She is sitting in Coffee Day, a favourite spot for Mumbai high school students. “You OK, Nina?”, her friends ask as they arrive. They sit down laughing and order iced coffee and doughnuts. Next door, the Eros cinema is showing R… Rajkumar. Its stars, Shahid Kapoor and Sonakshi Sinha, are good-looking, happy and in love. Both are fair-skinned.
Nina is darker, not really black. “One of my aunts keeps offering to apply whitening lotion,” she says.
“One day, I said to her: ‘But Auntie, you’ve been putting on that stuff for the past 20 years and I’ve never noticed any difference. What’s the point?’” Memories well up. “I’ve always known I was dark-skinned. At school the little girls with fair skin were chosen to represent our class. Once one of my teachers even said: ‘You’re a good pupil, but you’re so black’.
“In the playground it was one of the main sources of discrimination. Even now, when I walk into a chemist’s the staff try and sell me whitening lotion without me even asking.” She sips her coffee and smiles. “Most of my women friends who post photos of themselves on Facebook whiten their teeth too.” She picks up her phone and skims through them, looking suddenly rather glum. “There is an obsession with fair skin in this country,” she said. Paleness is a sign of distinction and “superiority”.
Isn’t obsession a bit strong? Rashnaa Mehta is adamant: “It’s there all the time, above all among the middle classes. You’re born with it, you grow up with it and to a large extent it shapes our world outlook,” she says. “I catch the sun when I travel and I see the way people react when I’ve got a summer tan, or a paler complexion during the monsoon.”
Mehta is a beautician. At her salon in central Mumbai, she sees a representative slice of the city’s middle class. Several elegantly dressed women, mainly favouring European styles, are chatting while their face mask works its magic. Someone has left a Danielle Steel novel on a chair. A mood of gentle boredom prevails. All the women endorse Mehta’s comments. Yes, they have been brought up to think that to be attractive one must be fair-skinned, and, yes, at some time or other, they have all used whitening lotions. “Often a mother will ask me to lighten her daughter’s skin,” Mehta explains. “If she persists and I’m already looking after the daughter, I’ll tell her straight out that she has no need for it, that she’s fine as she is. I try to boost her self-confidence, but it doesn’t always work.”
The contest for Miss America last year, won by Nina Davuluri, a relatively dark-skinned Indian-American, demonstrated public attitudes on the subcontinent. Many media commentators suggested that she did not deserve the title and stated openly that she would not have won in India.
Skin colour is also a fraught issue when it comes to marriage. Adverts placed by parents wanting to arrange a marriage for a son specify potential brides should be “very fair-skinned”. “It’s like at the market, you pick and choose, and just as everyone wants a nice red tomato, they also demand a fair-skinned daughter-in-law,” says Kavitha Emmanuel, co-founder of NGO Women of Worth and instigator of the Dark Is Beautiful campaign in 2009.
Shaadi.com, a leading Indian matrimonial website, cites fair skin as the key factor. The desire for whiter skin goes beyond the middle classes, but those who cannot afford branded, expensive products use a host of traditional remedies such as lemon juice, rose water, honey, egg yolk, cream or cumin. During pregnancy some women eat saffron, convinced it will lighten their baby’s complexion. “When I was a teenager,” Malathy, 30, recalls, “my grandmother used to bathe me with a [chickpea] gram-flour mixture, an old Indian skin-whitening recipe. I would be punished if I stayed out in the sun for too long. Then, at the age of 18, I went to live in Canada, on a university exchange scheme, and there I realised that many people really liked my skin and its colour. I was amazed, but I came to understand that I had a real problem of self-esteem. So does half my country.”
Dr Aniva Shah treats skin complaints. “I don’t encourage whitening. The first thing is to teach people to accept their skin,” she says. But what if they persist? “I prescribe mild, risk-free treatment. Some products can be dangerous, burning the skin, causing allergies but above all, after a period of lightening, the original pigmentation returns, sometimes in patches.”
Preparations containing mercury derivatives can lead to kidney problems. Hydroquinone, the drug that started the trend, has potentially serious side effects. Mumbai dermatologist Dr Satish Bhatia is familiar with the trend. “I see increasing numbers of men who also want to look fairer. This ranges from whitening the eye sockets to the whole face,” he says. “But excessive use of creams and lotions irritates the skin and ends up achieving the opposite result. I repair the damage.”
The film industry contributes to the fascination with fair skin and most leading Bollywood stars are pale-complexioned. “When we’re shooting outdoors the actors stay in the sun as short a time as possible, then they run for the shelter of their parasol or trailer,” says Bollywood stylist Archana Walavalkar. “And of course the lighting is full on to accentuate this trait.”
Many Indian film stars have appeared in adverts for whitening creams including Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor and Preity Zinta. A couple of years ago the country’s biggest star, Shah Rukh Khan, caused a controversy when he endorsed a skin-whitening product. The ad showed Khan at the launch of one of his films, talking about the hard work it had taken to get there and giving a young, slightly darker-skinned fan something to help him on his way to success: a tube of whitening cream, gratefully received. A petition against Khan’s endorsement of skin whitening collected 15,000 signatures, but he did not respond.
“Whenever they put on makeup, they try to whiten my skin,” says actor Nandita Das with a laugh. Often referred to as “dark” in the papers, she is actively involved in the Dark is Beautiful campaign. She switched to independent films because they are less obsessed with stereotypes. In 2009 she took part in a billboard campaign mounted by Women of Worth, under the slogan, “Stay unfair, stay beautiful”. “If you work in Bollywood with a dusky skin you’re doomed only to do parts like peasants or slum-dwellers,” she adds. “Successful city characters must have fair skin.”
So what is behind this desire for whiteness?
“Indians are racist; it’s a deep-rooted thing here,” Das says. “There are two factors driving this absurd mania,” says Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publisher. “Firstly there’s the invasions, with the idea that the Aryans are superior to the Dravidians; secondly the caste system, the upper castes supposedly being fairer skinned than their lowlier fellows. India’s rulers have often been white, from the Aryans to British colonialists. A pale skin is associated with the exercise of power.”
Prahlad Kakkar, a Mumbai advertising director, seconds the view that successive Persian, Mughal and British invasions explain why fair skin is associated with supremacy. “This complex is part of the black man’s burden which must be endured after being invaded and plundered by whites,” he says.
“History doesn’t explain everything,” Das says. “We are more than just the result of tradition. We are now part of the globalised world and it’s the consumer society which keeps such racism alive. The market is just waiting to seize on our hidden urges and sustain them.”
She also believes in education. “This ‘aesthetic’ sensibility is just lack of respect for women as individuals. As long as women are treated as objects, they’ll have to swallow the fact that they can only succeed in life if they’re white and slim. I believe that real campaigns, real debate can help them change, even if it takes time,” Das asserts. Pria Warrick, a former Miss India, is convinced that India needs a high-profile role model “to rid darkies of their complexes and restore their pride in what they are”.
In 2014 the obsession with whiteness moved into new territory, with Clean and Dry intimate wash, designed to “brighten” the vagina. This prompted a widespread outcry by writers and intellectuals, who thought commerce was going too far. Shivangi Gupta, head of Midas Care, which markets Clean and Dry, is unrepentant. “We are seeing considerable consumer demand and it would be irresponsible on our part not to supply a solution,” he says. The advert for the product shows a quiet family. The mother takes a shower and a diagram clearly indicating the area affected by whitening. Then she joins husband and children in their western-style lounge. Everyone smiles, revealing sparkling white teeth, the epitome of all-white Indian tranquillity.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde