India is particularly guilty of the brand of body shaming that insists that only fair is lovely. Media, advertising, and the fairness cream industry bombard Indian women (and now men too) with the message that their natural skin colour is not good enough, whether for a job, a game of tennis, or the marriage market. Chennai-based KAVITHA EMMANUEL, founder-director of Women of Worth, started the Dark is Beautiful campaign in 2009 “against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin”. The campaign, which celebrates the “beauty and diversity of all skin tones”, recently started a petition asking actor Shah Rukh Khan to stop endorsing fairness creams, and has gained national momentum with celebrities such as Nandita Das joining in. With its Facebook page now crossing 16,000 supporters, Kavitha talks to LAKSHMI KRUPA about the challenge of changing mindsets.
Why is ‘Dark is Beautiful’ an important message?
There is definite colour bias in our society. Women of Worth, which works for the empowerment of women and children, initiated the campaign because the bias has a direct impact on the confidence levels of women. It is a sensitive issue that leads to low self-esteem.
What has the response been like?
When we started the campaign in 2009, we didn’t know what the response would be. The overwhelming support has taken us by surprise. It has now gone national, with a lot of people writing in to us and offering support. Many people say they relate to our message and that they have experienced bias. We think there is now hope for change.
Body shaming is harmful. And ads invoke these harmful feelings just to sell. Comment?
Not all ads have a bad influence; there are some good ones and we are definitely not against advertising. But I ask the advertising industry to stand up for what is right. They must think before they send out a message. There are already a lot of young people out there under too much pressure. Irresponsible ads can cause a lot of self-doubt in these people. We need a change in that direction. We need media literacy. Women (and men) need the tools to deconstruct media messages and see what is hidden beneath the layers of an ad’s message. This awareness is what we are working towards.
You have a lot of celebrity support…
We got in touch with Nandita Das because she has spoken about skin colour bias in open forums. Having her on board has been great; she is our national spokesperson.
Vishaka Singh, former fairness cream model, now supports our campaign. What I like about it is that she says, ‘Yes! I did that but I want to change things now.’ She experienced colour bias during her modelling days. That’s the sort of change we want to bring about. This campaign will not be successful if people don’t change their minds.
What sort of mindset change are you looking to create?
The issue we are talking about is huge. We need many people to take note of it. People have to be valued on the basis of their personhood and not caste, colour or other sweeping generalisation. We want to create a way to do this, with tangible solutions. We are introducing literacy modules to help the public cope with the messages they receive from the media.
You talk of ‘value’. Could you elaborate?
Several young women suffer from low self-esteem. They are all expected to fit into certain stereotypes and are judged based on their skin colour, body shapes, etc. The pressure to look ‘beautiful’ is always there. Who decides what’s beautiful? It’s the person behind the skin you should be looking at. This is the message we want to send.