This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
In the trailer for Dark Girls, a documentary directed by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry, a young women confesses: “I can remember being in the bathtub asking my Mom to put bleach in the water so that my skin would be lighter and so that I could escape the feelings that I had about not being as beautiful, as acceptable, as lovable.”
Her story is just one of many explored in Duke and Berry’s ground-breaking film, which follows black women of all ages as they reveal their personal struggles against colorism, a phenomenon affecting many in African countries and the diaspora.
As a practice of discrimination, colorism (or shadeism) privileges lighter-skinned women (and men) over their dark-skinned counterparts, driving many to employ drastic measures. A recent study published by the World Heath Organisation concluded that 77% of women in Nigeria had admitted to using skin lightening products, more than any other nation in the world.
But it’s not just black Africans who suffer from colorism. Social hierarchies based on skin tone are prevalent in vast parts of South Asia where the darker skinned face rejection in both the workplace and from family and friends; meanwhile, those with ‘wheatish’ complexions often find it easier to gain social status. The result of this? A skin bleaching epidemic.
For generations, thousands have turned to whitening agents in an attempt to achieve a more ‘socially acceptable’ look. It seems one country’s obsession with fairer skin has reached a critical point as whitening products continue to out-sell Coca Cola.
In 2010, India’s skin lightening industry was estimated to be worth over $400 million and thrives today by peddling the beauty myth that light skin is the right skin. High-profile Bollywood actors such as Shah Rukh Khan star in adverts that promote skin-bleaching as de rigueur for the young Indian masses.
The message is not loud and clear: fair skin means a guaranteed path to success. But those who cannot meet such cultural beauty standards face crippling self-esteem issues, with often tragic consequences.
However, many are now fighting to change the all-pervasive view that being fair-skinned is a precursor for happiness. One actress, Nandita Das, began to head Dark is Beautiful, a campaign first launched in 2009 aimed at addressing shadeism in India. The movement has gained traction over the past year with adverts challenging traditional stereotypes of being ‘fair and lovely’ shown on television screens across the country.
Meanwhile, a petition on Change.org calls for Emami, the cosmetics company behind Fair and Handsome, a male equivalent to Fair and Lovely, to “suspend [Shah Rukh Khan’s] discriminatory ad campaign” and “lead the change by introducing products that complement all complexions.”
No doubt Dark is Beautiful has been crucial in celebrating “beauty beyond colour,” yet has it kickstarted any long-term effects on India’s lucrative skin-whitening market?
Many hope so, but for now, it seems the struggle against centuries of the ‘Fair and Lovely’ culture rages on, while skin-bleaching itself remains the norm amongst many in Asian and African communities.