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‘Dark Is Beautiful’ Campaign Questions India's Skin Colour Prejudices

A movement in India promoting the beauty of all skin colours is pushing back against the country's obsession with fair skin.

Dark is Beautiful‘, founded by a group of women in 2009, has picked up steam in 2013 especially since award-winning actor-director Nandita Das has become the face of the campaign. Das, who has spoken out against the bias against dark skin in recent years, has been actively promoting the cause in interviews on social media and with mainstream media.

The desire in India for lighter skin is fueled by a widespread belief that dark-skin is ugly and inferior. Not only is fair skin perceived to be a key definer of beauty, but also seen to be an essential element of self-confidence, success, and happiness.

And brands have been quick to tap into this fervor, selling creams, lotions, soaps, cosmetics, and personal hygiene washes promising skin-bleaching. The so-called fairness industry brings in more than 400 million US dollars per year, more than the sale of Coca-Cola and tea in India, according to The Atlantic magazine. One Facebook app promoting a skin-lightening product caused controversies a few years ago (See Global Voices report).

In fact, the Bengali community in India has come to finely grade the complexion scale, never mind that the rest of the world sees bulk of Indians as being brown-skinned. So, you could find mentions of ‘very fair', ‘pale fair', ‘doodhe-aalta’ (a peculiar Bangla term used to describe a rosy complexion, a pink obtained when a drop of red paint is added to milk), ‘wheatish complexion', ‘bright and glowing fairness', to dusky, ‘ujjwal shyambarna’ (again a peculiar term, referring to the dark skin with bluish-grey hue, generally seen in Vishnu/Krishna iconography) right down to ‘koochkooche kaalo’ or the coal-dark skin.

Recently however, calls to do away with the skin colour prejudices, move toward a more inclusive definition of beauty, and uncouple concepts such as confidence and success from skin colour have been growing. The campaign ‘Dark is Beautiful', explains why a change is needed:

Dark is Beautiful is an awareness campaign that seeks to draw attention to the unjust effects of skin colour bias and also celebrates the beauty and diversity of all skin tones.
Launched in 2009 by Women of Worth, the campaign challenges the belief that the value and beauty of people (in India and worldwide), is determined by the fairness of their skin. This belief, shaped by societal attitudes and reinforced by media messages, is corroding the self-worth of countless people, young and old.

Indian Actor-Director Nandita Das has spoken up against skin colour bias in the Indian society. Image from the Facebook Page of the Dark Is Beautiful Campaign

Indian Actor-Director Nandita Das has spoken up against skin colour bias in the Indian society. Image from the Facebook page of the “Dark Is Beautiful” Campaign

The campaign is being promoted actively across social media and has caught the eye of mainstream media.

On Twitter, their message was loud and clear:

As part of the campaign, a video was released on 15 August, 2013 calling on Indians to “celebrate Independence Day with 1.2 billion shades of beautiful”.

Here is a video uploaded by “Dark Is Beautiful” campaign celebrating the diversity of skin colours in India:

The campaign has generated a lot of discussion online. Tweets reflected some of the thoughts – ranging from debates about attitudes towards fairness and fairness products to hopes that the campaign will be able to change the way people view beauty for the better and start a conversation that will help alleviate prejudices related to skin colour.

From Kolkata, Sandip Roy (@sandipr), culture editor at Firstpost.com, wrote:

Computer engineer, management consultant and global health professional Parul Batra (@parul_batra) reminded Twitter that fairness products are big money-makers:

From Mumbai, film director Shekhar Kapur (@shekharkapur) blamed advertisements too:

From Delhi, journalist and tech writer Madhavan Narayanan (@madversity) tweeted:

Cognitive Dissonance (@_HJ86) from Mumbai pointed to the hypocrisy of fairness cream ads:

From Trivandrum, Lilly (@lillyvgp) has high hopes:

Skin color bias is an issue in India. Image by Zippora Madhukar Photography for Dark Is Beautiful Campaign.

Skin color bias is an issue in India. Image by Zippora Madhukar Photography. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The Dark is Beautiful campaign is also actively trying to engage with marketers and brands of fairness products, calling upon them to take down 'unfair’ advertisements that imply that fair skin is a precursor to success. An online petition has been launched calling upon cosmetics company Emami to withdraw their latest commercial for Fair & Handsome cream featuring Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, who is brand ambassador for the product. According to the campaign leaders:

This petition is the latest initiative of the Dark is Beautiful campaign. Since 2009, the campaign has been challenging women and girls to see “Beauty Beyond Colour”. Now, with this change.org petition, we are speaking up for men and boys, who are also targets of “unfair” advertising.

You can get more details about the petition here. Follow the blog, Twitter and Facebook page of the campaign.

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