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Our Unhealthy Obsession Supports India’s $450 Million Fairness Industry

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By Salwa Abdulrahman:

Yeh kaali kaali aankhen
Yeh gore gore gaal….
(Those black eyes/Those white cheeks…)”

If you grew up in the nineties, this song from Shah Rukh Khan’s hit movie “Baazigar” may ring some bells. In a country where fair skin is instinctively equated with beauty, no one bothered to ask, “Why gore gore gaal (Why white cheeks)?” If the heroine had a darker complexion, would that make her unworthy of appraisal? Yes, it seems.

From matrimonial ads mentioning the bride’s fair skin before even specifying her age or place, to fairness cream ads promising higher employability for “pearly-skinned” girls, our nation has a behemoth problem with skin biases. No wonder India has a booming $450 million fairness cream industry, with Hindustan Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely” in the lead, owning more than 50% share of the market. According to research, the whitening cream market is expanding at a rate of nearly 18% a year, thanks to all the Bollywood stars involved in its endorsement.

Based on a survey published on their website, Vaseline Healthy White claims that “8 out of 10 women in India believe that fair skin gives them an additional advantage in the society“. The preconceived notion that a white skin tone is associated with racial superiority and financial power can be traced back to the 15th century BC, when the fair-skinned Aryans established a caste system which allowed them to become the aristocracy, which then diminished the local Dravidians to slavery.

Interestingly, while the Western world has shrugged off most of its xenophobia, we still have a long way to go. On the other side of the world, pale-skinned men and women strive to acquire a healthy tan by visiting tanning salons or spending long hours at the beach soaking in the sun, while we Indians are still seeking the Holy Grail in skin whitening.

When People’s magazine announced Beyonce as the most beautiful woman in the world a few years ago, most of my Indian friends were sceptical. “But isn’t she so brown?”, “Yuck, an Afro-American?” “She looks like a madrasi!” – the list of such prejudicial comments went on and on. A tanned face is considered a virtue by the Caucasians, but to Indian eyes, it is a shortcoming not to be seen lightly (no pun intended). God forbid if an Indian girl is born with dusky skin- her whole life, she would be tormented by well-meaning maasis (aunts) smearing haldi all over her in a desperate attempt to help her look like Aishwarya Rai.

Surprisingly, it is not just women who bear the brunt of such nonsensical preconceptions; men too are being sold a false narrative – that being fair makes them more alluring to the opposite sex. While Western literature glorifies its male protagonists as “tall, dark and handsome”, we prefer our heroes to be “fair and handsome”. Subsequently, brands like Emami and Garnier cash in on lightening creams and soaps designed especially for men.

Advertisements play a vital role in influencing our buying habits. When a product like Fair and Lovely promises to give you two tones fairer skin in just four weeks, it seems almost irresistible to try. But what kind of a message are they sending, by demeaning brown skin and persuading us to change our natural complexion?

A few months ago, I saw an ad for Indulekha White Soapstarring South India’s beloved actor, Mammootty. The opening scene shows Mammooty interviewing an extremely fair girl, who he feels he had seen before. It turns out, the girl had been interviewed for the same job before; only she had been rejected because of her dull skin. But now, because of her ‘improved’ skin tone, she has a sure shot at getting selected. I mean, seriously? Of all the qualities the candidate can have, a fair complexion is the one that makes her employable? Not her personality, not her education, and certainly not her intelligence – it is the colour of her skin that guarantees her success in the interview. Well, good luck solving your company’s complex issues with her fair skin, mister!

When it comes to promoting racial discrimination, our movies are by and large to blame. Across all Indian film industries, the lead roles are exclusively reserved for fair-skinned actors and actresses, while the darker dudes are given the role of sidekicks, servants or villains. To make matters worse, directors often employ European women as ‘props’ in the background of item songs, as their skin colour is thought to be more appealing to viewers. Such songs often mention the heroine’s gorapan (fairness)Think of the absurdity of the lines, “Chittiyan kalaiyan ve, oh baby meri white kalaiyan ve.” Hmph.

Another trend that can be observed in both classical and modern song lyrics, is the allegory between the heroine’s beautiful face and the shining white moon. This again draws attention to her fairness.

Dark skin is the butt of a plethora of jokes in Indian cinema, ranging from the openly offensive to the consciously discreet roasts linking black skin to hideousness and depravity. Films like “Chennai Express” and “Two States” stereotype madrasis as repugnant and pedestrian.

We have been equating fair skin with beauty and success for generations. Even in kindergarten, little boys and girls are subject to ridicule if their skin is dark. Such kids are called derogatory names like kaala or kaalia. This results in lifelong psychological issues like lower self-esteem and shattered confidence, starting at an early age. Dark-skinned children are led to believe that they look ugly and uncouth, while fair-skinned boys and girls enjoy a heightened sense of self-worth.

It is high time we reverse the damage done by our ancestors and overcome this deep-rooted bias. Fair skin should not be the ticket to a happy matrimony or a successful career. It’s time to broaden our perspective to see that ‘fair is not always lovely’.

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  1. Chumu TheThird

    Your piece talks about Aryans and Dravidians, however the notion is false and the actual ‘invasion’ everyone talks about did not exist. The ‘invasion’ was created as british propaganda in the 1800s to divide the nation based on skin colour to make it easier to rule ‘divide and conquer’. To continue to talk about a false notion is giving power to skin color prejudice that was actually not of Indian origin. Marco Polo writes on medieval India during the period of ‘invasion’ you talk about in your article “In very truth these people portray and depict their gods and their idols black and their devils  white as snow. For they say god and all the saints are black and the devils are all white…”.

    Discrimination against skin colour did not begin in India till the british arrived. Paintings in the 15th century only depict one thing – skin colour diversity. No one was ever ‘diminished to slavery’. Stop spreading bad research and please get the facts right. (p.s I am a researcher at Oxford University looking at skin colour discrimination, so I know what I am talking about).

    This passage is entirely false and you should never publish it again.
    “The preconceived notion that a white skin tone is associated with racial superiority and financial power can be traced back to the 15th century BC, when the fair-skinned Aryans established a caste system which allowed them to become the aristocracy, which then diminished the local Dravidians to slavery.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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