Have you ever heard someone casually remark on seeing a dark-skinned little girl about the trouble that she would have in finding a husband or have you seen those advertisements on television where a dark-skinned woman looks so unhappy and depressed, only to “brighten up” after using a fairness cream?
In a country fixated with fairness and white skin, a campaign against skin colour discrimination is like a breath of fresh air. Women of Worth, a women’s movement in Chennai started by Kavitha Emmanuel, launched the Dark is Beautiful campaign in 2009 “against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the colour of their skin.” Inspired by the artwork of a high school student who had been body shamed all her life due to her dark skin, Kavitha decided to use art as a tool to express this societal prejudice that has been reducing the self-worth of women for ages. Thus, was born the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign with its objective of helping women “be the best they can be.”
Plagued by Prejudices
The “Dark is Beautiful” campaign is looking to draw attention to the unjust effects of skin color bias as well as to celebrate the beauty and diversity of all skin tones. They believe that this skin colour bias is not just shaped by age-old societal values but reinforced time and again through lackadaisical media messages particularly the commercials of beauty products propounding the myth that fair is lovely. This corrodes the confidence of so many women, young as well as old.
In research and interactions conducted by Women of Worth, they found that dark-skinned women were often treated differently than their lighter-skinned siblings and family members and relatives would often use uncomplimentary words that further lowered their self-esteem. They are also subject to many crass comments by not only their friends but also complete strangers. Not only that, as most matrimonial advertisements indicate, women with dark skin are also rejected by potential suitors. Working women, especially in industries such as hospitality, service and entertainment industry, are often belittled due to their complexion.
Some would argue that this is more about preference than prejudice. However, the toxic effect that this bias has on people cannot be ignored, particularly when it has such a drastic effect on someone’s self-esteem. Teasing by friends and colleagues, expecting to give dowries because of the skin colour of the bride and not eating certain foods such as “jamun” when you are about to conceive are some common issues many dark-skinned women face over their lifetime. And it “stings” and causes immense psychological damage. As Kavitha says, “Our training initiatives on personality development with school and college students revealed how the issue of skin colour was deeply damaging the self-worth of several girls we were interacting with.”
Misguided by Media
In today’s 24/7 media world, girls and boys are flooded with messages about how they should look and act. Brands are taking advantage of the existing insecurities in society and have flooded the market with fairness products and propagating the notion that fair is beautiful and a prerequisite for success in life. And when the products are endorsed by favourite celebrities the impact of the messages increases significantly. No wonder, brands allocate a huge portion of their budget to getting celebrity endorsements and building brand loyalty. However, most of the skin-lightening products advertisements are extremely regressive, often showing women who are unable to find the love of their life, the right husband and the right job because they are dark.
And it’s not just women. The insecurities among men have also started surfacing. In 2005, the cosmetics company Emami launched Fair & Handsome for men, with an advertisement featuring Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan tossing a tube of whitening cream to a hopeful young fan. The Dark is Beautiful campaign is seeking to have this offensive advertisement, that equates fair skin instead of hard work with success, to be withdrawn.
Women of Worth’s “Beauty Beyond Colour” is an initiative that is speaking up for men and boys, who are also targets of “unfair” advertising. The team is looking to organize contests and programs based on this theme soon.
Through its various campaigns, Women of Worth is looking to foster media literacy and bring about a change by educating and empowering the consumers to make wise choices by conducting Media Literacy workshops and Life Skills training. This allows women and men to deconstruct media messages and see what is hidden beneath the layers of an ad’s message. The Women of Worth team is currently working on a module for high school students so as to educate young people to be smart customers.
The Dark is Beautiful campaign has received huge support on social media, print and TV but also from celebrities such as Nandita Das, who has spoken about skin colour bias in many forums. In 2014 several actresses and models aided the campaign by refusing to endorse fairness products. Actresses such as Kangna Ranaut and Richa Chadha have turned down offers to endorse fairness products. The campaigners succeeded in pushing the Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory voluntary group, to issue its ethical guidelines against any skin-lightening ads that “reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin colour” or “communicate any discrimination.”
Are Indians Racist?
Skin colour prejudices in our nation as we know it, exists in so many forms. From fairness cream commercials to matrimony ads to our very own relatives who call us names and body shames. All this can spell only one thing, Racism. India was named the number one racist country in the world by a poll conducted by ListOctavia.com in 2014. Alarming incidents like, a group of African students who were beaten and their women mercilessly stripped naked on the streets of Bangalore to a very recent occurrence where Tannishtha Chatterjee, a Bollywood actress and also one of DISB’s ardent ambassador was hurled with racist comments in the name of ‘roasting’ on a popular comedy show and had Arnab Goswami himself host a debate on Times Now titled Roast vs. Racism, just to name a few, is evidence enough that we haven’t done much to protest the claims of the poll nor have our actions changed from then on till now.
Tannishtha is right when she says, “I am lucky that I come from a background that has helped me speak out about what I experienced on that comedy show.” Millions of people encounter skin colour bias day in and day out and are struggling to have their voices even remotely heard. Dark is Beautiful was launched keeping in mind, that its campaign will help people vocalize the skin colour discrimination they face and will always encourage anyone to write to them and share their story.
Women of Worth have also kicked start a social media dialogue on their Dark is Beautiful Facebook page, called “How deep rooted is colourism in racism?”
But what about change?
Yes, change cannot come overnight especially when the prejudice is so deeply entrenched in the society. However, Women of Worth is definitely taking the steps in the right direction and believes that they’d rather be a light than curse the darkness. Their main aim is to motivate people to not just talk about change but ‘Be the change’ and ‘Lead the change’. In days to come, they plan to expand the campaign to more locations in India and abroad. And if there’s one thing that needs to catch fire, then it’s the message of “dark is beautiful” that needs to spread across the cultural, ethnic and national boundaries so that in the foreseeable future, we can persuade one and another to stand as a light of hope and shine; you in your small corner and I in mine.