Dark and ugly: Why we are obsessed with fair skin tones?

Recently, I started working with a healthcare startup that is redefining dermatology for young people in India. The service bridges the gap between renowned dermatologists concentrated in the few cities in India and young people across the country who are in dire need of medical advice. This tech-enabled platform brings costs down dramatically and gives young people much-needed agency in the process of recovery.

Much of the customer service is conversational and as research, I reviewed the thousands of requests that Remedico gets every day. Messages, raw and real, typed by trusting tweens read “I hate my skin tone”, “Make me fair, how much time will you take”, “What do I need to eat to become fairer” and many more. The company’s stance has always been to educate patients and treat them sans prejudices, hence, the effort has been to inform patients that medicines can help with pigmentation and tanning but natural skin tones cannot be changed. These messages and calls are extremely insightful. It’s still early days for me but it has been a great window into the minds of the Indian youth:

The insecurities are gender-neutral. The incoming texts come in from young men and women, alike. To be fair (pun intended) the pressure isn’t just on women anymore. It starts young, sometimes even by the age of 13 and carries on.

Don’t preach, they are dismissive of idealism. There is a certain sense of defeatedness that prevails in this DIY-led generation that seems to have tried it all and seen no results. They don’t want to be told how their ideals are far from unattainable, its unhealthy.

Self-love is public. Self-loathe in private. Social media companies have acknowledged the hyper-obsessed generation they have shaped. These young people have to always be on their best social behaviour, every thought is documented online and you can’t afford to have a day off. Being on the other side of a one-on-one customer service experience, however, presents a rare opportunity to catch them off-guard. They give in to the pressure and break down. I have actually dealt with a client who confessed that she hated what she saw in the mirror but her display picture was a chirpy selfie.

This got me wondering, why are we obsessed with fair skin? There are several theories on this phenomenon. Writer Devdutt Patnaik wrote an article drawing corelations between Hindu mythology and mild colourism in the depictions of Gods and Goddesses but I wonder if that narrative can still pull the reigns of the modern, young Indian who may not have deep-dived into these tales. Also, this obsession trickles beyond Indian borders. Asian people, at large, seem gravitate towards this idea of blindingly white beauty.

In the nineties, beauty brands advocated fair skin tones in the most inventive ways; one of the more bizarre ones being a fairness shade card that lets you track how your skin tone lightens the more you use the product. Indian women, they thought, want more than just beauty. Beauty++ implied that the dark-toned girl doesn’t even get the job but as she starts flirting with white undertones, she bags that dream job, gets the love of her life and more importantly, starts loving herself.

A fairness shade card that is sold by a popular Indian brand along with their fairness cream.

There are theories which suggest power structures fed by imperialism, racism, classism and caste politics have seaped into our culture and distorted the perception of beauty. Much of this is changing in the beauty industry in the west; mainstream beauty brands have embraced different ethnicities to introduce products for each skin tone. Strangely so, this trend still hasn’t permeated the beauty industry here in India. I still struggle to find a moisturiser for my face which doesn’t come with a side of brightening, tightening and whitening judgement. Korean and East Asian beauty products further perpetuate the same obsession and this has now been taken over by photo-editing apps with fairness filters, musical transformation videos and glowing sheet masks.

An image of an Indian Goddess known as Kali (darkness).

It’s been a frustrating journey watching us systematically propogate self-hate and entrench insecurities so deep in our social fabric. The rise of the #metoo debate and woke Indian Gen-z’er made me mildly optimistic about young people’s perception of self. We could be fooled into thinking that this problem is fading away, but the surge of requests we get asking how to change skin tone is telling that we still have to challenge these norms.

Indian startups are well-positioned to disrupt and redefine these ideals. At Remedico, it has been a constant effort by the brand to use real people with representative skin colours as the models. As a dermatology brand, the communication with customers has always been to encourage them to embrace their skin tone and aspire to be a healthier version of themselves.

It’s a good time to be brown, we have representation in much of the world. I see more than fifty shades of brown between Priyanka Chopra to Satya Nadella and want the young people to see and be them too. So the next time you are about to type “how do I get fair”, don’t.