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This is How I Feel About the Fair Skin Beauty Standards in South Asia

06/02/2015 14:53 GMT | Updated 08/04/2015 10:59 BST

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When their children gradually approach the daunting decade of their twenties--a decade characterized by the achievement of various milestones, such as earning a Bachelor's, graduating university, and exploring the realms of the job market--South Asian parents have an extraordinarily intimidating task ahead of them: finding a life partner for their kids.

In western society, the prospect of an arranged marriage yields misconceptions about young adults being forced into a marriage against their wills; however, the concept of an arranged marriage has been modernized and developed over time by South Asians that wish to deviate from ancient traditions. Nowadays, an 'arranged marriage' usually entails the following: a young person who has reached the point in their lifetime during which they'd like to settle down, but haven't found anyone yet. Consequently, they seek the help of their parents to find a life partner for them through family friends and other connections. Once a potential partner is found, the pair can proceed to date and get to know each other; over time, they can decide amongst themselves whether to continue the relationship and marry, or to acknowledge their incompatibility and meet other people.

My parents have always kind-heartedly served as an intermediary for two families with children that wish to settle down and marry. Many of our family friends have lovely and very well-educated daughters in their mid-twenties; these young women have spent the past several years of their lives researching the effects of cancer cells' ability to evade apoptosis and slaving over textbooks and assignments while striving to obtain medical degrees--now, they feel that they're ready to incorporate romance, compromise, and even children into their lives. One young Pakistani woman is a graduate from Johns Hopkins University, and she is now successfully working in the medical field--apart from that, she's strikingly beautiful: her thick hair cascades just below her shoulders, and her piano key teeth appear to be from a Colgate toothpaste commercial. After she asked my parents to help her find somebody, they assured her that they knew several young bachelors and "inshaAllah, [God-willing] everything will work out."

On a Sunday afternoon in late December, I was immersing myself in relatively dry pages of biology regarding how the electron carrier NADH+ carries the electron to the top of the transport chain during oxidative phosphorylation, and then releases energy as it falls to the highly electronegative oxygen. Just as I was getting up to depart from my [far, far too comfortable] bed and wash my face with cold water, an impatient knock sounded from the anterior of my home. My father, drowsily reading the Sunday newspaper with Hindi music playing in our Bose system, went to the door to find a middle-aged South Asian couple standing there uninvited. With them came the slightly acrid smell of old chapatti and overcooked dahl curry; the wife had a shrill and somewhat irritating voice as she waved off my father's suggestion of having a seat. I left my room door slightly ajar and quickly pieced together that this couple had a son that was looking to get married. My father began describing the Pakistani family friend carefully, elaborating on all of her accomplishments and speaking of her proudly, as if she was his own daughter. As a naïve 17-year-old girl that has yet to experience this incredibly complex system of marriage, I became hopeful--a wedding! Already I was rejoicing, feeling this overwhelming sense of happiness and practically living vicariously through this accomplished young woman that had been waiting to settle down for so long. My mind was filled with fleeting images of different floral bands I would adorn my headscarf with, and possible gowns I would wear--silk, lace, floral or embroidered?

"What color skin does she have?" the wife asked, practically cutting my father off as he rambled about the various degrees the girl had earned.

Slightly dumbfounded, he replied that "Her skin color is like...yours," indicating the woman's husband. I was too afraid to peak from my room out of fear of getting caught eavesdropping, but from the sound of displeasure that escaped from the woman's lips, I already knew that her husband was dark-skinned.

I could sense her picking her handbag up and leaving, completely and utterly disinterested. "My son only wants a fair and pretty girl," she resonated firmly before leaving.

Every other summer, I would leave my worry-less western world and venture to my parents' home country of Sri Lanka. As a young girl, some of my relatives made me feel eclipsed by my tanner skin compared to my mother's fairness. Quick to overcome the language barrier and understand the cultural dialect, I soon learned that "fair" was essentially the best thing a woman could be, and "dark" was worse than being nasty, fat, or jealous. I was told things like "gold jewelry doesn't suit your skin color." Watching commercials and shows starring only fair women [which is a total misrepresentation of the population] and coming across half-empty "Fair and Lovely" creams in my relatives' bathrooms made me feel degraded and undervalued as a human being, as a female. I felt that my intelligence, my accomplishments, my personality--they were all meaningless to people in this society because my skin simply wasn't light enough. Upon returning from my approximately ninety-day stay in Sri Lanka, I looked into my cracked bathroom mirror to find a tan girl who I was brainwashed to identify as...ugly.

As years have passed, I began to dismiss these baseless comments and unfair standards as immature and irrelevant; I've learned to appreciate beauty in all women, regardless of skin color. Thus, it's with wisdom and experience that I say that these cultural standards are a true injustice to all South Asian women. It's not fair that parents of little girls start fretting when their daughters are seven or eight, thinking that no man will ever fall in love with them because of their dark skins; it's not fair that girls feel the need to cake themselves with skin-lightening creams and painfully mismatched powders in an attempt to feel beautiful. In order to stop our daughters from feeling this way, South Asian society must stop propagating this incredibly unfair standard that light skin equates to beauty. In turn, this teaches our sons to be extremely judgmental, superficial, and misogynistic young men. It's stupid, unjust, and degrading for me as a female to be judged by the result of genetics and ultraviolet radiation, rather than by my intellect and personality. This ancient beauty standard is a byproduct of the indisputably discriminatory caste system--this standard is a true anachronism in today's modern world; we need to leave this behind in history where it belongs and look forward to an embracing and accepting future for the cultural standards of South Asia.