Skin Colour, Gender and Marriage in India

by Isabel Cabaña Rojas


When the moment comes to look for reasons of why Indians conceive beauty as they do, it seems that nobody can come up with a clear explanation. Many argue that the ideal of fairness has existed since ancient times, manifested in the stories and myths from Indian gods and spirits, where darkness and light were in battle for the primacy of the world. Whereas some others state that, more than that, the presence on history of British colonizers, and the socio-economic structure they established in India, pervaded all the cultural spheres, including the ideals of beauty. But, regardless of the origins of this particular and powerful feature of Indian culture, is interesting to notice how deeply rooted is in the daily life of Indian, especially women, who define their life according to this value, the value of being ‘fair’. As Philips (2004) points out, fairness has become a ‘symbolic capital’ that is ‘disempowering’ women, particularly in their freedom and election to marry someone. The fact that in India marriages are arranged emphasises more the power of skin colour on their lives, because both are things, at the end, women cannot choose.

For men the things are not much different either. For them, white skin is also a value and an attribute worth to fight for, but the responsibility of achieve this colour is less strong than in women. A dark-skinned man can still have chances to marry a fair-skinned woman… the other way around, no way! So when thinking on the relevance of race in the contemporary Indian culture, and its linkage with marriage (and all the industry surrounding it) one should necessarily connect it with gender. And somehow with social class. Inasmuch as I wonder how strong this really is in the general culture in India: is this situation in all the regions of this country? Are people living in rural areas really concerned about their skin colour? Is it a middle/high class issue? As, supposedly, a post-colonial heritage, fairness is at some point linked with belonging to a certain social level, that of the ruling class in opposition to the darker working class of Indians.

But, what seems very important here is the role that new generations, especially those of Indian descent abroad (as Indian Americans, for example) will have in the perpetuation of this custom. There are people already criticizing what this perception of colour is doing to the culture, especially to women (and not only in the social sense, but also in health, considering the massive use of bleaching creams). According to Vaid (2009), in the Indian Diaspora, at least in the United States, there are no signs that this is something to be left behind.


Gosai, A. (2010, July 19th). India’s myth of fair-skinned beauty. The Guardian online.

Guha, S. (2010, March 23th). India’s unbearable lightness of being. BBC News.

Philips, A. (2004). Gendering Colour: Identity, Feminity and Marriage in Kerala. Anthropologica, 46(2), 253-272.

Vaid, J. (2009). Fair Enough? Color and the Commodification of Self in Indian Matrimonials. In E. Nakano Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference. Why Skin Color Matters (pp. 148-165). Stanford University Press.

Vaidyanathan, R. (2012, June 5th). Has skin whitening in India gone too far? BBC News-Magazine.


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