In India, a light complexion is associated with power, status and beauty, fueling an innovative and growing market of skin-bleaching products. Disclosure statement The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. Michigan State University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US. India, where girls grow up with constant reminders that only fair skin is beautiful. Younger generations are now starting to push back. On July 7, 18-year-old Aranya Johar published her Brown Girl’s Guide to Beauty on Youtube. 5 million viewers around the world in its first day alone. Aranya Johar’s anti-bleaching poetry went viral.
Johar’s candid slam came just before Bollywood actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui used Twitter to indict the Indian film industry’s racist culture. His post recalled the vehement pushback of actress Tannishtha Chatterjee, who was was bullied for her skin tone on live TV in 2016. Though many Indians still feign ignorance about social discrimination based on skin colour, the country’s obsession with whiteness can also be violent. Why do Indians so hate their own colour? The bleaching syndrome Indian history offers some answers. Throughout medieval and modern history, the Indian subcontinent has been on the radar of various European settlers and traders, including, from the 15th to 17th centuries, the Portuguese, Dutch and French. The subcontinent was invaded and partly ruled by the Mughals in the 16th century, and colonised by the British from the 17th century onwards until independence in 1947. Today, the contempt for brown skin is embraced by both the ruling class and lower castes, and reinforced daily by beauty magazine covers that feature almost exclusively Caucasian, often foreign, models. It’s been the dark man’s burden in this majority-non-white nation to desire a westernised concept of beauty, and post-colonial activism has not been able to change this.
300 women and men we interviewed reported wanting a date or partner with someone who had light skin. Bleaching syndrome is not a superficial fashion, it’s a strategy of assimilating a superior identity that reflects a deep-set belief that fair skin is better, more powerful, prettier. Some of the most widely-sold products include Fem, Lotus, Fair and Lovely and its gendered-equivalent Fair and Handsome. Initially focused on feminine beauty, the fairness creams market now also caters to Indian men. Products marketed to men promise to fight sweat, give them fairer underarms and attract women. Megastar Shahrukh Khan explains that the secret to win a woman’s heart is light skin. And Bollywood stars with huge followings, including Shahrukh Khan and John Abraham, regularly endorse and promote skin bleaches.
Bleaching backlash The brand Clean and Dry took bleaching to new levels in 2012, when it began heavily advertising for a new wash to lighten the vagina. Clean and Dry intimate wash ad compares Indian vaginas and coffee. This time, women had had enough. In 2013, the activist group Women of Worth launched their Dark is Beautiful campaign, which was endorsed by the Indian theatre actress Nandita Sen. Unfortunately, the law can do little to stop the subtler forms of racism and bigotry present in Indian society. And, to date, that vagina bleaching product is still on the market. Indian women also questioning their hair texture and colour, speech, marital choices and dress style, raising real concerns about female self-esteem.
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