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When Will India, A Brown Nation, Get Over Its Obsession With Fairness?

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The police murder of an African-American named George Floyd in the United States led to a nationwide reckoning in terms of checking systemic racism. Apart from moves to defund the police to strip them off excess power, several sections started reflecting upon their privileges and how they propagated racism. For example, in Hollywood, several celebrities such as Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Tina Fey apologised for wearing blackface, which was historically used by Caucasians to make fun of black people.

Several major brands such as B&G Foods, Mars, and PepsiCo promised to rework on their racist logos and caricatures which perpetuated stereotyping of black people. This became a global movement where several brands chose to rework and rebrand their beauty products that suggested (in any way) that fair skin is better than dark.

Johnson and Johnson recently announced that it would discontinue two lines of skin-lightening products popular in Asia amidst conversations on racial inequality.

In a big OMG moment, Hindustan Unilever (HUL, the Indian unit of Unilever), announced that it would drop the word “fair” from its “Fair & Lovely” range of products to promote inclusion and beauty diversity. ‘Fair and Lovely’ and similar products were widely criticised for their negative stereotypes and for playing a role in cultural racism. The fairness cream industry is regarded as a billion-dollar industry in Asia and the Middle East.

(Un)Fairness In India

I was recently watching a video by VICE which covered the Bollywood’s behind-the-scenes. A casting director said that he is asked to find actors and actresses who are fair-skinned. They might probably disregard a dark-skinned actor no matter the abilities. The casting director also described the actress who came to audition as “beautiful” probably due to her complexion.

The film stars also undergo several surgeries or processes (like avoiding sunlight) to improve their skin’s complexion further. It makes sense. Look at the major production houses in India as well as the big-budget films. It is literally impossible to find someone who is dark.

I remember reading an article that made fun of the beauty contests (Miss India) and Bollywood for having same-ish looking women, same oval-shaped face, thinness, and extremely fair. In Tamil cinema, the majority of the heroines are fair-skinned are brought in from Telangana, Kerala, and North.

Dark-skinned people have been shunned, made fun of, and stereotyped. In films, villains are shown as extra dark as it is shown in ‘Baahubali‘ and ‘Odiyan.’ Even if they want to portray a dark-skinned person, they cast a fair-skinned actor or actress wearing brownface instead of giving that opportunity to a dark-skinned actor or actress.

When it was called out, it led to an unfortunate situation where actresses described it as “a state of women being against each other”, in their 2019 roundtable discussion. Ironically, two of them, Yami Gautam and Alia Bhatt, endorse fairness products. In real life, matrimonial ads mostly demand fair people (especially brides).

Even in fairness cream ads, different skin tones are shown where the dark person looks unhappy while fairer version looks happy.

Image provided by the author.

So what is beauty? Does beauty mean fairness? Where did India’s obsession with fairness begin?

Hypodermic needle model or magic bullet theory states that the media’s message is like a bullet fired from the “media gun” into the viewer’s “head”. This means that whatever idea is being fed will be received wholly by the masses. So when ideas like extreme thinness and fairness are associated with beauty and perfection, the masses will receive it likewise. Films and advertisements have been projecting this idea for over a century; thus it formed the general perception.

Added to that, British colonial rule changed a lot of perspectives of people. Since the white people who came in had all the power to rule, there came a natural assumption about fairness and its connection to power. During the Victorian era, the British themselves exhibited certain standards of beauty that were associated with whiteness.

India is a brown nation with different states having different cultures, traditions, etc. Along with cultures came ideologies as well as standards. Somewhere along the line, this influence of whiteness on beauty standards was propagated.

Years later, we read news about how, in India, Caucasian tourists are respected well while the black tourists face discrimination and bullying. Dark-skinned people are called “kaalu” in a derogatory tone. Even school textbooks have described fair girls are beautiful and dark girls as ugly.

Nobody is born a racist. Bigotry and prejudice are taught by people and circumstances they create.

Now, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement led to a form of reckoning that people, businesses, and celebrities had to rethink their views of capitalising racism which suggested that one skin tone is better than the other. That being said, it is a pity that someone had to die to make people open their eyes and see the reality faced by black and brown-skinned people.

Now that major brands are revamping, will celebrities take stand against stereotypical beauty standards?

Actors Sushant Singh Rajput, Taapsee Pannu, Sai Pallavi, etc., had refused to endorse fairness cream brands due to the racist narrative associated with it. Priyanka Chopra has been called out multiple times regarding her association with fairness products, and in an interview with Barkha Dutt, she expressed her regret.

Can we expect the same from Shah Rukh Khan, Yami Gautam, Tamannaah Bhatia, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor, Disha Patani, John Abraham, etc. who were all faces of fairness endorsements?

To celebrate inclusion, every skin tone has to be accepted and celebrated likewise.
The stereotypes that are fed by class, background, qualification, etc., should be called out and boycotted. I hope that this period of reckoning won’t end in vain.

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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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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