Unfair if you're un-fair

Looking to find a husband, make friends, and get ahead at work?

Then you need to have lighter skin. That's the allpervasive message in India, and it's something that one actress is fighting to overturn.

The new poster girl of the "Dark is Beautiful" campaign, Ms Nandita Das, has called out India's obsession with fair skin - a prejudice she says has driven some young women to the brink of suicide.

"Magazines, TV, cinema - everywhere being fair is synonymous with being beautiful," Ms Das said.

Described as having "dusky" skin as opposed to a fair complexion, the 43-year-old is well used to Indian preoccupations with colour, and not just in the film industry, where she has refused requests to lighten her skin for roles.


"How can you be so confident despite being so dark?" is a question regularly asked of Ms Das, who has preferred to star in unconventional, issue-based films but says she would struggle to get ahead in mainstream Bollywood movies.

In May, Ms Das became the face of the Dark is Beautiful campaign, launched in 2009 by activist group Women of Worth to celebrate "beauty beyond colour".

Her backing has helped to generate increasing debate in the media, but the response has underlined just how ingrained the preference is for fairer skin, which has long been associated with higher social classes and castes.

"I started getting tonnes of emails from young women pouring their heart out about how they were discriminated against.

"Some wanted to commit suicide because they couldn't be fair," she said.

Das found her own photograph had been lightened by a newspaper even for a feature on the campaign.

When looking for a nanny, she was told one candidate was "good, but quite dark".

Amid such pressures to be pale, India's whitening cream market swelled from US$397 million (S$490 million) in 2008 to US$638 million over four years, according to market researchers at Euromonitor International.

Skin-lightening products accounted for 84 per cent of the country's facial moisturiser market last year, their report shows.

The bias facing darker-skinned women was raised again in September when an Indian-origin woman, Nina Davuluri, won the Miss America contest in the United States.

"Had she been in India, far from entering a beauty contest, it is more likely that Ms Davuluri would have grown up hearing mostly disparaging remarks about the colour of her skin," said an editorial in The Hindu newspaper.

"She would have been - going by the storyline of most 'fairness' cream advertisements - a person with low self-esteem and few friends."


Last year, a commercial for an "intimate wash" to whiten vaginas emerged, showing a young Indian woman who uses the product to successfully regain her boyfriend's attention.

The advert was widely panned.

A glance through matrimonial websites and newspaper columns suggests that fair skin also remains key to attaining an Indian husband.

Aspiring grooms often state in their adverts their preference for a fair bride, while nearly all women's profiles describe their complexion as fair or so-called "wheatish".