I am at a random makeup store with an Indian friend. She leans over and picks up a tube of fairness cream. She then gestures to me and says, ‘You should really use something like this, babe. Might make you a bit fairer. It will be good for you.’ She looks at me pitifully.

I live in a brown society that values whiteness; a society which advocates for its women to use fairness creams on a day-to-day basis. A society which crafts advertisements that suggest that a spinster woman can finally get married after she goes for a few sessions of skin whitening treatments. Most of all, I live in a society which tells me that I am not destined to be ‘beautiful’ simply because life handed me a darker deck of cards as opposed to other women.

When I was younger, my mother bought me my first and (thankfully) last tube of fairness cream, Fair & Lovely. (the most popular fairness cream of the lot) Most dark-skinned Tamil girls would have encountered this pink and white tube at some point in their lives. At the tender age of 16, I believed that this cream would miraculously make me fairer and subsequently more attractive. However, all it did was to darken my confidence as I realized that the fairness creams were nothing more than a moneymaking scam.

Since then, I have steadfastly refused to use any creams that promise to lighten my skin. I have refrained from drinking any concoction that gives assurances to bleach my blood so that I will look paler and I believe that I am a better person for it.

The sad reality is that in my society, you are consistently reminded that you are not attractive unless you are fair. Take the Tamil cinema industry for example; dark skinned girls are almost never casted as leading women. In fact, Kollywood imports most of its heroines from the much fairer North of India. You do not need to be able to speak Tamil in order to excel in this industry; you just need to have milky white skin to succeed. Fundamentally, the less ‘Tamil’ you are, the more likely you are to suceed in Kollywood. Oh, and of course, your whiteness provides the necessary light for songwriters to write praises of your beauty – aka your “purity”. No prizes for guessing the message here!

Dark skinned women are often casted as vamps in our movies. They are often presented to be obsessed with the hero (who is usually dark skinned) who rejects them repeatedly because they are well, dark. And if not as the quintessential desperate girl, they are instead used for comic relief. The hero and his sidekicks will usually mock them for being ‘ugly’.

In a very poignant reminder that the dark skinned girl will always be passed over for the fairer girl, in the Tamil blockbuster movie Sivaji, the hero and his sidekick mock a pair of dark skinned girls while trying to woo the fair heroine. As if this was not offensive enough, it was later revealed that the pair of actresses who played the role of the sisters were artificially darkened to add to the ‘comic effect’ – because you know, it’s so cool to make fun of dark skinned girls. Right.


I remember that when I was a student, I used to be really affected when any of my classmates would refer to me as black. The word was taboo. I used to feel so insulted, as though someone had referred to me as being dirty or ‘untouchable’. I preferred the term ‘brown’. How silly of me.

Now, when I look back, I realized that my discomfort at being called black said more about me than those who uttered it. I had held on to certain notions about being black and therefore I was offended as being referred to as black. I realized that to a truly mature person, it would not matter what colour I was said to be. I would not feel the desire to hide behind euphemisms such as ‘brown’ or ‘dusky’. Today, you can refer to me as the ‘black’ girl and I am perfectly cool with it.

What infuriates me even more is that, even in discrimination, my culture is not equal. Exasperatingly, only dark skinned women are discriminated against. Dark skinned men are appreciated and even revered. Their darkness is often a sign of virility and masculinity. Many of the successful actors in the Tamil movie industry are dark skinned. Very rarely are dark skinned men mocked in the same way that women are. Numerous songs have been written in praise of the dark skinned man, reaffirming his attractiveness and greatness.

Tamil people today, even those living away from Tamil Nadu, continue to discriminate against dark skinned girls. We may have become more literate, but sadly not any more educated than we were before.

To my ‘friend’ who wanted me to buy the fairness cream: “Maybe you should eat some of it. You might actually become a fairer person who can accept people the way they are then.”

Written by Hemma

Hemma is a travel enthusiast who is greatly fascinated by language and culture. Linguistics and cultural anthropology deeply interest her. She continually seeks to comprehend and make sense of the world through these two mechanisms. A reformed eternal optimist, she still sometimes lives in imaginary little bubbles, each one a different shade of purple. On good days, she wants to change the world, on better days, she dreams of living in a small house by a lake, curled up next to a golden retriever with a good detective novel.


  1. I agree with you Hema, it’s a sad thing too that our society have not come to their senses at all. I have heard in my own ears when a mother tells her relatives to look for a fair bride for her son. I was saddened to hear this. What is going to happen to the dark ones out there. Then I realized that some of the dark ones are married to the white and have seen them in shopping centres and in cinemas hugging and kissing. The man carries the child and she is holding his wallet to pay for the groceries at the cold storage. I was happy to see that. They are a beauty in their own way. I felt happy and said to myself ” hey the white like the dark skin too” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty comes from within oneself. Fundamental values and love for one another is very important in our daily lives. I do feel the way you do. I see this everywhere, even in my working environment. The person who created us has a reason for everything we go through. All that I have learnt is be happy for the way you are and be grateful for what you have.

    To put in a nicer way – a coin has 2 sides.
    No offence to any one please.


  2. Perhaps you know that already, but for many, many people in the west this skin color issue is utterly meaningless. I’m black (canadian). If a woman is more or less dark/light skinned is of no importance in itself. Is she beatiful to me ? I’ve seen many very dark south asian girls that were stunning. But then, wasn’t conditionned to think that whiter better.


  3. This is a great article, you go girl! I don’t know how to think of this other phenomenon – where a chinese girl who is naturally very tanned (not due to sport or sun exposure) is teased as being from another country (Vietnam, Thailand… you name it). It’s not racism, but a form of subtle bullying too right?

    Personally, I am Chinese and have always stayed clear of skin whitening creams because I like the healthy glow of a tan! As with other concepts of beauty (e.g. being stick skinny) it’s all very superficial. I constantly emphasise to my daughters that beauty principally, and most importantly, lies within. In one’s character.

    In any case, it’s a proven fact that women with darker skin age better. Not to contradict my point about being superficial, but African ladies in their 50s and 60s hardly look so!


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