‘ “A woman should always have fair skin,” she said proudly. “Otherwise people will think you’re a peasant.” (Levin)’

Around the World

It is no secret that many countries around the world (the West tends to be an exception) prefer lighter skin tones over darker ones. In the past, it was thought that if you had darker skin, you were a worker – someone who spent time outside in the sun, performing manual labor of some kind (Verma, 465). Therefore, those with lighter skin tended to belong to the wealthier classes, making the presence of pale skin an ideal of beauty and wealth. This, however, continues to hold true in many countries and cultures around the world today, including India and China.

In Western societies – especially the United States from which I will be basing my observations – the ever-changing beauty trend now favors tan skin on white people over their natural, pale skin. It seems as though the tanner you are, the healthier you are perceived to be. Whilst tan skin arises from spending time outside in the sun, people in the West usually use artificial methods to acquire the ‘glow.’ This is completely opposite from the ideals in India, where being fair skinned is much more desirable, but similar in the use of other means to acquire the desired tone. In fact, ‘in many Indian languages, the words fair and beautiful are often used synonymously, and there is often a preference for a female with light complexion in marriage, if other considerations are equal’ (Sahay, 162). Beauty pageants and Bollywood actresses always seem to be light skinned, creating the cultural construction that lighter skin is better (Glenn, 10). These notions in the mass media of India have made darker skinned women try to lighten their complexions through the use of skin whitening lotions and cosmetics. 

This commercial really stuck out to me, especially the line ‘it repairs the damage and brings back the fair, healthy skin you always had.’ For many Indian women, having light skin is not natural – much like white Americans having tan skin – but there still seems to be an important difference between the two. In America, tan skin makes a person look healthy and shows they have both time and money to spend on themselves, but does not do much more than that (Glenn 15). Whereas in India, more opportunities are opened for people with lighter skin. Due to this, I argue that while skin color preference is a socially constructed ideal, in some cases, it is taken too far and can affect a person’s life. The past is riddled with terrible histories of the ill treatment of cultures due to the difference in skin tone. The effect of having lighter versus darker skin in India causes segregation and racism to happen. Skin tone should not determine how far we get in life, whom we can marry, or where we can work. By looking only at this one physical characteristic (one which is really almost impossible to control) we open the doors for yet another binarism to rule our lives.

While most of this discussion has been about the Indian skin ideals, I did want to touch on Asian woman’s fascination with white skin. Much like in the other case, the pale skin ideal came about hundreds of years ago when having white, porcelain skin (and wearing powder to make it even more pronounced) meant that you were of a higher class (Glenn, 12). Today, the cosmetics industry booms with products promising that “Pure White” complexion (Glenn, 12). Through my research, the most interesting product I have found has to be the swimming mask.

masks   mask2

Chinese women have now started to wear these whilst going to the beach during the summer. Their fear is that spending time in the sun will cause them to get dark, and would much rather wear these, than suffer the social consequences of tan skin (Levin). As touched upon in the New York Times article, these women are not self-conscious of how they look with the masks on; their only concern is protection from the sun. This is a very interesting point. In America, the beach is a place to see and be seen. Girls don their most attractive bathing suits, hoping to catch the eye of the lifeguard on duty, while others prefer to sit back and observe. The cultural differences between these two – in regards to both fashion and skin tone – is surprising. Whereas in America, fashion rules out, in China, they are willing to sacrifice this to keep their pale skin, showing just how important skin tone is to them. In fact, Sahay and Piran conducted an experiment where they asked 200 female students (half of European-Canadian descent and half of South Asian-Canadian descent) what their skin color preferences are (Sahay, 161). The European-Canadian women tended to prefer darker skin tones to their own, whereas the South Asian-Canadian women wanted to have a lighter skin tone (Sahay, 165). This is not a surprising piece of evidence after looking into the cultural ideals, but still shows that even those women not living in their original cultures, take the customs and ideals with them.

Levin, Dan. “Beach Essentials in China: Flip-Flops, a Towel and a Ski Mask.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 Aug. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

Verma, Shyam B. “Obsession with Light Skin – Shedding Some Light on Use of Skin Lightening Products in India.” International Journal of Dermatology 49 (2010): 464-65. Print.

Sahay, S, and N Piran. “Skin-color Preferences and Body Satisfaction Among South Asian-Canadian and European-Canadian Female University Students.” The Journal of Social Psychology. 137.2 (1997): 161-71. Print.

Glenn, E.N. “Yearning for Lightness: Transnational Circuits in the Marketing and Consumption of Skin Lighteners.” Gender and Society. 22.3 (2008): 281-302. Print.


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