Fair and Lovely

Horrified by the skin-lightening creams you see advertised in the cityscapes of Africa?

Wait till you see the adverts people walk past daily in India or Sri Lanka. This huge billboard (above) sits somewhere on the 10-kilometre distance from Kelaniya (my family’s ancestral home) to Colombo (the city). The script below the ever-whitening out images of the model says: “For white/light skin, apply daily”.

South Asians have Africans beat on this front.

People in the Indian subcontinent have been obsessed with light skins for…well, it’s a matter of debate as to the social and historical reasons behind why. Some say it is because of our agrarian heritage: those who had to work outdoors (most people) were darker from the sun. The few who could afford to stay indoors – especially the women of the wealthy – were lighter-skinned. So lighter skin displayed wealth and power, especially if your women (another asset through which to display wealth and power) were lighter skinned. It’s common on marriage-adverts to write that your daughter is “fair” as one of her added bonuses.

Others say that this obsession arrived along with the invasion by Aryans from the north – lighter skinned people originating from what is modern day Iran/Iraq (yes, Hitler Yougend, take note – Aryans are not Germanic peoples). They became the new rulers for several hundred years, encroaching on the Dravidian-populated India as far south as Mysore. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala royalty often sent for marriageable women from India (there’s lots to say about that, but that’s for a different academic paper). So again, power, privilege were displayed by lighter skin. When our successive waves of European colonisers arrived, it didn’t help matters on the skin front.

Al Jazeera English tackled the skin deep issue last year:

Happily, Indians are finally making fun of the obsession with being ‘white’. Check out this spoof of the unbelievably popular skin-lightener, Fair and Lovely:

Come on, What’s Up Africa, where’s your version?

R/T S.Pathak



Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. Senior editor at Africa is a Country.

  1. In Africa, how do we have this debate about skin lightening in tandem with that other conversation about our tendency to question the African-ness of our lighter skinned brothers and sisters?

  2. How unfair the urge to being 'fair' can be. Despite the histories of anti-colonial struggle the other is always a tad bit darker! Healthy glowing skin in India has come to mean a whiter skin! Though a lot of research of cosmetics are saying these new age skin lightening creams and lotions can can cause potential harm, often such concerns are side-lined. Though women were the largest consumers of skin lightening products till the 1990s. Recent products specifically designed for men are being sold without tarnishing, rather contributing to the 'masculine' effect. This wish for a lighter skin as a marker for desirability and beauty can also located in the over-whelming dominance of 'white-skin' (ranging from western whiteness to the far eastern fair skin) in the beauty and glamour business aided by centuries old notions of caste and racial superiority.

  3. To start off with..I personally am white. But I do not understand at all why darker skinned people feel that they need to be more white. They are beautiful just the way they are. To focus more on Indians though…I think Indians are beautiful!! The darker Indian women are just as pretty as the lighter ones (if not prettier). Why try to change who you are? God made everyone beautiful. He spent time making you and forming you into the person you are meant to be. Why try and change that? Why try and be someone else? Is it just because you want to feel beautiful? Can't you feel beautiful without having to try and change yourself? In essence it doesn't even matter what you look like but who you are on the inside. Man may look on the outside but God looks at the heart.

  4. Well if your white I understand how it could be upsetting that some darker people now have an easier way of knocking down atleast one huge barrier.. Sorry

Mailing List

Sign up for email updates!


Not the continent with 54 countries

©Africa is a Country, 2016