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Busting India's myths about skin color

Vogue India's April cover story proclaimed that it's time 'to say we love, and always have loved, the gorgeous color of Indian skin.' But busting the myth that whiter skin color is more beautiful will be hard.

By Amana Fontanella-KhanContributor / May 8, 2010

A woman walks past a pharmacy selling beauty products. Sales of skin color whitening creams are up 17 percent over the past year in a country where fair skin is seen as a 'passport to getting the ideal partner.'

Amana Fontanella-Khan

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Mumbai, India

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

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Skin color matters in India, a fact made clear by the adjectives used in personal ads seeking spouses. Suitors use keywords such as “dusky,” a euphemism denoting dark skin, or “wheatish,” meaning one is light-skinned, to indicate their complexions.

While being darker-complected has traditionally been considered an impediment to finding a good partner, things may be changing. April’s cover story in Vogue India proclaimed the “Dawn of Dusk” saying, “Every generation has its share of myths. Perhaps it’s time to bust this one. Time to say that we love, and always have loved, the gorgeous color of Indian skin.”

Busting the myth that fair is more beautiful will be hard to do in India, even for Vogue. Sales in skin-lightening creams are up by 17 percent from the previous year, reported marketing firm Nielsen Company late in 2009. One Indian advertising executive, who worked on a skin-whitening campaign and wished to remain anonymous, explained the growth by saying that “being fair is seen as a passport to getting the ideal partner.” These attitudes are also reflected in India’s thriving film industry.

“In Bollywood, there is a premium on being fair. Dusky actresses ... aren’t considered glamorous,” says filmmaker Jag Mundhra.

Some point to the discrimination as representing the flip side of globalization and economic liberalization. Vijay Prashad, professor of South Asian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., notes that “With neoliberalism there has been a turn back. Previously, for example, our news presenters were not cast based on a certain image. Today, they all have a similar, fair-skinned look. This is a defeat for cultural politics in India.”

Others, like Mr. Mundhra, are more hopeful about the future. “The economic changes have meant that India no longer sees itself as a third-world country. This newfound pride will help us accept our own skin color.”

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