess. She can then support his father, instead of being a burden on him. Another ad shows two young women conversing in a bedroom. The lighter-skinned woman has a boyfriend and, consequently, is happy. The darker-skinned woman, lacking a boyfriend, is not. Her friend advises her to use soap to wash away the dark skin that chases men away. Yet another commercial involves a dark-complexioned girl who is engaged to a much older man. The situation is a depressing one until she uses a fairness cream and a handsome young man is attracted to her and becomes her husband.

It is apparent that Indian women have been sold on the skincare industry’s message that fairer is better. The market for fairness creams has been increasing at 25% per year, compared to the overall cosmetic market growth of 15% per year. This statistic does not include the many women who go to beauty parlors and clinics, paying even hefty sums to lighten their complexions. India’s most prized women, such as Aishwarya Rai and Miss World 1994, generally have fair skin, light-colored eyes, and hair. India is an extremely large and diverse country, and its citizens encompass a wide range of ethnicities, physical characteristics, and skin tones. However, fashion advertisements continually aim to promote a characteristic held by a tiny minority of Indian women.

Janice Hussain (’08) is a second year student at Brandeis University majoring in IGS, and minoring in French.