The Skin Thing

Growing up desi is wonderful in many ways. The colorful shalwar kamiz, the gold jewlery, henna, luddu, luddi and fighting over the bill at restaurants. Recently a conversation at Huda’s reminded me of the skin thing. Marriage in desi culture is for the most part very much a “Pride and Prejiduce” “Fiddler on the Roof” type of event with matchmakers and the local townsfolk whispering about the girl who is not yet married and trying forever to set her up with a dashing gent. People watch Jane Austen period flicks for a glimpse of time long ago, I watch it and see the here and now with different accents and clothing.

If you’re Pakistani you have inevitably heard the auntie bemoan her search for a “lumbi gori pathli larki” (tall white skinny girl) for her son. It’s a give and take commodoity exchange with the mothers of the daughters sighing “buss humko aik doctor mil jayai” (we just want a doctor- we’re really not so subtly saying we want someone with bling). Perhaps in a facet where the first thing you learn of the other is their credentials it isnt so wrong to ask for such things but my issue for this post is the skin thing.

Most desi girls are familiar with the bleaching and the lighteners. PTV even has commercials of “fair and lovely” creams that will indeed attempt to make you fair and lovely. Because without being fair how could one dare call themselves lovely? What’s interesting is that even girls who themselves are dark will say “I want my brother to find a nice light skinned girl” Why the self loathing? Is this a left over from British colonialism? Is white better? Indeed sit around a group of aunties discussing beauty and the word “gora rang” (light skin color) will pepper the conversation along with sighs regarding another potential bahoo (Daughter in law) saying “shakal mai pyari hain laikin thori si samvli hain” (her face is nice but she is a little dark). No sense of recognition of the spit they cast upon the majority of their nation who have skin akin to their very own.

Recently I saw a desi grandmother holding her grandchild. She looked adoringly at her baby and then smiled at me “dekho gori hain na? bahoth gori hain mash’allah” (look- she’s fair isnt she? So fair praise God), and so the grandparents continue the tradition. My husband and I are not fair, will our child not get the praises to God? Will our child not be beautiful because of the color of his or her skin?

Though my parents told me I was beautiful I knew in my heart that being light mattered. I mourn the time I spent caring. I’m not a gori chitti larki. I’m your traditional desi complexioned girl. For most of my life I thought less of myself simply because my skin wasn’t three to five shades lighter. I mourn the trees I didn’t climb and the walks I did not take and the beaches I did not walk upon for fear the sun was too high.

I wrote this poem when I was 14 for Black History Month, but I feel it applies to our modern desi world. I pray that the next generation will learn to love themselves and instead of trying to change their skin will embrace it as beautiful gift from God, because it is.

The color of my eyes black
The color of my hair black
The color of my skin black

The color of my will steel
The color of my mind bronze
The color of my heart gold

Then why do you sit and stare at me so
your eyes so icy distant cold

for I am a person
with a heart of gold


68 thoughts on “The Skin Thing”

  1. Very nice poem.I am not sure if having a preference for light skinned women is any worse than having a preference for tall men or petite women.So why is a preference for tall men benign while a preference for light skinned women a function of bigotry or ignorance?We actually have more control over our skin color than we have over our height. Its pretty easy to consmetically alter our skin color. So height being something we can never change, the preference for height should be considered more discriminatory.I guess some would argue that the height preference is not as endemic in the desi community compared to the preference for light skinned women. We desis though are not alone in our preference for light skinned women. Within a distribution of women, there are evolutionary pressures behind the preference for light skinned women. Both men and women tend to get darker when they reach adolescence. Within a distribution, younger women tend to be lighter than older women. Younger women equates to fertility. So a preference for light skinned women within a distribution is an evolutionary preference for women who are more fertile.A good book on this subject is ‘Fair Women, Dark Men: The Forgotten Roots of Racial Prejudice’ by Peter Frost. In the book, he lays out an almost universal preference for light skinned women in all cultures around the world, even ones where they had no exposure to the outside world.I think its important to note, that even the desi aunties only prefer light skinned women within the distribution (aka only among the desis) A desi aunty would not have a preference for a causcasian woman over a darker desi woman or a lighter japanese woman over a darker desi woman.Of course it gets tricky when you bring in colonialism, the hegemony of western media with its nordic ideals of beauty, the politics of color and the rest.In full disclosure, I have a green eyed, blond wife. I personally have a preference for white women though I dont particularly differentiate between the myriad shades of desi brown from Pathan to Bengali.


  2. Edward, I’m not sure how to take that, as a joke, sarcasm or indeed the truth… I always think of it as a poem written by a silly freshman in highschool.. so I’ll say thankyou ever aware that you may just have been kidding ๐Ÿ™‚Desimail thanks for your perspective. Good point on height discrimination for sure. I meant to highlight one area that I as a woman experience but you are right height is another form. And yes its not a desi thing alone as you can see from the comments from Hispanic people and Filipino, S. Korean, Arab etc that this is not just a desi issue.. I happen to be desi so I wrote from my perspective. Thanks for your recomendation for that book I will have to put add it on my wishlist for Amazon, it sounds intriguing.


  3. I know all about skin color because i am a desi. Americans refer to me as fair tall and handsome while desis say I am gora tall and handsome. I am living the best of both world but its not as fun as you all think. I have American women after me all the time and aunties asking me to marry their daughters all the time.


  4. Wow. I have only had the time to read about half the comments. Interesting, isn’t it? I’ve heard theories about how skin color is related to income and social status — how here in the States, it was not long ago that being pale was considered ideal, because it meant that one did not have to work outside and/or had servants to do that sort of labor. Now that status is equated with the ability to go to tropical isles and lounge in the sun, tan is ideal. As for me, my classmates in high school were always envious of my tan(nish) skin…but at that point I hated my skin tone for being the wrong color for makeup when my skin was acting up…ha. We humans are never satisfied, are we?


  5. Anisa, thanks! Its me, lol @ lightskinned comment ๐Ÿ™‚The Man, you poor dear. Rehtwo very interesting topic apparently ๐Ÿ™‚ That is a VERY interesting way to look at it as to why tan is now desirable. Wow. I cant believe you were uncomfortable in your own skin you’re so beautiful. I guess it is a human thing. Can’t be happy with what we got.Mystic, no dont mind ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m glad you liked it.


  6. Haa I just thought of this. A long time ago, I read a novel about an Asian teenager(immigrant to the US) who was struggling with identity issues…anyway she definitely said something to the effect of “If it’s so good to marry someone because he has light skin, isn’t it just best to marry some white American?” Ha. Wonder what the aunties would say to that…


  7. your post is soo true and nicei luv ur poem too!!! i think you are right that the thought of being whiter as better came from the brits…anyway…NICE post again…Sana…


  8. I know you're post was from years ago, but I just stumbled upon it while aimlessly googling.

    Even at age 14 you were super insightful. I love the poem.


  9. Hey, Love your blog on this topic. I myself am darker than Paki/Desi standards. But the worst part is that my own mother encourages this fair skin competition. She randomly takes me to Macy's and asks the skin specialist “is there a way to make her lighter”, of course they say her skin color is to die for. My mother claims that I won't get good “marriage proposals” because of my color. When I tell her that I don't care and I am happy, she gets mad and says don't you want to marry a good Pakistani man?!? And then there are other aunties in the community that you know are giving you the eye of being dark and worthless. These things bring down my self-esteem. How did you deal with this?? What's the best way to not let this get to me? I just wish that this racism stops in our community/society and people let the young girls live a happy and healthy life. The sad part is that this is not allowed in Islam, yet our Muslims do this the most. Please give me a few tips and tricks of dealing with this problem.


  10. I haven't even read the whole thing (although I'm sure it's amazing) but the first sentence really caught my eye. It's beautiful and perfect and relatable. Desi nowadays are EXACTLY like the scathing old ladies from Jane Austen's time. Thank you for finally pointing that out for the rest of the world and making that connection beautifully. Keep on writing! =)


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