The recent crowning of the first Indian American Miss America recently brought to light a long-suspected bias regarding skin color within traditional South Asian culture: Lighter skin is equated with beauty, whereas darker skin is typically considered less attractive.
Now, a recent study on South Asian skin concerns by Dr. Sejal K. Shah, a dermatologist affiliated with St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals, and Dr. Andrew F. Alexis, director of the hospitals’ Skin of Color Center at SLR, validates this skin color bias – and also sheds light on common practices in this culture, such as the use of bleaching creams to lighten the skin.
Approximately 190 individuals participated in the study, which was a self-completed, Indian American community-based survey. Participants were recruited from local cultural fairs and temples. Among the participants, one out of seven — or approximately 15 percent of participants – claims to use or have used bleaching products to lighten their skin tone.
Shah found this figure alarming and opines that this bias is reflected in many key areas where beauty is considered important.
“Many Bollywood actresses and Miss India winners have noticeably lighter complexions,” she noted. “A quick look at Indian matrimonial sites also indicates a strong preference for a ‘fair’ bride. Our study brings to light what has long been suspected in the South Asian culture: Lighter skin tones are favored.”
An equally alarming result from the study indicated a low awareness of the potential risk of skin cancer among South Asian Americans: Only 46 percent of the study population believes that individuals with darker skin tones are at risk for cancer, only 26 percent reported regularly protecting themselves from sun exposure, and only 64 percent believe that sun exposure is associated with skin cancer.
“These are very alarming findings,” said Alexis, the study’s co-investigator. “It demonstrates that there is, indeed, a need for better education among South Asian Americans about the serious risk associated with exposure and skin cancer. Darker complexions and skin tones do not exempt one from protecting against skin cancer and other sun-exposure ailments. Everyone is susceptible.”
Most disturbing, Shah pointed out, is the commonly held – and incorrect – belief among South Asian Americans that they do not require the same skin protection against the sun in comparison to people of paler complexions and skin tones.
Shah and Alexis have submitted the study to a peer-reviewed journal for publication.