Facebook now has an application for everything, no matter how messed up. Its latest comes courtesy of Vaseline, who release their latest weapon in their race to capitalise on the collective colourist insecurities of Indian people.
The application lightens half of your profile picture, to demonstrate how much fairer (and therefore "better") you could look if you used Vaseline's new whitening product.
If you aren't all that familiar with colour prejudice within India, this might seem odd, but it's all very run-of-the-mill. Check out these ads below for skin whitening cream, both of which present dark skin as repugnant and something to be ashamed of.
Funnily enough, if you consider the Indian population as a whole, neither of the characters being ridiculed for their swarthiness is actually all that dark.
Some might point to this as Indians desiring to be more like white people. While there might be an element of truth in that, the roots of subcontinental colour prejudice are actually far more ancient.
South Asia has seen countless populations moving in and out and blending for thousands of years, so I don't wish to oversimplify its complex racial and genetic makeup. But in general, North Indians tend to be lighter-skinned and South Indians tend to be darker. A similar light-to-dark gradation is observable in the caste system, with Brahmins and other castes tending to be fairer than people from lower castes.
Historians generally agree that the story goes something like this: the Aryans, who moved into India several thousand years ago, hailed from the steppes of Central Asia and spoke a language of the Indo-European family (which includes modern Hindi and Punjabi, as well as Persian, English and most other languages of Europe). They brought with them a belief system that would eventually become Hinduism, and they were light-skinned. In India they discovered a darker-skinned people who mostly spoke languages of the Dravidian family (including modern Tamil and Malayalam).
The social order put in place by the Aryan peoples was to enshrine their position in society as higher than those whose lands they had conquered. This would soon become the caste system; the Sanskrit word for caste, varna, can also be interpreted as "colour" (from which the Malay world for colour, warna, is derived).
So skin colour in India has deep-seated connotations of not just beauty, but of class and status. Read Indian personal/matchmaking columns and you'll sometimes see people referred to as "wheatish"; in other words, the ideal skin colour resembles the colour of wheat. In addition, prejudices may be reinforced by the association of dark skin with working out in the sun (and hence being lower class), as occurs in most of East Asia. Later, the Persians, Portuguese and English who all had turns ruling parts of the subcontinent, would also add to the perceived link between light skin and high status.
How prevalent is this prejudice? According to this article, "In 2009, a poll of nearly 12,000 people by online dating site Shaadi.com, revealed that skin tone was considered the most important criteria when choosing a partner in three northern Indian states."
The film industry reflects this as well. Check out this article about the most popular actresses in Tamil Nadu. Then by contrast, have a look at the faces in this picture of a street scene in Chennai in Tamil Nadu.
So while so many Westerners are desperate to risk skin cancer in order to get a good tan, many people born with that colour seem desperate to get rid of it. And of course, amongst it all are big corporations making easy money of our insecurities.