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India Wrestles With Its Bias for Fair Skin

Images of lighter women fill ads and movies, and bleaching creams are popular. Preference dates from the caste system.

August 03, 2003|Tim Sullivan | Associated Press Writer

NEW DELHI — The pharmacy clerk pulls a box of skin-lightening cream from a glass cabinet, places it on the counter and says it's obvious why he sells so much of it.

Women want to be beautiful, says Vishnu Kayat, and the key is inside the box, which has a series of drawings showing a woman growing pale to the point of near invisibility.

"When a woman is more fair, she is more beautiful," Kayat said.

Much of India seems to agree.

In this country of 1 billion people, images of fair-skinned women are everywhere. Light-skinned women dominate billboards, magazine ads and fashion-show runways.

In India's movie industry, the world's largest, scripts often follow a strict skin-to-character correlation, with light-skinned actresses in the major roles and dark-skinned actresses relegated to supporting characters.

Marriage ads, which consume a large part of many Sunday newspapers, are filled with requests for fair-skinned brides -- or, for the particularly choosy: "Very Fair."

Sales of skin lighteners bring in more than $100 million a year.

Not all Indians are comfortable with this celebration of fair skin, and the debate over the social divisions of skin tone -- divisions long decried by feminist groups and intellectuals -- has spilled into newspaper editorials, advertising and politics.

In a nation often tangled in its own cultural contradictions, where ancient traditions jostle against MTV videos and Madison Avenue ad campaigns, it's a schizophrenic debate, tied to questions of caste, colonialism and the global media invasion.

The result? The past few years have seen both an increase in the use of white women as advertising models -- and an increase in acceptance of dark skin as a sign of beauty.

Often, it seems that no one is quite sure what they think.

"A face cream that promotes fair complexion among women undoubtedly reduces their worth to the colour of their skin," the Times of India said in a recent editorial. "Yet, is this not a reflection of the premium society places on fair-skinned women?"

Skin tone is an issue across much of the world. But in India, it is an obsession.

"I don't think people who are dark are not good-looking," said Sunetra Surve, 52, a Bombay housekeeper who uses skin lighteners. "Some people with dark complexions can also be attractive, but when a person is fair, she looks very good. And if a dark person were a little fairer, she would look better."

The obsession reaches extremes in vocabulary, with Indian writers drawing from a vast array of skin-tone adjectives that can leave an outsider wondering which words are complimentary. Among them: wheatish, dusky, chocolate, middling dark, creamy, tanned, toned, brownish, browned, coffee-bean dark and peachy.

It's an idea that increasingly grates on many in India's elite.

Liberalizing views on race and caste and increasing disquiet over women's often subservient roles have made skin lighteners an embarrassment to many in India's educated classes -- even if they remain secretly stocked in the medicine cabinets of many of its women.

"This is a pathetic negative message to send out," said Farokh Chothia, a fashion photographer. Chothia, who has done ads for skin lighteners in the past, says he would refuse to do them now.

In April, government broadcasting officials ordered an advertisement for Fair & Lovely, the country's best-known skin lightener, pulled from television. The ad, which showed a father wishing that he had a son instead of a dark-skinned daughter, was decried by politicians who said it disparaged dark-skinned people and women.

Prasad Pradhan, spokesman for Hindustan Lever Ltd., which manufactures Fair & Lovely, said in an e-mail response that it had "taken note of these objections and will address them." But he said the ad had already finished its scheduled run by the time the order was issued.

"People across Asia -- from Japan to India -- historically have demonstrated a marked preference for skin-lightening and glow," Pradhan added. "It is as much a consumer-desired attribute among people in this region as anti-aging or tanned skin are consumer-desired attributes in the West."

Most of the lightening creams "work to a certain extent," said Dr. Pooja Kaushik, a New Delhi dermatologist. "These creams contain bleaching agents or hydroquinone, which causes lightening of skin over a period of time."

Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Assn., which had filed a suit against the Fair & Lovely ad, said the victory was only a small success.

"I think we'll get many of the ads pulled, but as far as changing opinions as to what the concept of beauty is, that's a different issue," Karat said.

The reality of India is that light skin is often a significant advantage. And it has been for millenniums.

Skin color is not just a mark of beauty here, but an indication of caste, the ancient system of social division that remains an integral part of Indian culture.

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