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India’s obsession with fairness is no secret. The average Indian matrimonial advertisement seeks the fair bride. I have worked for two years in rural Tamil Nadu. Often you start feeling a sense of righteous indignation when mothers bring their adolescent daughters in asking please tell us how to make her fair. Entreaties of she is gorgeous and you cant change her skin tone fell on deaf ears. A couple of times sheer frustration led me to say yes there’s one thing. You have to change her father. If you can go back in time and change the father maybe she will become fair. But, you can’t hold individuals responsible for the systematically ingrained prejudice against the dusky especially when the dowry is directly proportional to the Fitzpatrick skin score (A scoring system that classifies individuals from more likely to burn to more likely to tan)

The socio-cultural aspects of colour are interesting. Ancient Hindu texts refer to Lord Krishna as saavla or dusky, the colour of the new moon. Yet we persistently paint him as blue. The Amar Chitrakatha comics had dark antagonists and fair protagonists. The invaders of India were largely fair the people out of Steppe, Mughals and the Colonial powers. The upper castes were fairer too. The fascination with being fair was not a uniquely Indian phenomenon. The labourers were toiling in the sun and were tanned while the feudal women lived indoor lives. Therefore, being fair was a sign of status. This is reflected in the large number of fairy tales which describe fair maidens. India too adopted this ideal of their overlords. This changed in Europe and America the 1900s where women of all classes began to work and the wealthy socialites could afford beach vacations that gave them a tanned look. That’s when the Caucasians turned to sunbeds and lotions to give them that beachy tan until they realised it causes cancer.  But in India, we continue our obsession with the Caucasian appearance.

Discrimination on the basis of colour is called Colourism. It is prevalent in both the employment and marriage sectors. It’s this discrimination that the beauty industry cashes on by selling fairness creams. Pharmacists too sell over the counter steroid creams to the desperate buyer. These creams cause the skin to thin out, develop pimples and increase the thickness of facial hair. The buyers are desperate because they receive setbacks at work because of an ingrained bias. In an educational session that I attended in my rural bond for our community workers, they were shown pictures of dusky skinned accomplished people like Indra Nooyi, the women scientists from ISRO and fair skinned average joes from stock profile pictures. They all reported that they would hire the fairer person because they looked better. This is an inherent prejudice that we need to counter.

The prejudice of colourism reached new heights when a reputed national media channel ran an article on a right wing group which claims that it uses ayurvedic techniques as part of its Garbh Vigyan Sanskar project to customise the perfect child who is fair, tall and has high IQ. This is the practice of eugenics of prejudice. It is exactly what the Nazis experimented on. It is a gross ethical violation. There is a need to bring AYUSH research  under an ethical regulatory board. But the question remains on how to counter generations of colourism. The fight for gender equality took years and we still fight for it. We are making progress. I am optimistic that as more people recognise colourism as a form of discrimination, we may get better results. I hope that both Bollywood and state film industries promote more stars with varying skin tones without having to airbrush them or add foundation to match Heath Ledger’s makeup as the Joker.  Media can influence ideas and I hope casting directors will take this responsibility seriously.

As, I start my post graduation in dermatology, I hope that I can convince some people at least that healthy skin can be white, black, brown, yellow or copper toned. Sunscreen is to protect your skin from cancer, not to make you attain the complexion  of Casper the friendly ghost.