Only fair is beautiful in India

In a society obsessed with ‘white skin’, fairness is a benchmark for beauty, particularly in the case of women. In the run up to women’s day, we dissect this unhealthy fetish for fairness.

Skin colour matters: The Indian obsession with fairness!

I want to be fair!

“Just yesterday, a 15-year-old school girl came in in her school uniform, asking for a whitening treatment,” exclaimed Rhitika Shetty*, who owns a chain of five-star salons and spas. In her 10-year long career, this wasn’t the first time she had seen a young girl walk into her salon and inquire about fairness treatments. “But even today, I cringe every time I hear it,” she says. But Shetty admits, that she rarely discourages it. “The demand is huge, and if we don’t cater to it, we will lose out. That’s a risk I’m not willing to take as a business woman” she says.

If the demand for fairness creams and treatments are anything to go by, it’s evident that we Indians have an unhealthy fairness fetish. While men, too, seem to be taking to this fetish, our society obsesses more about a woman’s skin colour than a man’s. As Dr BR Madhukar, senior consultant psychiatrist at St Martha’s Hospital, Bangalore says, “While our society is almost fanatical about fair skin when it comes to women, it is kinder to dark-skinned men.”

Dissecting this fixation, Dr Madhukar says, it is most commonly seen in adolescent girls. “That’s when one begins to get attention from the opposite sex, and therefore, one obsesses over everything to do with appearance. And fairness is a critical aspect for many,”  he says.

What is worrisome is that Dr Madhukar has seen kids as young as six, particularly girls, who’re conscious of their skin colour. Also, Dr Madhukar frequently encounters women of marriageable age who have suffered mental trauma, owing to proposals being turned down on account of their skin tone. “Even today, I know of many cases where a girl’s skin colour is factored in before arranging a marriage,” he says, “and that is done to ensure the couple has fair-skinned babies later on.”

Facts about skin colour

First, our skin derives its colour from the cells in the dermis and epidermis layers of the skin. Second, blood vessels provide a red or blue tint depending on the level of oxygen. “Third, and the most important factor is the pigment called melanin,” says dermatologist, Sachith Abraham, who runs CosmodermaCare, a chain of skin clinics in Bangalore.

Greater the melanin content, darker the skin tone. “The level of melanin in the skin is genetically determined,” says Dr Abraham explaining, “Europeans have very light skin, as they have very little of this pigment, whereas, Africans have a very high melanin content, which is why they have dark skin.” Indian skin, he says, “is of type 4 or type 5 category, which is somewhere in between these two.”

Dr Abraham stresses that this colour-giving pigment plays a crucial role in protecting the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun.

The workings of the fairness cream

“Most fairness creams hinder production of melanin,” says Dr Abraham. Many are in fact, mere sun blocks. “Typically, Indians don’t use sunscreen on a regular basis,” he says, “and many of these fairness creams do just that – offer protection from the sun, thus putting a stop to excess melanin production, which is otherwise triggered by sun exposure.”

But what’s alarming, says Dr Abraham, “is the fact that a majority of these fairness creams do not disclose its contents. Many of which, could cause potential damage to the skin in the long run.”

Worse, many of these creams do absolutely nothing they promise.

What goes into these fairness creams 

“Fairness creams might contain chemicals like hydroquinone, mercury and some other harmful steroids,” warns Dr Abraham. Hydroquinone and mercury are both toxic and harmful chemicals used in the production of hair dye. “Hydroquinone is banned in Europe, but its usage continues in India,” he says.

When these chemicals come in direct contact with ultra-violet rays for long periods, they re-oxidise, leading to patchy skin and premature aging. Hydroquinone solidifies collagen fibres. This, damages the connective tissues and causes rough and spotty skin. Mercury can damage the nervous system, cause kidney problems, organ failure and even hearing impairments.

Not fair? Then it can be traumatic!

This fetish for fairness can cause tremendous mental trauma.

In the case of siblings with different skin colours, Dr Madhukar has noticed sibling rivalry. “‘My sister gets all the attention,’ a young child whose sister was fairer once said,” recounts Dr Madhukar, “The darker sibling believes that the fairer one has it easy, which leads to anger, jealousy and hatred towards that sibling.”

Parents’ behaviour contributes to this belief. “Consciously or unconsciously many parents tend to be biased towards the ‘fairer’ child,” Dr Madhukar says. If it’s not the parents, extended family or friends could play the comparison game, creating a complex.

In any case, obsession with fairness can give one a complex. The psychological effects of this obsession are likely to be: “Low levels of confidence, low self-esteem, difficulty in making friends and socialising, and generally taking a back seat in various aspects of life. One is likely to be less motivated to achieve anything in life,” says Dr Madhukar.

“I have seen women who jump from one fairness product to the other, hoping the new one will be better,” he says, “and they end up feeling completely drained.” Our society stresses so much on fairness, equating that alone with beauty, and this puts tremendous pressure on women. “Many women who are not fair live in constant fear of rejection,” says Dr Madhukar, “They become self critical, they also tend to blame their colour for all things that go wrong.” All in all, they live a difficult life.

*Name of the salon owner has been changed on request.

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