Fair is always lovely in India, where girls grow up with constant reminders that only fair skin is beautiful. Sunday matrimonial ads blatantly manifest the requisite for fair brides. The elderly aunties and moms always advise young women to apply home remedies like saffron or curcumin paste to make their skin whiter. In the Indian film or television industry, the dusky actors often face harassment. They do not get the roles that they deserve only because of their skin color. What is even more fascinating to see is the portrayal of characters in epic sagas like Mahabharat. According to the descriptions in the epic, the characters like Krishna, Arjuna, and Draupadi were all dusky. But, the television industry has lightened their skin complexions, keeping in mind the light skin affinity of their audience. But in reality, the majority of the population in the Indian subcontinent is dark-skinned.
The excess melanin pigment secretion which is the reason behind the darkness of the skin helps in preventing the adverse effect of the strong rays of the sun in tropical countries like India. Extensive scientific researches have confirmed that dark-skinned people are less prone to getting skin diseases than the light skin population. Hence, scientifically, dark skin is a “natural cushion” against the infiltrating solar radiation. But people are treating this cushion with utter disdain. The popular belief that light skin is always beautiful and more preferred is the root cause behind the discriminatory behavior of the masses. Over the years, an incredible contempt has been inculcated against darker skin. Consequently, the people possessing dark skin feel inferior and they even start demeaning themselves only because of their skin color. But what is the reason behind this dark skin contempt among the majority of Indians and other neighboring countries?
History comes up with some probable answers. Throughout medieval and modern history, the Indian subcontinent has been on the radar of various European settlers and traders, including, the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British from the 15th to 17th centuries. The subcontinent was invaded and partly ruled by the Mughals in the 16th century, and colonized by the British from the 17th century onwards until independence in 1947. All these foreign “visitors” were of relatively fair complexion, and many claimed to be superior.
Being subject to a succession of white overlords has long associated light skin with power, status, and desirability among Indians. Today, the contempt for brown skin is embraced by all and sundry and reinforced daily by beauty magazine covers that feature almost fair-skinned models. Indian women are blessed with different body types and colors. But people hardly realize that all the skin-tones are equally beautiful in their way. According to a study that was conducted from 2013 to 2016, 70% of the 300 women and men, interviewed desired to date or partner with someone who had light skin. These discriminations have compelled numerous Indians to lighten their skin, creating a phenomenon termed “bleaching syndrome”. Bleaching syndrome is a strategy of assimilating a superior identity that reflects a deep-set belief that fair skin is better and prettier. And it’s not limited to India; skin bleaching is also common in other countries of Asia and Africa.
An inventive and growing market of creams and salves has cropped up to fill this demand, which now rakes in annually, over 400 million dollars. Most of these beauty products are a dangerous cocktail of steroids, hydroquinone, and tretinoin, the long-term use of which can lead to serious health hazards like permanent pigmentation, skin cancer, liver damage, and mercury poisoning among other things. Various skin-lightening products are found across India and online, no prescription or restrictions required. Nonetheless, a 2014 marketing study found that 90% of Indian girls confess that skin lightening has become a necessity. These young women are even willing to ignore the long-term, adverse effects of bleaching, and the emergence of the booming online market allows facilitates these women to use these products in the privacy of their own homes.
Initially focused on feminine beauty, the fairness creams market now also serves the Indian men. Products marketed to men are said to be devoted to fight sweat, give them fairer underarms, and attract women. In 2013, the activist group Women of Worth launched their “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, which was endorsed by famous Indian theatre actress Nandita Sen. With other feminist groups, the women compelled the Advertising Standards Council of India to issue guidelines in 2014 stating that “ads should not reinforce negative social stereotyping based on skin color” or “portray people with darker skin [as] or unsuccessful in any aspect of life particularly about being attractive to the opposite sex”.
This guidance is in keeping with the Constitution of India, which provides for equality for all (article 14) and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth (Article 15). Unfortunately, the law can do little to stop the subtler forms of racism and bigotry present in Indian society.
The “bleaching syndrome” goes far beyond skin color, with Indian women also dissatisfied with their hair texture and color, speech, marital choices, and dress style, raising real concerns about their very existence. In this scenario, it is heartening to see that younger generations are now starting to push. Recently, an 18-year-old, Aranya Johar published Brown Girl’s Guide to Beauty on Youtube. The video containing lines like “Forget snow-white/say hello to chocolate brown/I’ll write my own fairy-tale” went viral, reaching 1.5 million viewers around the world on its first day alone. She rhymed on Youtube, “With the hope of being able someday to love another/let’s begin by being our first lovers.” Yes indeed, we should all learn from this teenager and try to love ourselves, the way we are. Then only we can eradicate this deeply rooted affinity towards the light skin and proudly declare that “Dark is beautiful”.

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