Who thinks ‘beautiful’ when they hear the word ‘wheat’? Combine a fairness fetish with body image ideals and you’ve got a generation of women up against their own genetics.



When I saw this hashtag on Twitter, tweeted by none other than a young Desi woman, I breathed a sigh of disbelief. And so I’m back to discuss an age old issue that just doesn’t seem to go away: the fairness fetish. Combine this with South Asian body image ideals and you put a generation of women up against their own genetics.

Beauty in South Asia is first and foremost associated with how light a woman’s skin is, we all know that. Did you know it has also been used as an excuse to discriminate between women in a lot more than just the marriage market?

“Basically, when I went to school in Sri Lanka from age five onward, the classes were sometimes sorted into a hierarchy of your skin tone. The fairer skinned kids sat in the front row, the darker skinned kids sat in the back row by the poor ones.” – Artist, M.I.A This preference for light skin has seeped into our educational opportunities, job environments and social circles.

Although much dialogue has been initiated about this issue, and society admits it’s a backward blunder, many Desis (even second generation South Asians) still subconsciously hold on to remnants of it. Need proof? Just ask “Fair and Lovely” beauty products if their market reach is projected to decrease any time soon, or if they’re about to give up on their international markets! Not a chance.

Go to South Hall, Jackson Heights, Deewan, or Gerard Street and have a look at what’s behind the counter in every Desi supermarket in the West: fairness creams that apparently lighten a lot more than just your face. Open any arranged marriage register and take a quick scan of the biodatas; you’ll see the words “fair and slim” enough times to believe that one desperate man has sent his info several times over. Clearly, we are not over this yet.

A complete overhaul of perspective is in order here. “Tsk tsking” and rolling our eyes at the issue isn’t doing enough to obliterate it. Calling it “wheatish” instead of dark skinned also isn’t helping. Who the hell thinks “beautiful” when you hear the word “wheat” associated with a woman in any context?

If we’re going to give our dark skin a politically correct nickname, why not “Kit Kat” or “Hot Chocolate”? But the point still remains: obliterate it we must, because it’s not a matter of beauty, it’s a matter of prejudice and discrimination. Don’t we have enough of that to contend with as it is?! Yet here we are as a community, doing it to ourselves.

The truth is South Asian women were never meant to be fair or slim, and it’s the lack of those two factors that actually makes us beautiful. A few South Asian women who own the international spotlight have worked this reality into their image in an inspiring way.

For example, Vidya Balan, one of Bollywood’s most talked about actresses, tried the typical Desi girl thing for a while and then shoved it down the kitchen disposal for a much more daring persona that actually celebrated the aspects of herself not considered “ideal Desi beauty”. She is neither fair, nor slim, and as far as Bollywood goes, the woman can’t even dance. So what does she do? She takes on bold, controversial roles that promote her “flaws” and does it with such finesse that they end up looking beautiful.

Or one can take the M.I.A route and use art to sabotage stereotypes. This woman recognized long ago that the real South Asian culture doesn’t actually follow “color rules” She says there’s no rule in the streets about what colors go together or what don’t or what’s actually ideal.

With this idea came strong, vibrant and challenging images of a very successful, dark skinned Asian woman in clothing that not only breaks rules but mocks them; again, all done in a gloriously non elegant way that is in fact, the very essence of our culture. Admit it, we like red, green and gold (and lots of it). It goes perfectly with our brown skin and we ought to be proud to pull it off.

Old habits die hard. But it’s about time we tapped into who we as South Asian women really are, what we’re made of (physically and spiritually). Let’s not only flip our hair at the fairness fetish and beauty ideals, but confront it full on with our gap-less thighs and our deliciously Kit Kat complexions.

— Summer Yasmin

‘No Sex in the City’ is inspired by the popular TV show Sex and the City, and is a voice representing Desi romance and culture in all its complexities!


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