Dark is Beautiful: How to fight skin colour bias in India with a campaign

The Dark Is Beautiful campaign by Women of Worth addresses the unjust effects of skin colour bias while celebrating the diversity in India of skin tones.

Did you know that one of the largest consumers of skin lightening products has been India? A report in The Guardian mentions that Indians consumed 233 tonnes of skin whitening products in 2012. The craze for a fair complexion makes skin whitening products a lucrative market in the country with both men and women spending a bomb to look fair.

A campaign ‘Dark Is Beautiful‘ is questioning this desire for white skin, and trying to draw attention to the unjust effects of the bias towards pale and fair skin. The Alternative talks with its founder Kavitha Emmanuel to find out more about it.

Women as agents of change 


Kavitha Emmanuel is the founder of Women Of Worth (WOW) – an NGO that works towards women’s empowerment. Their tagline ‘For Justice, Equality and Change’ defines the group’s work to help women be the best they can be by enlightening, encouraging, empowering and equipping them with life skills and values.

Kavitha Emmanuel

Kavitha Emmanuel

“I have grown up looking at women being abused and not being treated justly. I have seen them accepting the treatment, reconciled to the fact that they are women. I have not faced any discrimination while growing up and so seeing women treated differently around me has always led me to wonder why this happens,” says Kavitha. At schools the general talk among girls was,“what is the point of studying, working hard, going to college if, ultimately, we have to get married and give everything up.” “Marriage and family are all a part of life. But women have dreams and we can live to achieve them,” asserts Kavitha. This triggered her to start WOW and inspire women to be the agents of change in their own lives.

What Women of Worth does


There are three different initiatives that WOW is involved in. The ‘Be the Change Advocacy’ initiative  gives voice to issues concerning women. Under this banner, WOW launched the Dark Is Beautiful campaign and ‘Girl Arise’. Dark Is Beautiful, launched in 2009, addresses the unjust effects of skin colour bias while celebrating the diversity in India of skin tones. The Girl Arise campaign addresses the gender bias, violence and crime against women. Training and workshops are based on these campaigns and programs revolve around media literacy, safety awareness, laws for women (filing FIR, seeking help when in danger), child safety in schools etc. Programs and workshops are conducted in schools, colleges and corporates in Chennai and in other cities.

They also run rehabilitation programs for adolescent girls who have been trafficked, abused and abandoned. Counselling is another service that has recently been started in Chennai for working women in the urban poor community to impart skills and educate them about various aspects like health, nutrition, career opportunities etc.

Let’s be fair, skin colour bias is a deep-rooted issue in India

“The response to Dark Is Beautiful has been unbelievable”, says Kavitha. “It gave people a platform  to voice their opinions and share their experiences with this bias and it went viral in 2013. Stories poured in with people sharing painful yet honest experiences with skin colour discrimination like girls getting rejected or tortured due to their skin colour,” she says.

“On the one hand I am happy that the campaign is doing well. But I am sad too that such a big issue has been largely ignored in India,” she adds. She credits the success of the campaign to people’s response. “People have been touched by it, they have experienced the bias and so they have responded to it,” she says. Of course, celebrities endorsing the campaigns has also helped. “Actresses like Nandita Das have supported us upfront while some like Shekhar Kapur and Tannishtha Chatterjee have stood by us,” she adds.

Is it just an Indian issue? A global look at bias

Though skin colour bias is a global issue dominating African and Asian countries, the campaign has been spoken about and written about by the media in 18 countries and people have written to the organisation from countries like US, Australia and Dubai. “Bias is everywhere – in different shapes in different parts of the world”, she says.

“It is just that in India the bias has a unique presence and manifestation. We see it in our newspapers, on hoardings, discuss it in our communities, our television ads openly laud fair skin. Yet, we ignore it, consider it is normal, and even aspire to it. Our behaviour just says that there is nothing wrong with it! Girls are rejected because of colour, children are neglected, discriminated against in schools and families because of colour. Children’s self-esteem hits an all-time low, affects their growth and aspirations, yet we continue to stay quiet about the issue. This is what rankles,” she adds.

Men have joined too

A campaign that began for women soon saw men writing in in large numbers saying ‘we face the bias too. Why are you talking only to women and about them?’ “So we started involving them, asking them to share their stories too.”

‘Beauty Beyond Colour’ is their recent initiative for men and boys who have been targets of this discrimination.

“Men are very much part of all our campaigns. We cannot talk about women’s safety in Girl Arise campaign if men are not aware of the issues and how they can and should contribute to women’s safety,” she explains.

Keeping the campaign alive

A lot of advocacy for these campaigns is through social media. Awareness events are conducted in different cities, on-going trainings create awareness and equip adults and children with tools to overcome and question the discrimination they face. City chapters have been started in various cities to carry forward WOW’s work in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.

“The bias is deep-seated, is continuously being perpetuated and it is not going to disappear overnight. But with our workshops we hope to instill a positive self-image in people facing such discrimination,” says Kavitha. WOW is also willing to train other trainers who are interested in reaching out to people. “We hope that media literacy becomes a part of life skills curriculum in schools,” says Kavitha.

Change begins at home, in our neighbourhoods and schools

“Battling mind sets and addressing attitude change is no easy task in a society where fairness is equated with being attractive. But change begins at home. Don’t discriminate among children at home and compare them with each other,” says Kavitha. “This is true for teachers and staff in schools as well, who should refrain from making hurtful comparisons between children.”

“Media can play a very key role in ending the bias, yet, by endorsing the bias and promoting it, it only furthers the discrimination and keeps it alive through its fairness commercials. If any sort of bias is banned in the media, it definitely will have a positive impact,” she believes.

Any kind of campaign is not easy

“Taking a stand on any issue and initiating a campaign like this is not easy work”, emphasizes Kavitha. “Regarding the Dark is Beautiful campaign, many people have raised doubts about the campaign’s potential to create change. People have often told me, ‘This is not going to work. Why pay attention to issues of bias when there are graver issues facing us?’ I have even had people saying to my face, ‘Women are not created equal to men, why even bother addressing issues of gender?’ Surely, when you compare our campaign with the size of the bias, you realize it is a huge giant we are up against. But ours is a small effort, a positive step against this bias. We know it is going to a take a long time to overcome gender issues. But, even if we change one life at a time it is worth it. ”

Creating a positive impact

The result of the campaign has been that attention has been drawn towards this discrimination. A lot of people have shared their experiences and some  have been empowered to take action. Kavitha narrates the incident of a girl who wrote to her saying,” I was rejected by my to-be mother-in-law because of my dark skin. But I have decided that I will stand up for myself and not get bothered by what people say. I love my skin colour.” There was also another incident at school where a girl came up to her and said,” I want to apologize to all my dark skinned friends. Very often I have bullied you. I thought you were not as beautiful as fair skinned people. Now I am going to think differently”. “Moments such as these give me great joy,” says Kavitha.

Quite recently the advertisement board has come up with the first guidelines for fairness products. The ASCI proposes that advertising should not directly or implicitly show people with darker skin in a way which is widely seen as unattractive, unhappy, depressed or concerned. “This is one impact that has brought me great joy personally. Our campaign has finally made ASCI take notice,” she ends.



All images courtesy Women of Worth. Featured image is screen grab of a WOW video.


The Alternative’s #mykindofbeautiful campaign is an attempt to look beyond conventional notions of beauty and recognize and celebrate it in all its diverse forms – to explore new ideas, listen to unheard voices and look for beauty in hidden places. Find more articles from the series here.
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Usha Hariprasad is a freelance writer. She is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writes about travel related destinations around Bangalore at Citizen Matters. more


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Usha Hariprasad is a freelance writer. She is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writes about travel related destinations around Bangalore at Citizen Matters. more

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