Skip to main content

I’m not sure what’s with the Asian obsession with fair skin. Fairness creams are all the rage. Fair skin makes you a better person, more successful: Bollywood figures  endorse these creams.

The Asina craze for fair skin

The fairness craze in Asia

This craze isn’t limited to India though, where you do see dark people, but also in Singapore, where the populace is generally fair-skinned. Some whitening creams I’ve seen here cost more than a few months’ worth of groceries. Having never been fascinated by fair skin (quite the opposite in fact), I haven’t tried out these creams, so can’t comment on how effective they are– but as a writer, the  obsession with ‘whitening’ seems rife with fictional possibilities.

Especially when I see the contrast with Caucasians: they throng beaches and swimming pools in Asia when the sun is at its peak, getting their ‘tans’ (for which they use ‘tanning beds’ in their native countries). The Asians emerge only after the shadows have begun to fall, careful as ever of the fragile ‘fairness’ of their skins.

Wherever I’ve traveled in Asia, I’ve seen young women tagging along after a (usually) elderly male gone to fat, pushing prams containing, you guessed it, ‘fair’ kids. (It could be love too, or economics, and I’ll perhaps have a gang of Asian ladies ready to slit my throat for daring to suggest otherwise.)

But the following article in one of India’s leading newspapers takes the cake:

Mayuri Singhal, 36, married into a fair-skinned family. She herself is what is often described in matrimonial columns as ‘wheatish’. When she couldn’t conceive, she walked into an IVF clinic with her demand: a ‘white’ baby. “I had read on the internet that one could access a donor who is fair. I decided to opt for one so that the child blends in with the family.”

According to the World Health Organization, there are close to 19 million infertile couples in India and their numbers are growing. “Couples who come for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) list out specifications — the egg or sperm donor should be educated, fair, have blue eyes,” says Dr Rita Bakshi, an IVF expert. Dr Bakshi says roughly 70% clients ask for fair donors.

Say what? Not happy with the dark skin you’re born with, you actually want a custom-made ‘fair’ baby with blue eyes? I can see a collection of stories set around an Indian IVF clinic, or even an Indian sci-fi horror saga.

Have you ever seen the obsession with a different  skin tone play out at a location near you? What did you think of it?


Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  • Great article – sad reflection though of a lack of inner peace and self acceptance by judging appearances of our skin color. This concept just fuels profiling and discrimination based on looks/skin color – tragic.

  • jannatwrites says:

    I’m fair-skinned and have always wanted a few shades darker (a tan would be nice.) Instead, I have to always wear sunscreen or I end up with ugly sunspots on my skin. I haven’t traveled outside of the US, so I haven’t seen this trend. It does make me sad that we go to great lengths to make ourselves look like someone else. I also wonder who drives this trend? I mean, who decided that fairer skin is desirable and people should strive to attain it?

  • samokan says:

    I think most people want to have what they don’t have. Most Caucasian, I’ve seen tries to get as much color as they want and most of us colored ones (I browned skinned) wants to get a lighter tone. And I came from a country who is obsessed with getting white, because being “mestiza” is more beautiful. In my small city before, girls were using too much of this skin peeling cosmetics that it made their face blotchy red and white but the rest of their bodies was brown, it was terrible to look at.

  • Jenny says:

    I’m caucasian but my sister-in-law has gorgeous dark skin (her parents are from Goa). She recently got her makeup done (in Boston, by an Indian artist) and had to scrub her face clean immediately afterwards because her skin had been made about three shades lighter. She was very disappointed and angry; she knew about the fair-skinned trend but, because she usually does her own makeup, has always been able to show her defiance to what she deems a socioeconomic issue by flaunting her natural color.

    Your point about how white people want to look darker is excellently put, by the way. As a person who just about blends in with the snow during the winter I can vouch for the excitement I feel after my first good tan of the summer.

  • edebock says:

    I recently asked some of my Chinese students about the Asian obsession with fair skin and they told me that it was considered a sign of wealth or high class… a sign that you didn’t have to work out in the fields.

    As a Caucasian women living in an Asian culture, it bothered me that most of the advertising aimed at Chinese women uses Caucasian models! I didn’t notice that as much when we lived in Japan.

  • namrota says:

    A thought provoking post indeed. This is a sad state we live in. And even sadder to see that its 2013 and we still have to discuss this.

    I will just share something here;
    A relative of mine, wanted a fair skinned daughter-in-law for her dark skinned son, she found one, and she was so charmed by the color of the skin that she forgot to gauge the girl’s heart, which of course isn’t praise worthy. Now the lady feels she should have looked for a fair heart and not skin.

  • Kathy Coffee says:

    I’m not sure how “fair” I am but I remember growing up meeting people who always comment on me being “fairer” than other Vietnamese. Some also wondered if I am “mixed”. I used to feel proud (because my mom did) and took those comments as compliments but now I feel that it’s seriously wrong. With that obsession, some people in my culture, who are less knowledgeable, do even go as far as using toxic chemicals to bleach their skin and quicken the whitening process.
    I think the obsession has everything to do with the West cultural domination, back from colonial time until now, when it seems to be more serious, when everything western is deemed to be superior, from beauty standards, social values (we-people in my culture think the western women are more “responsible” and “independent” than Asian women), to, of course skin color. Urgh. I’m sorry about the sudden rant but I can go on and on about this.
    Thank you for the thought-provoking post and I’m looking forward to reading more from you 🙂

  • People are funny creatures. The majority always wants what they don’t have and there is some else wanting what you want that you don’t want. I personally will never trade any of my features. I love the way I am and I think this is what lacks in a lot of people, their inability to fully accept oneself.

  • pearlz says:

    Total madness, it’s the heart and soul and personality that counts not the skin externally. I have psoarsis and my skins does all sorts of weird things, colourwise, but I am mostly brown. I think we should enjoy what we are born with but sadly there are lots of prejudgements that can be made on the basis of colour. Great blog – thanks for visiting my blog.

  • Nawfal says:

    Great article! In Malaysia, you see mostly middle & upper-class Chinese as being obsessed with having fairer skin (e.g. Whiter) [at least that is what I observe]. All you have to do is look at the billboards that push these ‘fair & lovely’ products – Mostly Photographs of Chinese – Beautiful – Fairly Young, and probably are NATURALLY Fair Skinned already.

    It’s just like the Diet Ad Billboards where they have photographs of Beautiful well-toned, buxom babes who probably never had weight problems, and these women are not the norm in any society.

    THE CORPORATE ESTABLISHMENT – That is where the pressure comes from – advertisements that SOCIALLY PROGRAM women into believing this is what they need (the products) and what they must do to be beautiful!

    I suggest – don’t buy into the Corporate Master’s plan! YOU WERE ALREADY MADE BEAUTIFUL – AND DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU ANY DIFFERENT! If you want to change something – that’s up to you; HOWEVER, a lot of these ads for all sorts of SO-CALLED BODY IMPROVEMENT products do not work as promised, and some of them are down-right dangerous! Check anything out properly and scientifically research it before using anything.

    i love women with beautiful brown skin – in my professional opinion, being a man, and a photographer, I know when I see beauty – beautiful women! Everyone has something beautiful. REMEMBER – the MOST IMPORTANT aspect of skin health is KEEPING IT HEALTHY! SUN SCREEN, SUN SCREEN, you never want to get skin cancer – it sucks – then you will have something to complain about. Women with color (whatever color that may be) are beautiful already. That’s my 2-cents – Thanks!

  • Lori Straus says:

    I’m also miffed by the apparent desire to desire what Hitler desired. I’m pretty white myself (not as white as my gravatar – that’s a Mac special effect). I was in Cuba on a family trip in January, and the number of lobsters (i.e., sun-burnt white people) walking around trying to tan was ridiculous. It’s so harmful to white skin, yet people think tanning makes them beautiful. People in Asia won’t get the vitamin D they need if they don’t get out in the sun a bit. (Or is the vitamin D industry big there, too?)

  • Taja says:

    I’ve noticed it a lot among people of color. There is this notion that the lighter you are, the better off you are. Unfortunately, this has been reinforced in society, so people have gone out of their way to mutilate themselves or get further away from what they look like. People should be taught to love the skin that they’re in. Unfortunately, with certain standards of beauty and conceptions of what wealth “looks like” we are going to have this dysfunctional way of thinking. 🙂

  • matheikal says:

    What is perceived as superior is always in demand. Fair skin is perceived as superior. When the Brahmins decided not to eat non-veg, that food went out of favour simply because people wanted to be superior like the Brahmins. If KFC and McD will become as popular as fair skin, non-veg will make a glorious comeback!

  • Blessing or curse I was born with a white skin and burn like the devil on an octane high if I see the sun. I can achieve the appearance of a lobster in less time than you can take a shower. I’ve never wanted to be dark skinned, but then I’ve often bemoaned the difficulties having such sun sensitive skin has caused me. Who was it who said white was the ‘norm’? It’s an interesting and thought provoking post. Well done!
    Thanks for visiting my mere mortal writing 🙂 Much appreciated.
    Cheers, sun sensitive Susan 😉

  • Not only Indians in India look at “fair” as beautiful, but Indians in the Caribbean and the U.S as well. I was in NY recently at an Indian grocery store and I was surprised at the number of whitening creams in locked glass cases. These creams are precious as evidenced by the locked display cases.

  • BrammA says:

    Reblogged this on Words of a liar.

  • Good post. I saw this in Vietnam as well. Many women will not allow the sun to touch their bodies. Gloves are worn in the scorching heat, as well as full face and head coverage. Whitening creams also popular and expensive.

    It’s difficult to see when it’s taken to such a drastic effect, but I don’t think it’s at all unnatural for anyone to want their skin color to be different than what it is. I don’t think it’s healthy to wish your “self” away, but I think it’s (perhaps sadly) natural for women in ALL countries to consider different hair, eyes, skin and bodies, because envy is one of the most natural traits in humans. Whatever we see the current model of success to be, that’s often what we want to look like.

    I personally have always wanted to look less white. I went through phases when I was younger of dying my hair all black and having colored contacts.

    Teaching people, especially women, to celebrate the way we were born is a very difficult task, but I think you’re doing a great job of opening up the dialogue.

    Love, Marla

  • jwkuyser says:

    It is an interesting contrast to some of the ridiculous things people here in the UK do to become browner. To the point of taking tablets that can make you ill and risking cancer by massively overdoing the sunbed. If only they put more effort into just being happy and healthy inside your skin.

  • literarylad says:

    In Europe, in the past, pale skin was taken as a sign of high status – being tanned indicated that you worked outside, in the fields. Similarly, the condition of someone’s hands would have been a good indication of their status – manual workers would have had very rough, damaged hands, while the hands of the gentry, who didn’t have to do rough work, would have been pale and undamaged. I wonder whether this is relevant in Asia?
    In India, I’m sure that wanting to avoid being associated with the lower castes will be a consideration. There have been increasing reports of caste discrimination here in Britain, and campaigners have finally forced our government to include caste discrimination in the Equality Act.
    I can’t help thinking back to the horrific ethnic cleansing of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. It seems ironic that some of the Nazis’ ideals are flourishing in parts of Asia. It’s also very worrying, bearing in mind that the Asian nations will probably soon eclipse the declining western countries as world powers. I just hope that Asia doesn’t have to go through the same terrible fight against fascism that played out in Europe (and beyond) in the twentieth century. Perhaps someone should write that scenario in a novel now, as a warning against it.

  • Rajneesh Jha says:

    प्रभावी !!!

  • chinks says:

    I rembered during my school days one of the aunties in locality commented me when I was wearing a black dress. She said it would look better in a fair skinned person. I am wheatish, the typical indian skin tone which I am proud of. I just smiled and said ” it used to look better in fair skinned a decade ago aunty. And btw I think I am looking gorgeous”

  • Angie says:

    Not to be the nerd here, but I actually learned a bunch about this subject when I visited India for the month of June! As far as India goes (and parts of the surrounding countries), lighter skin signifies wealth and a higher caste. You know how the Nazis claimed that you had to be fair-skinned and all that jazz to be part of their new Aryan race? They actually took that idea from Hinduism. The swastika is all over the place in India as a Hindu symbol. They, of course, view the lighter skin as beautiful, but that’s partially because they associate it with Western wealth and that higher Indian caste. Okaaaaaaay, now that that’s done…funny story: when I was in India at a grocery store, I needed a small thing of lotion so I grabbed the first Vaseline brand bottle I saw and made it all the way to the counter before I realized that it was skin whitening and had to turn around. Awkward. I’m already light…

  • When we were little girls, my sister would always beg my mother to buy a particular brand of soap, (Zest). The ads promised that it would wash you “cleaner than clean” and not leave any scummy film. My then 8 year old sister interpreted that to mean that it would wash the colour from her skin. We already had enough input that the lowliness of Natives was a generally accepted idea then. As an adult, it stuns me to realize the implication of her wishes.

    I wonder when we all will finally be content…

  • b00kreader says:

    I think the is a very interesting topic. I know a girl who is originally from India and her father is obsessed with the idea of her marrying a “fair” doctor. So interesting considering today marriage is considered an act of love, not away to better ones blood line, but I imagine this is a case of old habits dieing hard.

  • This is something I’m very aware of living in the UK where many white girls (and boys, although not so many) apply fake tan every day, because having a pale skin is thought to look unhealthy. The thing about fake tanning lotion is that it tends to have an orange tinge, which tells people you’ve applied fake tan, not that your skin is naturally the colour you’re showing off. I remember seeing a product called “Tibet Snow” in Pakistan, which claimed to lighten dark skin. As one of your other commenters has said, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. As someone with naturally very pale skin I’m aware that people think I look tired, unwell, washed out, in need of some sunshine, etc. but the fact is that even if I do go out in the sun (which I do) my skin doesn’t tan. It’s yet another pressure put on us by society and the media, to conform to what someone else has decided is normal or attractive. Be yourself, that’s what I say, white and proud or black and proud, either way just make the most of what you’ve got.

  • Penny says:

    Different colours of skin are different shades of beauty

  • ivorylei says:

    I think it has something to do with being told, for centuries, that being dark is ugly and being white is pretty (like the Caucasians). There’s an implication of wealth (they don’t have to work on the fields, so they have light skin) but I agree that it is WRONG. It’s sad indeed how, at this day and age, the companies selling beauty products tell Asian the skin they were born in is ugly. It’s like we still haven’t found our self-worth after centuries of being colonies to the West, and the insecurity is being exploited everyday by (mostly) Western companies. We are not ugly. Our situation is.

  • PD says:

    All I have to say to this is…FAIR AND LOVELY. FAIR AND LOVELY. FAIR AND LOVELY.

    Every other commercial in India.

    I think it boils down to always wanting whatever is harder to get (and, basically, richer). In the Western world, hanging out on beaches and/or tanning beds is a sign of luxury – in other parts, it’s not having to go outside and taking all the milk baths.

  • Lesley says:

    Oh blimey! There is terrific potential for a horror/sci-fi here. Would it be pushing it too far to ask for a fair child with freckles? 😀

  • lol, I stayed outside with my face to the sun as much as possible during my recent trip to India, so I could have darker skin…just because I like the way it looks on me.. But either way, I’m okay with my “fairness”.

  • This is just boggles my mind. We pasty folk risk cancer to be darker, and other people spend gobs of money to look lighter? This doesn’t make any sense to me. I have better things to spend my money on.
    By the way, thanks for liking my blog.

  • I had no idea. I thought Michael Jackson’s skin bleaching mania was an aberration.
    I gotta get out more.

  • Luanne says:

    Will this stuff ever just stop? Sigh. So demoralizing about the state of our world.

  • Kate is says:

    Strange isn’t it. And those of use with fair skin are encouraged to have spray tans. When will we ever be satisfied with our skin, which is an amazing organ. Bleaching creams can be extremely detrimental and dangerous and can cause irreversible damage.

  • I found this terribly depressing news … and it surprises me that dark-skinned people do not realise how beautiful their skin looks.

    I’m fair-skinned because I’m a Brit and am too restless to sunbathe so I accept my pasty skin. Often I find that people who are obsessed by their skin colour are somewhat shallow … and possibly not that bright?

    Thanks for the interesting post, Damyanti …

  • Irene Lee says:

    I’ve never had problem with the color of my skin. But yes, I do see it happening all around me. People who want to be fair because they’re not, and people who want to be tanned, because they’re not.

    I’m usually fair, but I tan easily. It doesn’t really matter what color I am though. I enjoy every sunshine, especially now that I moved from Singapore to Seattle. Its Summer now, but I’m dreading the cold thats coming once its over 🙁

  • Imelda says:

    It’s a sad thing when people are not happy with what they have – skin color, face, height, etc. I agree with you – it is ironic that the Caucasians would like to be tanner, while those with darker skin tone would like to be fairer. I understand that some of the whitening creams are health hazards too.

  • eebrinker says:

    i look better when i’m tan and enjoying life outdoors more. examine asian paintings and artwork, you will see fair skin associated with the wealthy and darker for the servants and workers.

  • belsbror says:

    The word ‘fair’ is simply used to water down the word ‘white’ because of racial connotation. You’ll probably not find any blackening cream for personal purposes.. 🙂
    I’m brown-skinned. That will never change. 🙂

  • disperser says:

    Do they have a “middling” cream . . . I’d be interested in that . . .

  • Gemini Gemma says:

    I am actually looking forward to my children who will not be as white as I am. My husband is Hispanic, so our children will still be ‘white’ but they will be ‘tan’ olive skinned, meaning they won’t ever have to tan to get that tan look. LOL In the end, I do not think we can criticize them, its their choice the technology is there to help these couples. They should be able to engineer their children the way they want in my opinion.

  • Wow. This reads like a Toni Morrison novel. Things like this are shocking.

  • me* healthy.

  • I am glad you mentioned the obsession with tanning. The females in my family are consumed with being darker, and I do not see why I should have to do the same. Not to mention, it is very bad for the skin. My mother has lots of sunspots all over her skin because of all the years of tanning.

    I am very fair-skinned, and I am so sick of people telling me that I need to change it. Being light-skinned is perfectly fine with me. It goes with the color of my hair and eyes, and it keeps my healthy.

    My stance is be happy with what you’ve got because nature put you together this way for a reason: it looked best!

  • Zeenat says:

    I totally agree. I think some of the most beautiful Desi girls are the darker ones.

  • Ann Bresnan says:

    Sounds like a case of the grass is always greener!

  • Great article, Damyanti. I’m from Australia and when I was teenager I hated my pale skin. In Australia, tanned brown skin is seen as much healthier and more attractive (although high skin cancer rates have led to more acceptance of untanned skin). Then when I lived in Japan, I was astonished to find all these whitening products in the shops and women completely covering up in summer. It was the opposite to my home country!

    I think it’s sad that we – or society – put so much importance on how pale or dark our skin is. It’s even sadder that in some places your skin shade will impact on your marriage or life prospects! Physical appearance is not everything, although some magazines and cosmetics companies might want us to think so.

%d bloggers like this: