complexion bias blog

Fair skin – Perpetuating bias or not my issue?


This is a hard one. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if I’m afraid of what I’ll feel when I hit publish, and I’m not sure if there is a right answer. Like many areas, there are many shades of grey… and honestly I’m not sure if there’s a pun there.

complexion bias blog
Complexion in the US refers to whether or not you have redness and acne. In India, it is in regard to how dark your skin is and is listed in matrimonials. Bias for light skin is prevelant, with many products to help people, including teens, keep or get “light” skin.

I’ve written in the past about the strive for “fair skin” in India. Yes, some Americans have a desire for the perfect tan, but there are plenty of not-so-tan or naturally tan individuals to say that while there are people who strive for a tan, it isn’t an issue of a “must have tan” or you’ll be discriminated against.

Is it okay to perpetuate someone else’s bias?

That’s where we are right now. My kids are cute. I’ll admit it. They both have enjoyed some modeling, but it saddens me that there are some super cute kids who aren’t getting the chance to model because they don’t have the right skin tone. There, I said it. Complexion. Fair skin. Skin lighteners for pre-teens. These are things my children’s friends face.

It is one thing to hear of the cases of US college photoshopping diversity into the student body into their college brochures (that was an issue back 15 years ago when I was in college, and it is still an issue I’m sure), but perhaps it is another thing to bring in dark haired Canadians and Russians to pose as light skinned Indians, right?

When we were in Kochi earlier this year, my husband and I were commenting on all the bridal jeweler billboards (hoardings as they call them there) that showed clearly Russian/Eastern European women on them. Yes, I know, I can’t assume that those specific photos weren’t of people who were of mixed heritage, but I’ve been on shoots with non-Indians posing as Indians. Is that okay? There are hundreds of non-Indians married to Indians living in India, but why aren’t there Indians modeling the bridal jewelry? Are they promoting the co-mingling and marriage of Indian men to non-Indian women…

or, is it the desire to showcase the desired fair skin?

Dress up as Elsa – she first wanted to have black straight hair like the majority of her friends here in India. Then when it came time to wear this Elsa dress, she wanted to dye her hair white. Luckily there was a youtube tutorial for “Elsa hair” and the model had brown hair. Suddenly, she was okay with her hair. Of course the look of models impact a person’s acceptance of themselves.

This morning, while my daughter was getting ready for her school’s super late Halloween dress up day, I allowed her to have a bit of make up (against my otherwise better judgement… but most kids wear make up, at least Kajal aka Kohl on dress up days.) So while adding some sparkle she commented that one boy in her class has fairer skin than she does.

For a few moments I didn’t even know what to say. Do I ignore it? Do I comment? What is appropriate? I asked her why that mattered and she said it didn’t. But she said it. They are comparing. Then, in my 6:10 am tiredness told her that “you know if you’re back in the US no one will know what you mean by fairer skin, right?” She said no she didn’t know that, but this is one thing about raising cross cultural kids. Earlier this week she was crying and screaming a bit and begging for her hair to be dyed black. She basically was cursing the fact that I gave her “ugly” hair and that it wasn’t black and straight like “everyone else.” I think the only issue of “fair skin” comes up with Snow White, and even then, some argue it isn’t all about skin. But here, in India, it is.

When you have kids, and especially kids who may not look like most of their friends in blatant things like hair color, you have to face the fact that there will be struggles. There will be instances when you’re like why, oh why, am I facing this? So I did remind my daughter that we all have things we don’t like about ourselves. Plenty of people dye their hair to get her hair color, and I own a curling iron to get my hair curly at times! Of course, last night as we prepared for her to dress up as Elsa, she was begging to dye her hair “white” so I know it is passing issue, but deep down, there are issues of defining beauty.

My daughter is who she is but there are a half billion or so girls here in India who are comparing themselves to the models they see that are nothing like them. There are so few “wheatish” skinned models and TV stars, much less dark skinned models. Now I know there are times when an “international” look is needed, but I have to ask when there’ll be demand for regular skin tones in Indian modeling jobs. Just check various model boards (plenty of them on Facebook) and I’d bet that 90% request “light skin” “rich looking” unless the part is that of someone down-trodden.  Is this merely a fair skin bias or just asking for what people ‘perceive’?

Fair skin = rich looking?

Perhaps when Fair and Lovely and all the other whitening creams aren’t all over the place, the dolls for girls won’t be white kids, the variety of skin tones found between north, south, east and west, will be showcased. Instead of this desire for always fairer. I mean, even I, with some peach under tones and plenty of freckles have been offered skin lightening products and actually at Shopper’s Stop the make up lady refused to give me foundation powder that was the shade I wanted. She refused to give me anything other than level 1. Perhaps I was too polite and figured I’d mix it since I was in between shades, but this desire to look whiter than I am, to keep kids away from the benefits of the sun all to have more desirable skin, has to stop.

In the 8 years of reading matrimonials, skin color/complexion is still listed but at least it seems like the ads are changing. But, are the attitudes?

How fair is it to be fair? From BollyWood Shaadi (link below)

The thing is, when it comes to a bias, is it possible to be here with our kids as they are and not perpetuate it? Beauty is something that all cultures strive toward, that all people have a different definition. But, when beauty isn’t just skin deep, can we really change perceptions that easily?

The other part is that culture and beliefs are always changing. Yes, there are bigger issues out there in the world, and my child is just one of billions.

I don’t have an answer. My daughter at least enjoys modeling – but there are definitely  more “cans of worms” to be opened in this discussion… and I’m looking for wisdom and guidance.

What do we need to gain internal acceptance? A commercial free life? Is that possible today? Or, is it a matter of more individuals rebuffing bias, even if the bias is in our favor?

Here are some articles to read on the topic:


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  1. These are great observations and questions. Personally, I don’t believe that the media is wholly to blame; children learn primarily from their parents and then their peers, and as long as we all are in sync with our message to our kids, they should grow up confident and comfortable ‘in their own skin’!!
    I’m so glad that you are talking to your daughter and driving home this message!

  2. Wow great post. I agree with Roshni.
    I don’t think the media is fully to blame. I think kids look up to us and our normal surroundings more so than media. At least I’ve noticed that with my own.

  3. Wow I have known that there were problems in with skin tone in some cultures but I did not think India was one. The best thing we can do is to encourage our children to be the best they can be.

  4. I grew up in a culture where the “fairer” skin kids were considered “better”. This is a problem world wide and we need to really address it. I have a toddler who goes to a daycare where it’s 95% white and so far since she’s so young she doesn’t understand why she’s darker than her pre-school friends. Hopefully I won’t have to address this issue when she’s older and she’ll just love the skin she’s in.

  5. We just have to listen to our children and make sure they know we love them the way they are, and that they should never feel they have to change to meet someone else’s standards. This is obviously easier said than done but self-esteem is the most important gift we can give them.

  6. Well the best way to break down stereotypes is to educate. Talking to our children and teaching them to be the best they can be will contribute to a more understanding world

  7. I used to always be made fun of when I was a kid for being so pale. Even my “starting to get a tan”, was about the darkest i was going to get in the middle of the summer. But now I laugh, because I look younger than my age & the others that commented on my skin tone don’t. Hopefully that will be the case with your daughter.

  8. This posts reminds me of a character on the show The Fosters. The girl is of hispanic descent but lives with a white and mixed parent. She was adopted and feels out of place. She wanted to be more like the kids in her area (all white nearly) and dyed her dark hair blonde in an attempt to be non-hispanic. I wish it weren’t the case that people were judged for their skin color, but it happens to all races at different times.

  9. I was very surprised when baby T, who is half Indian, was born as she was fully white. Still now she is very fair with European looking hair. The Indian part of the family told me a few relatives had the same complexion as babies. What I find interesting is that she looks at “black” faces in the same way she looks at “white” faces for she is used to seing both at home. With my older kids from a diffent dad we always tell them they look like this grand ma and that uncle and cousin, so I guess when baby T asks questions, I will point out that her hair is like this grand ma’s and her nose like this cousin’s… Knowing who is your tribe, that’s what importanr for a child in my opinion…

  10. Well, I think the media is significantly to blame, as is the mindset.
    I have freckles, myself – my complexion has never been flawless. Before we were married, my husband suggested I use a cream to get rid of my freckles. Like… What? I told him no, and that freckles were a part of who I am, and I’m not willing to bleach them out. He was confused, but over a year later, he adores them.
    He was the same way about my weight, always encouraging me to lose weight. Over a year later, he loves me exactly as I am. He has learned that I have no unhealthy habits that attribute to my weight.

    There is an obsession with beauty in India, and fair skin is considered beautiful. When I try to talk to Indians about this, they say, “Well everyone has different standards of beauty.” Like… Yes, that’s true, but no place on earth should be so obsessed with beauty that they shame their own people for not living up to those standards.
    When I was home for Diwali, I was helping my 5 year old niece get ready for the evening puja. She got dressed, and I waited on the floor with all the hair supplies, so I could do her hair. Before she came to me, she went to the mirror, put a generous amount of Fair and Lovely in her hands and smeared it all over her face. She might be 5, but she is extremely intelligent, and I could tell that she knew exactly what she was doing. It’s part of her getting ready routine. It was so saddening.

    I had to convince my husband to stop using Fair and Lovely before we were married, as well. I watched him put on the phony product – it only added a layer of shimmer to his face. I told him it was fake, and that even if it wasn’t, he didn’t need to lighten his skin. I told him he was so incredibly handsome, naturally. This was something I had to tell him again and again to make him finally believe it.

    Natural beauty is not a concept that India can recognize – at least not yet. Is fair skin attractive to Indians because of the Western influence, or the non-Indian influence? I can’t say. Some people are attracted to darker and tan skin because they feel it’s more exotic, so I often wonder if the opposite is also true.

    I know having culturally mixed children must be a challenge, and it’s one I’ve signed up for myself. I can say, having spent all of my life around children, that being unhappy with the way they look comes and goes. It’s great that you took the time to talk to you daughter about it.

    I’m not sure there is anything we can do to sway people here, but the best thing we can do is to teach our loved ones self love.


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