India’s unfair obsession with lighter skin

The Dark is Beautiful campaign hopes to halt India’s huge appetite for skin whitening products, and has a new champion in film star Nandita Das

Nandita Das

Nandita Das: ‘Indians are very racist. There is so much pressure that perpetuates this idea that fair is the ideal.’ Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

“You look green!” said a friend. “Are you ill?” asked another. Last year, a respected Indian newspaper published a photograph of me online which had been lightened so drastically by the art director’s magic wand that I called the editor to complain and he apologised and replaced it with the original. The art director had thought he was doing me a favour by whitening my skin.

India’s obsession with fair skin is well documented: in 1978, Unilever launched Fair & Lovely cream, which has subsequently spawned numerous whitening face cleansers, shower gels and even vaginal washes that claim to lighten the surrounding skin. In 2010, India’s whitening-cream market was worth $432m, according to a report by market researchers ACNielsen, and was growing at 18% per year. Last year, Indians reportedly consumed 233 tonnes of skin-whitening products, spending more money on them than on Coca-Cola.

Cricket players and Bollywood stars regularly endorse these products. But now the film star Nandita Das has taken a stance against the craze and given her support to the Dark is Beautiful campaign which challenges the belief that success and beauty are determined by skin colour. “I want people to be comfortable in their own skin and realise that there is more to life than skin colour,” she says, adding that an Indian paper had written “about my support for the campaign and then lightened the photo of me that went alongside it”.

While she agrees that there is a long history behind the obsession with skin colour, owing to caste and culture, she thinks the current causes should be targeted first. “Indians are very racist. It’s deeply ingrained. But there is so much pressure by peer groups, magazines, billboards and TV adverts that perpetuate this idea that fair is the ideal,” she says.

Das has often faced directors and makeup artists trying to lighten her when she plays the role of an educated, upper-class woman. “They always say to me: ‘Don’t worry, we will lighten you, we’re really good at it,’ as a reassurance. It’s perpetuating a stereotype that only fair-skinned women can be educated and successful.”

In 2005, the cosmetics company Emami launched Fair & Handsome for men, with an ad featuring the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan tossing a tube of whitening cream to a hopeful young fan, which the Dark is Beautiful campaign is seeking to have withdrawn. “Shah Rukh Khan is saying that to be successful you have to be fair,” says Das. “Don’t these people have any kind of conscience? You can’t be naive; you know what kind of impact you have and yet you send out the message that says: ‘Forget about working hard, it’s about skin colour.'”

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  • Eric

    Worth pointing out that, in the Northern hemisphere, there has been a fifty year obsession with tanning salons and fake tans in order to achieve that all-important brown colour. Guess people always find the other folk more fascinating and beautiful.

  • Mona Lisa

    Unfortunately this trend is also popular amongst the black American population in the United States. The black entertainers/celebraties set the example by lightening skin and hair. And the leading woman on television and movies is most certainly not dark at all. It’s all psychological to project to the world that the standard of beauty is indeed a “blond, blue-eyed, skinny woman. And difficult for the world to imagine anything different if this is all you ever see.

    • bob

      sub sahara africa too

      • inubiyamarsha

        Among Europeans, Iranians, Lebanese, Koreans, Japanese too!

  • NazirKAli

    This is absolutely ridiculous and shocking. Thanx to our weakness in succumbing to the feeling of ‘white is right’ and the propaganda that goes with it. BULL!!!
    If the lady pictured above applied a whitening cream and went out for dinner with me…it will be most revolting and unacceptable. my brown skin…I love it. Salams

    • Ion Pribeagu

      do not worry she will not have dinner with you.. hahaha

  • Lisa

    I think its time people begun to appreciate themselves for what they are instead of trying to change their skin complexion. I’m dark and never felt like being fair, I don’t understand why people wish to be fair. Its all just about the mind accepting that black is beautiful too and that one doesnt have to be fair to be beautiful. If I was to be born again, I would always choose to have my dark complexion.

    • bob

      blondes want to be tan and brown and the brown want to be white

      • Bronx

        exactly, it’s not about black or white, it’s about accepting yourself

  • bob

    its not only india its every brown and black countries ! philippines, thailand etc
    even japan…compare hokkaido to okinawa

  • idi 01

    Minorities are very racist.

  • K Ali

    Absolutely ridiculous but again, it’s a human psyche that attracts me to investigate why so? Personally speaking, I admire the tanned and dark colour of skin as it has a sex-appeal that is irresistible. For example, Nandita Das is herself looking so attractive and I just feel smitten. 🙂

  • Drb-

    Racist? I thought India was this great democracy of the universe? A beacon of hope and change when it came to dealing with the sensitivities of their fellow man?

    • Avon

      Are you some kind of idiot? What does being a democracy have to do with racism? The US is a democracy but there’s plenty of racism between the various ethnicities. Honestly, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, it might be a good idea to just read what people are saying. Who knows? You might actually learn something.

      • Drb-

        Really? Why is it that PC only exists in Democracies then? Sounds like your clownish views need an education, are u worshipping white people too in Ure liberal bigoted world?

  • Ion Pribeagu

    it is important what is under the skin…the same as.. expensive clothes are most of the times on impostors…

  • Lidchi

    nothing new about this, in India the ruling political and economic classes are the light skinned castes so if you want to break the code of varna, you gotta be light. it has nothing to do with being a white European and certainly nothing to do with ‘white’ propaganda or ‘supremacy’ culture.

    • Coffeee is not helping

      Mayawati, APJ Abdul Kalam, Chandrababu Naidu, Babulal Marandi et al. won’t agree with you.

  • Coffeee is not helping

    Debating parameters of attractiveness is ridiculous. Discrimination
    does exist. But the funny thing is (almost) everybody is discriminating against one another in some parameters (they consider is a benchmark). This actor
    talks about how she feels discriminated. But still she is getting roles in movies. Has she ever objected how others have been denied roles based on weight, nose sharpness, eye shape/color, height, breast/bicep size, baldness, etc.? I am pretty sure many dark skinned people also unknowingly pass comment on other supposedly unattractive features. That’s life; call her a bitch but she moves on!

  • Sage Mode

    epidemic in Jamaica & rest of caribbean!

  • Nitesh k

    I know one thing masses of people follow the trend. The white is beautiful, set by euoropians still continues.when we see dogs of different breed all look beautiful black,brown ,white, grey in each they look beautiful but this is not same case with human. I praise Nandita das the movement she has started for every one is beautiful inspite of skin colour.

  • Mark

    Yes it exist all over the world upto some extent but it is much more in India both in girls and boys. I have a personal experience because I have some Indian friends and I think it is because of the of there film industries and TV serials and ads.

  • Nalayak Narendra

    Nandita Das, You are wrong. India loves dark and blue skin. Lord Ram and Lord Krishna (myself) have blue skins. If that is not enough, I and brother Lord Ram also wear lipstick as Gods. Check out any calendar, any picture and any deity in any temple. We are black Hindu Gods of stupid India. There are many more examples. Vitthal or Pandurang of Pandharpur in Maharashtra is totally freaking black. You ae making false accusations.