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India's Disturbing Obsession With Fair Skin

India's entertainment industry casts people with dark skin as cursed and low class, an idea the culture has strongly, if sadly, embraced. The only winner is the cosmetics industry.

Screenshot from skin whitening Zyada ad
Screenshot from skin whitening Zyada ad
Hubert Prolongeau

MUMBAI — Nina is sitting at a table in Coffee Day, a popular café with Mumbai students. As her friends arrive, they join her and order iced coffee drinks and donuts. Nearby, the cinema Eros is screening a current hit movie called R... Rajkumar, aBollywood film directed by Prabhu Dheva and featuring two rising stars: Shahid Kapoor and Sonakshi Sinha. Both are beautiful, merry, in love and … fair-skinned.

Nina's skin is rather dark. "I have an aunt who could not stop offering me some whitening cream," she says. "One day I told her that I had seen her applying this cream on her skin for 20 years and that there were no significant changes." Painful memories come to her. "I always knew I was dark-colored. At school, white little girls were chosen to represent the class. One of my teachers even said to me that I was good but too black."

On the playground, this obsession with skin color was the main form of discrimination. "We were called "kaali," "blackie" or "negro,"" she says. "Today sellers will spontaneously offer me whitening cream when I go into a pharmacy." She takes another sip of coffee and smiles. "Most of my friends who are uploading photos of themselves on Facebook are whitening their teeth too."

Beautician Rashnaa Mehta knows this psyche all too well. "It is at the same time a sign of social distinction and superiority," she says of fair skin. "Everyone is talking about it, especially among the middle class. We are born and grow up with this. It even shapes our view of the world. When I travel, I tan. People react differently if I am suntanned or if my skin is whiter because of the rainy season."

Mehta sees the bourgeoisie in her beauty salon in the middle of Mumbai. Several smartly dressed women are chatting with masks on their faces. A Danielle Steel novel sits on a chair. They all agree with her. Yes, they were told that they needed to be white to be beautiful. Of course, they all used some whitening cream at one time or another. "More often than not, a mother comes to me to whiten her daughter's skin," Mehta says. "If she insists and that her daughter is my client, I clearly say to her that she does not need to do that because she is pretty the way she is. I try to strengthen her self-confidence. But it doesn't always work."

Self-discrimination, not pride

The 2014 Miss America Pageant gave rise in India to almost shocking levels of criticism toward their own. The winner was Indian-American Nina Davuluri, whose skin was rather dark. There were many comments in India saying that she was unworthy of the honor and that she never would have been chosen if the contest had occurred in India.

The subject is even more painful as young women reach the age of marriage. Fair skin is a selection criterion when parents are looking for girls to marry their sons. "A girl is chosen as if you were in a supermarket," says Kavitha Emmanuel, who runs the "Dark is Beautiful" campaign. "You want a very white girl just as you want a juicy red tomato."

One of the country's largest matrimonial services, Shaadi.com, regards whiteness as a critical criterion. "On their wedding day, husband and wife put some turmeric paste on their skin, a treatment linked with the Ayurvedic tradition," Bollywood fashion designer Archana Walavalkar says.

The working class isn't spared by this madness. Those who can't afford to buy expensive creams use traditional remedies such as lemon juice, rose water, honey, egg yolk, cream and turmeric. Sometimes pregnant women eat saffron thinking it will whiten their baby's skin. "When I was a teenager, my grandmother used to give me a gram flour bath, which is an old Indian whitening recipe," recalls 30-year-old Malathy. "I was punished if I stayed too much in the sun. Then I left India to live in Canada as an exchange student when I was 18 years old. There I realized that many people loved my skin and its color. I was astounded."

Dr. Aniva Shah treats the skin but doesn't transform it. At least theoretically. "I do not encourage whitening," she says. "First you have to teach people to accept their skin." But what if they insist, she says, "I give to them soft and safe treatments." Some products can be dangerous, she says, risking burned skin, allergies or worse: "Patients have shown me their fair skin with black spots on it."

Dr. Satish Bathia shares Shah's point of view. "I am seeing more and more men who want their skin to become fairer," Bathis says. "But using too much cream ends up irritating the skin and results in the exact opposite of what they hoped for. I repair the damage."

Dangerous side effects

The organic compound hydroquinone, the molecule used for skin depigmentation, has significant side effects such as allergic reactions, cataracts and skin that becomes black and blue instead of white. Steroids can cause acne, red marks and incomplete bleaching. Cortisol, a steroid hormone present in many creams, often leads to weight problems, muscle fatigue, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and depression. "Those creams have to be constantly used to maintain skin lightning," he explains. "Otherwise, if you stop applying them, the skin begins to repigment. There are even some addictive effects: The skin gets used to it and reacts badly when it is deprived of its lotion."

The film industry plays on this cultural fascination. Every major Bollywood star has fair skin. "When we are shooting outside, actors remain in the sun the minimum amount of time," the fashion designer Walavalkar explains. "Then they will run under their shade or into their caravan to take refuge. On set, we lighten them a lot, precisely to emphasize this feature."

Most of the stars have appeared in advertisements for whitening creams. Actress Katrina Kaif, who is naturally fair, pitches Olay's Natural White. Her colleague Deepika Padukone promotes Neutrogena's Fine Fairness serum. Sonam Kapoor is the spokesperson for White Perfect from L'Oreal Paris, and Preity Zinta endorses Fem's Herbal Bleach cream.

The country's most famous star, Shah Rukh Khan (nicknamed SRK), sparked a controversy with an ad for Zyada lotion. In the commercial, he attends the premiere of one of his films and talks about the hard work that enabled his success before giving a dark young boy a tube of whitening cream. "It will help him to be successful too," he says. A petition was launched to "take down this discriminatory ad" and was signed up by more than 27,000 people. But SRK didn't answer his detractors.

"Every time I have my makeup done, they try to lighten my skin," actress Nandita Das says. Dark-skinned, she joined the Dark Is Beautiful campaign. "I am currently working with the independent film industry because there are fewer stereotypes," she says. "If you have a dark skin complexion in Bollywood, you are condemned to play only roles of peasant women or slum dwellers. The city characters who have succeeded have to be fair."

"Lack of respect"

Where does this white fascination come from? "Indians are racist," Nandita Das says bluntly. "It is ingrained in this country." According to Urvashi Butalia, manager of the first feminist publishing house in India called Kali for Women, "This ridiculous obsession is based on two facts: On one hand, there are the invasions with the idea that Aryans are superior to Dravidians. On the other hand, the social caste system can explain this fixation, the upper caste having the skin fairer than the lower one. Those who reigned over India were often white, from Aryans to Britain settlers. Thus whiteness is linked to power."

Mumbai ad director Prahlad Kakkar also believes that invasions (the Persians, the Mongolians, and the English) explain why white skin is associated with supremacy. "This complex is a part of the burden the black man has to carry because he is the victim of pillaging and white invasions."

Das believes only education can cure the discrimination. "This aesthetic sensitivity is a lack of respect towards women as individuals," she says.

In 2012, a product called Clean and Dry was marketed to women as a way to brighten their vaginas. It caused widespread controversy, but the outcry didn't sway company director Shivangi Gupta. "It was created in response to growing consumer demand, and it would be irresponsible of us not to offer a solution to our clients," he says.

The advertisement expand=1] promoting the feminine hygiene product depicts a peaceful family. It shows a woman washing and using the product as computer graphics show the area that will become more white. Then she joins her husband and children in a very European-looking living room. They are smiling at each other with very bright teeth. An image of being happy in India. The fairer the better?

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