Obsessed with white 

It’s not all tall, dark and handsome in India — and corporate profit doesn’t help

Illustration by Joanelle Cobos.

Click image to enlarge.

It’s called the “Snow White syndrome” in India, where the mania of pursuing lighter (whiter) skin has left the sales of extremely popular products like Coca-Cola and tea far behind those of skin-whitening creams.

Social discrimination against those with darker skin has been passed down for generations in India and equating “white” with beautiful is now a part of the national psyche.

The belief is so widespread that nearly every Indian, especially women, has faced discrimination or special treatment due to their skin-tone sometime in their past.

In a country where a majority of people are brown, the word “dark” has never been synonymous with good-looking. Young girls are told not to play in the sun without sunscreen because no man would want a dark bride.

When skin-whitening creams weren’t around, they were forced to try to “rub the dirt” off their skin by using traditional remedies made of herbs or wheat.

Even most young men believe that having pale skin translates into attractiveness.

A BBC article points out that this can be observed by taking a look at matrimonial ads from newspapers or websites, which is a very popular method of arranging marriages in India: “There’s not one guy who [advertises himself as] dark and attractive, they just say [they] are wheatish and fair.”

Of course, this preference for lighter skin has never translated into any form of de jure segregation, but de facto social discrimination can be observed anytime. There is an informal social hierarchy where people with lighter skin get all the benefits can come along with being considered more attractive — social acceptance in schools, hiring and promotion preferences and “better” marriage proposals.

But as in other instances of discrimination, there isn’t any “outsider” enforcing this social hierarchy — it is the people themselves who keep up this favoritism.

Observing that India has the world’s second most lucrative marriage industry (after China) and that the Indian middle class is expected to increase 10-fold to 583 million people by 2025, beauty companies have made hundreds of millions profiting on this collective insecurity.

The belief that lighter skin will mean a better life has resulted in the expansion of the Indian whitening cream market at a rate of nearly 18 percent a year, and it is estimated that this figure will rise to about 25 percent this year — and the market will be worth $432 million, an all-time high.

Companies all over the world are happily cashing in on the obsessions of the world’s second most populated country.

Ironically, some of the same companies that provide tanning creams to Americans, like Olay, Neutrogena, L’Oreal, Vaseline, Johnson & Johnson and Pond’s are also serving skin-whitening creams to their brown customers. And they are targeting just what my darker counterparts in India want: social acceptance.

One advertisement for such a product “shows a dark-skinned college boy relegated to the back seat and ignored by the girls until he uses the product. Soon enough, his complexion lightens and girls flock to him like moths to a flame.”

Of course, such advertisements work because they’re playing on real beliefs that have been rooted in the psyche for generations: “India’s rulers have always been fair, be it the Aryans in the early centuries or Europeans in later years. Fairness is equated with superiority, power and influence.”

Until this entire mentality of automatically associating white with beautiful goes away, profit-seeking industries will continue to cash in on their weaknesses.

Unfortunately, the Americanization of Indian youth is making that possibility less possible.

As many Americans head for tanning booths and get henna tattoos, Indians want to be whiter — both literally and metaphorically.

Bollywood is producing more Hollywood-like movies than ever before and Indian music and dress are becoming more Western.

Assimilation of cultures is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, many good things have come out of closer ties between India and the West.

But, American culture seems to be so dominant with Indian youth today that many insist on shunning everything Indian — you’re only cool if you listen to American bands, sport Ed Hardy shoes, carry a Coach bag, wear Victoria’s Secret underwear and own an Apple iPhone.

Ironically, it is when American universities ask applicants from India to illustrate diversity in background and thought that their heritage is of any importance to them.

Of course, I don’t want to exaggerate the extent of the Americanization of Indian youth, but I have both witnessed and researched this change in culture over the past decade.

India’s unbearable love for everything Western will continue to reinforce the mentality that whiter is better.

But at one point, Indians will have to come to terms with the fact that they are brown, and no matter how many steroid-infested whitening creams they use to try to alter their identities, they will remain brown.

Until then, nothing will be tall, dark and handsome, at least in India.