Want to be happy with your life? Then according to Indian media, make sure to have fair skin.

A legacy from India’s caste system, fair skin is still considered essential for success in business and love, and Indian media still spreads this message. Controversial products such as whitening creams are advertised in a way that implies darker skinned Indian women have less value. According to the magazine Dawn, there was even one commercial for an “intimate whitening wash” for private parts, meant to regain the attention of one’s husband.

The absurdity of the industry is only matched by its success: the whitening market has grown from $397 million in 2008 to $638 million today, according to industry tracker Euromonitor.

This obsession with whiteness has origins in the caste system and in colonialism. The highest castes would make it a point of pride to not be in the sun, making pale skin a status symbol. The arrival of British colonialists created another association between pale skin and power.

While progress has been made on many fronts in Indian society, fair skin is still associated with beauty. This bias shows up not only in television commercials but also in movies, magazines, and newspapers.

A-list actress Nandita Das has lent her support to a Dark is Beautiful campaign that seeks to include darker skinned women in advertising, and fights against the skin whitening industry and culture. Das says that even she has struggled at points in her career for roles because of her “dusky” skin and for refusing to use whitening products. In the ultimate irony, one newspaper featuring Dark is Beautiful whitened Das’ photo.

A media obsessed with fair skin leads to a culture obsessed with whiteness. This is harmful to all women in India without fair skin, not only in terms of their own confidence, but also in more concrete matters. For example, The Times of India reported that job offers target fair-skinned women and that marriage offers can hinge on one’s complexion.

This legacy of outdated power structures needs to end. As Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Women of Worth (WOW), says in The Hindu: “Why should you be anything other than yourself?”

 

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