Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of the Dark is Beautiful campaign
Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of the Dark is Beautiful campaign

VIJAYAWADA, India (WOMENSENEWS)– Thanks to the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, new advertising guidelines for companies selling skin-lightening products have started to be reflected on our TV screens.

The ads for fairness products now refrain from showing “people with darker skin as unattractive, unhappy, depressed or concerned,” as the guidelines require.

Gone also are the exaggerated visual effects on models. Instead, the current ads tend to affiliate themselves with foundations or trusts that help women realize their “real value.”

Helping women deflect skin-lightening ads, even in their more subtle forms, is a major element of the 6-year-old word-of-mouth “DisB” campaign against skin color discrimination, which gathered momentum in 2013 after actress and social activist Nandita Das embraced it and helped boost it out of its base in southern India.

“Media literacy is the first step,” Kavitha Emmanuel, the campaign’s 45-year-old founder said in a recent phone interview. “This social awareness campaign has now developed and spread on the needs of the people. It has spread solely on the wings of volunteers from all walks of life and all parts of the country.”

Throughout 2014, Emmanuel took the campaign across several Indian cities, focusing on new territory in the northern and eastern parts of the country with organizers holding workshops, giving talks and visiting schools to spread the message. Information has spread online, where the campaign’s Facebook page has garnered 44,028 likes so far.

Activists from other parts of the world are also getting in touch. Emmanuel, a social worker from Chennai, said requests are coming in from victims and activists in Malaysia, Australia, Canada and Sri Lanka seeking help in fighting this form of discrimination.

Emmanuel said she is being invited to speak about her campaign in various other countries. To respond to the rising demand for help fighting color discrimination, organizers are now preparing age-specific media literacy modules that anyone can download from their site.

Advertising Guidelines Changed

Last August 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 color” or “communicate any discrimination.”

Since 2009, Emmanuel’s campaign–led by a team of about 10 staffers with her advocacy group Women of Worth and scores of volunteers–has been teaching workshop participants how to filter the pervasive skin-lightening ads.

“We do not say that you should not use fairness products,” said Emmanuel. “We teach them to read the labels and see what goes in those products and how harmful they are for their skin.” Often, Emmanuel said, participants applied the products despite rashes and irritations. After the workshops, she said many stopped using the products and attest to renewed self-confidence.

In 2010, Frieda Pinto, the actress of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame, wrote this in a blog post a year and a half after the hit film released worldwide: “One day I was checking in at my Los Angeles hotel and a woman who was as pale as pale can be said to me, ‘I’d love to have your skin color. It’s so beautiful!’ I thought, ‘What? Where I come from people want to be your color, lady.’ I wish all Indian girls could have heard her say that.”

But few Indian girls ever hear people rave about their dark skin. They are far more likely to hear ad campaigns linking skin-lightening products to dream jobs or perfect husbands.

For Emmanuel, the campaign began six years ago when initiatives she was running to instill life skills and confidence in schoolgirls often ran into a dead end. The girls, mostly from the southern part of India, had been told too often that they are dark and were internalizing the idea that they were useless.

“Many women, and men, nurse a feeling of unworthiness and despair for being dark,” said Emmanuel. Color bias, she added, is pervasive. “Our children are aware of it even before they understand other more important aspects of life.” If a child has dark skin, she said, classmates may avoid sitting beside her.

Global Discrimination

Colorism or discrimination based on bias towards one’s skin color is present all over the world, said Emmanuel.”The only thing that sets us Indians apart is our fetish for the fair skin.”

During “Muh dikhayi,” an Indian event where friends and relatives come to see a newborn baby (or a newly married bride) for the first time, elders would often say to the new parents “your daughter is fair, no trouble getting her married” or “what will you do with this dark bundle?”

Over a century ago, Rabindra Nath Tagore, India’s national poet and Nobel laureate, penned an ode to dusky rural beauty in the poem “Krishnakali,” writing “Ah, you call her dark; let that be, her black gazelle eyes I have seen!”

A countervailing cultural message to that sense of appreciation has been building since 1978 when Unilever, the multinational consumer product maker, launched the country’s first skin whitening cream. Since then the popularity of such products has exploded, generating multimillions in sales each year.

Emmanuel and her organization, Women of Worth, began to assess the public perception of color discrimination in 2009 by conducting a short story, poetry, painting and photography competition in the southern province of Tamil Nadu.

“We had no big expectations at all from this event,” recalled Emmanuel. Surprisingly, the group received 300 entries in each category within weeks. “We realized people are ready to speak on the subject, and that was the inspiration behind launching the Dark is Beautiful campaign.”

In 2014 several actresses and models aided the campaign by refusing to endorse fairness products.

Most recently, Richa Chadha, a Bollywood star, turned down an offer to endorse a fairness cream in April, reported The Times of India.

Indians’ obsession with fairer skin reflects a sinister problem, Das, an award-winning actress who is now the face of the campaign, observed in an interview with The Times of India. “It is disrespect for women, which comes out in various ways.”

“My sister is dusky, yet beautiful,” Kangna Ranaut, a model-turned-Bollywood actress, said in a November 2013 press conference in Mumbai about declining a lucrative endorsement offer. “If I go ahead and be part of this campaign (to endorse a fairness product), then, in a way, I would be insulting her. If I can’t do that to my sister, then how can I do it to the entire nation?” 

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