In India, Color Is Complicated

by Intern Kerishma

A week or two ago, this ridiculous ad for an Indian beauty product called “Clean and Dry Intimate Wash” made the rounds on the blogosphere. What the product aims to do, in essence, is bleach the skin around your ladyparts, therefore making everything in your sucky life better.

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The facepalm-inducing ad starts with an unbelievably fair-skinned Indian couple whose relationship is suffering because of the woman’s dark and disgusting vajay. Luckily, she has access to Clean and Dry Intimate Wash! She fixes herself up til she’s marble-white, to the strains of a singer and announcer crooning (my translation), “Where have we disappeared? Now in India, Clean and Dry Intimate Wash keeps the private parts clean, protected, and improves color! No, no, don’t go! Freshness is here!” Now free of her dark vajayjay, she can enjoy a happy, sexy time with her partner. Thanks, Clean and Dry!

For the most part, the reaction on the Internet was one of shock. Why would anyone want to bleach their skin at all, much less their ladyparts? How is something like this even allowed? I wish I could say I was surprised, but being Indian myself, I’ve experienced India’s general glorification of fair/white skin firsthand.

I’d place myself in the middle-ground area in terms of skin color; but South Asians do range in color from fair- to dark-skinned. I’m not what one would describe as “fair,” and I’m not particularly dark. I’m just plain ol’ medium brown (that’s me, above, glamorous as ever). The majority of Indians I’ve come across fall into my range of skin tone; although obviously, that could change depending on which region of India you’re in.

In the scope of all South Asians, I’m pretty average, but among the Indians I grew up around here in the U.S., I was considered “dark.” I’m insanely thankful that my parents always thought skin-color lightening was a load of nonsense; I didn’t even know that the perceived color hierarchy was “a thing” until I was in elementary school. My parents tried to keep us in contact with the Indian community on Long Island, so I went to a weekly cultural/religious program, akin to Sunday School. One day after the program– I must have been in 3rd or 4th grade– one of my playmates asked why I was so dark. Her two sisters chimed in, holding up their light-skinned arms to mine. I was speechless – they made it sound like such a bad thing and  I actually felt ashamed of my skin color. Clearly, the fair-skin complex can be so pervasive that elementary school kids are aware of it.

Thankfully, my mom was present, and coolly diffused the situation. Later that day, she told me very clearly to ignore any further remarks about my skin color. I’m glad I had (and still have) her for that, but India’s obsession with fair skin lives on. Just look at Bollywood – though there are some darker-skinned girls making it, there is an overwhelming fixation on the fairer-skinned ladies (above, from left to right: Preity Zinta, Aishwarya Rai, and Katrina Kaif). In Bollywood songs, men sing their praises of a woman’s beauty with the word “gori,” which actually means “white-skinned.” Colloquially, light skin = beautiful.

Another marker of the fixation on darker skin is the skin product Fair and Lovely (or, for men, Fair and Handsome). It’s basically the same thing as Clean and Dry, except it’s for the rest of your hideously dark skin. Their ads are equally weird (and dumb), like the one below, which shows that the only thing getting between you and your dream of being a sports journalist is your fugly skin.

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Strides are being made, though. Those horrible Fair and Lovely ads depicting depressed, dark-skinned women were banned from the airwaves in 2007, and in 2010, Vogue India paid tribute to bronze ladies by featuring five darker-skinned Indian models on their cover. A few duskier-skinned ladies have also broken into mainstream Bollywood fame. It’s just sad to see that even when progress is attempted, it seems like it’s to no avail (fairness creams outsell Coca-Cola in India). Obviously, the glorification of fair/white skin has deep roots in India’s psyche going back to imperial colonialism, but when (and how) will we get over this complex?

(Images via IMDB,

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