My name means “wish”, but over the years I have been called many other names that mean “black”.
This is because I’m a dark-skinned woman from India.
My father is dark-skinned, while my mother has fair skin. I took after my father. My skin tone is neither “wheatish” nor “dusky”, as some beauty companies prefer to label darker complexions – it is simply dark brown.
From a very young age, I felt I did not fit in. I was made to believe I was not good enough because of the colour of my skin. People constantly compared my complexion to others. It was impossible to escape their comments and judgements.
Fighting India’s ugly fancy for fair skin
Even members of my own family made jokes about the way I look. A popular one was that “the electricity went out in the hospital when my mother was about to deliver me, and that’s how I got my dark colour”.
At school, one of my teachers once asked me, with a smirk, “Are you from Africa?”.
As I grew older, I was pressured to change the way I look, to become lighter-skinned. Desperate measures were taken. From homemade – turmeric, curd, gram – to store-bought, many cosmetic products were applied on my skin to make me fairer.
As soon as I entered my late teens, there were talks within the family about finding me a suitable groom. Once, an elderly relative approached my parents with a proposal from a young man.
My father declined and I heard the relative tell him: “How can you decline? What does your daughter possess that makes you think she could get a better proposal? Have you not seen her? She is dark!”
I never responded to people’s cruel comments or jokes. I never shared my insecurities or feelings of resentment with anyone. I just became numb and shut down. Soon I was not comfortable being in photographs or attending social functions. I wanted to be invisible.
Over the years, I buried the pain deep inside of me. So deep that when I look back today, I find it difficult to recall most of these episodes.
Instead of dealing with my feelings, I chose to live my harsh reality in silence.
My reality was simple: In India, I as a person had less value because of the colour of my skin.
A deep-rooted obsession
India’s obsession with fair skin is well known and deep-rooted. Colour prejudice is widespread and practised openly across the country.
Indian society believes skin colour determines a person’s worth. In our culture, all virtues are associated with “fair” while anything dark has negative connotations. TV programmes, movies, billboards, advertisements, they all reinforce the idea that “fair is beautiful”.
The Advertising Standards Council of India attempted to address skin-based discrimination in 2014 by banning ads that depict people with darker skin as inferior.
This was a step in the right direction, but it failed to change much.
Four years later, India’s media and advertisement industries are still promoting the idea that women with dark complexions should aspire to be fairer.
And most dark-skinned women are still desperately trying to look fair. Some use makeup that is meant for lighter skinned women, choosing to look “whitewashed” rather than embracing their natural skin tone. Others use bleaching products.
I know people who are at least a good 10 shades lighter than me who feel their skin colour is not good enough.
In India, everyone wants to be fairer.
I want change for my daughter
Today, I am a mother blessed with a son and a daughter. My husband and my son are lighter skinned, while my daughter has a darker complexion, like mine.
Whitening cream: Fair deal for India’s women?
When she was born, we vowed to never let her feel less valuable because of the colour of her skin. From a very early age, we told her that she is beautiful, that her skin colour is beautiful, and tried to teach her a person’s worth is not determined by the way he or she looks.
However, when she was just three years old, a boy at her preschool wanted to play with her and she was reluctant. When we asked her why, to our astonishment, she said: “because he is brown”.
We were shocked, not understanding what caused her to think like that. We tried to explain to her that she is also brown.
After that incident, it became apparent to us that we cannot protect her from the outside world forever. As soon as she steps outside our house, she is exposed to a culture that values brown-skinned people less.
For example, when her school put on a performance, fair skinned kids were placed at the front regardless of their heights, and darker skinned children were all made to stand at the back, including my daughter. It broke my heart.
After watching that event, I realised that, until society’s perceptions change, my daughter will continue to think her worth is determined by the colour of her skin, just as I did when I was younger. So I decided to do something to facilitate change.
I’m now running a campaign called #ColourMeRight, to help give my little girl a better future. With this campaign, I want to make Indian media stop portraying people with darker complexions as inferior and make sure there are dark-skinned role models for young children like my daughter to look up to.
One may think there are bigger issues we are grappling with in India and that this campaign is dealing with a somewhat trivial issue. That may well be the case, but prejudice is prejudice, and I believe by changing the way people think about skin colour, I can make life so much better for millions of little girls just like my daughter.
As a result of the prejudice I suffered as a dark-skinned woman from a very young age, I still lack confidence. I don’t want my daughter to go through all this. I want her to grow up in a progressive society that accepts her for who she is – recognises her for her character, individuality, strengths and values.
The first petition I started via change.org as part of the #ColourMeRight campaign was directed at a leading jewellery brand in India, named Tanishq. The brand used the tagline “Jewellery for every bride in India” in one of its advertisement campaigns. However, these ads featured only fair-skinned brides.
There is already a stigma around marrying a dark-skinned woman in India – one has to only look at the matrimonial ads seeking “fair” brides. This is why advertisement campaigns directed only at fair-skinned brides-to-be are not acceptable.
I was pleased to see many people agreed with me. And after gathering over a thousand signatures, my petition got a response from Tanishq. The company issued a statement assuring us that they will “create commercials that reflect the truly diverse nature of the country”.
It was a small victory, but it gave me hope. It made me feel I was not alone. It made me realise there are many men and women across India who care about this issue and want to change the way our society perceives skin colour.
Lakme is India’s first homegrown cosmetics brand and after over 50 years in the business, it is still the market leader. It is a well-known brand that plays a prominent role in many Indian women’s beauty routine.
However, when you look at their website, you see that their products cater only one skin colour: fair.
The theme of this year’s Lakme Fashion Week was “Celebrating beauty without bias” and “beauty beyond boundaries” – so the company is well aware that cosmetics could and should be inclusive. It has the capability and the potential to do the right thing and cater for the cosmetic needs of all Indian women – fair, dark and every shade in between.
With this petition, I’m hoping Lakme to see its mistake and take a step in the right direction. If a company as big as this one starts catering for darker shades, it may help change the Indian society’s perception of dark skin.
Ending colourism in India
We still have a long way to go to end colourism in India. #ColourMeRight is just the start of a very long and undeniably difficult journey. This campaign aims to give a voice to countless women like myself who have been made to feel invisible and forced into silence because of their skin colour. I don’t know how effective it will be, how many people it will reach or how many minds it will change … but I do know it already made a difference in my little daughter’s life.
The same child that once refused to play with a little boy because he is brown recently told me, “I am brown like you. I love brown”.