Kavitha Emmanuel is a social activist and founding member of “Women of Worth” (@womenofworthindia on Instagram), a registered non-profit working to empower, promote safety and equality, and restore dignity, value and respect to every woman and girl child. Women of Worth has challenged the toxic belief of measuring a person’s worth based on their skin color through their advocacy campaign, “Dark is Beautiful” (@darkisbeautifulcampaign). In 2019, the movement celebrated 10 years of fighting colorism – the problematic perception that darker skin is less desirable.
In a country as fairness-obsessed as India, colorism is a rampant reality for so many women. We’ve been taught to fear summer tans, cringed at overexposed passport photos, dread being compared to our fairer cousins and received back-handed compliments ( “you’re so pretty for a dark girl” ). We’ve been made to feel invisible and undesirable in our darker skin, and told that fairness could help us achieve it all; our dream job, marriage and validation. A key culprit in molding the fairness discourse; skin lightening beauty brands, have recently changed their tune.
To better understand the issue, we sat down to chat (virtually of course!) With Kavitha Emmanuel about India’s infuriating color bias and her journey and experiences with combating colorism. She spoke to us about the gender impact of colorist projections and what her ideal changed narrative would look like, earnestly sharing her first-hand experiences and listening with empathy to our own. Read on to learn more about the complicated intersection of colorism with casteism and classism, checking your (often unconscious) privilege, and how you can get involved with the incredible work that Dark is Beautiful is doing .
Getting to know Kavitha and Women of Worth | I love the fact that no other nation is like India – we have so many different cultures and food, and so much variety. I grew up appreciating and enjoying this diversity. But as I grew older, I began to realize that life is not as simple as it looks. There are differences that people put in place to make you think that you are less; starting with the fact that you are not a man. These differences started standing out to me – the fact that I am a woman in an environment that tries to impose on what we, as women, can do and feel. There is a box that we are supposed to fit within and not ask questions. Right from a young age, I started questioning these injustices playing out before me. I grew up questioning the status quo of women in our society. I realized that women are not living up to their full potential and personally saw a lot of women holding back on their potential – thinking, I am a woman so I cannot lead or speak up. I started engaging in these conversations with my classmates and college-mates. As women, we have experienced these discriminatory attitudes, and those experiences evolved into a group of us getting together, wanting to do something. Women of Worth was birthed over a conversation over a coffee table when we decided to do something for women by women.
I had a family that was very supportive of whatever I did. Looking back, they did not see or understand what I could do and what I wanted to do, and, in fact, I sometimes didn’t understand what I was trying to do and say myself. In a sense, I was a sort of rebel at home. I stood out because I questioned what was the norm. While I did have the support of my family, the society I lived in placed limits on what I could do or say, and I constantly pushed those boundaries. I never dreamed or planned to be a social activist or to run a non-profit! I actually love music and wanted to pursue a career in music but this is where I am today and what I do, and I love my job.
The most challenged I felt was after I finished college. As a student you don’t actually realize the true extent of [ gender-based ] discrimination. But once you embark on your career you acutely realized – I’m a woman; there are certain things expected of me, and there’s a certain mold that I need to fill. Those were the challenges that really bothered me. That was the boundary that I was trying to break on a daily basis. And that’s possibly why I started my own initiative, and we [ the Women of Worth team] launched out on our own. As young girls, at that point, the best way forward for us was to start something on our own. That way, no one could control what we said or didn’t say.
On the spark behind “Dark is Beautiful” campaign | Women of Worth was formed a couple of years before the Dark is Beautiful campaign was launched. We [ the Women of Worth team ] used to have conversations where we discussed issues women faced – pressure from parents, career choices and so on. One of the recurring topics of conversations was the issue of skin color. In our own team, people had faced rejections with marriage proposals, or had been nicknamed and told, right from when they were born, “ who will marry you, you are so dark? ”. I saw, amongst my own friends, the impact a bias like that can have, on confidence levels and self-esteem. We thought we should do something about this. We kept talking about it, but for a long time didn’t have the courage to actually take any steps towards it because we were just a bunch of insignificant women. Then there was a particular story that really compelled us to start it [ the campaign ]. Our friend faced a rejection on a marriage proposal from a doctor in the UK. She was initially told that the problem with the potential groom is that he was wheelchair-bound. My friend said she didn’t mind this; she was more interested in his character and who he is as a person. The proposal meeting went through but after that my friend didn’t hear from them at all. After a while another friend of the family told her she was rejected because she was “dark”. That got us thinking – why is no one talking about colorism – it’s so toxic? And that pushed us to launch the campaign in 2009.
Colorism’s gender-based impact | In a sense, colorism impacts everyone. We’ve had boys write to us about how, because they were called names linked to their skin color, they would go into a shell and underperform. So this issue affects everyone. But colorism is unique in the way it affects women, because of all the gender discriminatory attitudes we already face. It also ties in to the idea of beauty. A woman has to be beautiful and has to fit the definition of what is beautiful. Women face greater pressure to look a certain way. In that sense, colorism is perhaps more real and more pronounced for women in many ways. I am groomed to think I have to look a certain way, and if I don’t fit the bill, it adversely affects me.
As a woman, you are already at a disadvantage; you are trying to validate yourself and your skin color becomes a point of acceptance.
You feel, if I am fair, people will accept me and then I will have opportunities currently closed to me. Rather than thinking about whether colorism impacts women more or less, I think it affects women differently; but the impact on women is certainly more pronounced.
On the intersection of colorism with casteism and classism | Colorism is interconnected with several other issues – racism, casteism, classism, sexism. That is the nature of issues – you cannot address just one without looking at the others. We have seen this play out during the course of our work. The mindset that, if you are dark, then you are poor, and you are probably from a lower caste. Along with colorism, we need to address these issues as well, but we cannot do it all alone. That is why allyship is important. The Dark is Beautiful team is at the point where we want to learn from others who have spoken up against these other issues.We want to see where colorism intersects with casteism or classism, and assess how we can address both issues together. We aren’t saying we have all the answers. Instead we recognize that working together is important,
The first step is to listen to stories of people who have been discriminated against, rather than deciding yourself what constitutes discrimination. If you are in a position of privilege, you will never understand what it means or feels to be discriminated against. Because privilege blinds you.
Listening to others and letting them share their stories is so important. It is one of the things we do with Dark is Beautiful – we want to hear others’ stories so we can learn more.
“Glow & Lovely” – a win or not quite enough? | [ Note: Recently, Unilever India promised to remove the words ‘white’, ‘fair’ and ‘light’ from its brand names and packaging. It subsequently announced the rebrand of its fairness cream “Fair & Lovely” to “Glow & Lovely”. L’Oréal has announced a similar rebrand, and Johnson & Johnson has said it will discontinue these products entirely . ] The last 10 days [ since the corporate rebrand announcements were made ] have been a sort of a roller coaster. Everyone was excited at what the corporates were saying. It started with Johnson and Johnson saying they would remove their products from shelves, which we thought was great.Then there was also news about Shaadi.com taking away their fairness filter. [ Note: Shaadi.com, a popular Indian matrimonial site, traditionally allowed users to specify the desired skin shade of their prospective partner.] We had written to these brands and matrimonial sites in the past, but they did not respond to us then. But at that point we had to step back to assess what they actually meant. We were thinking, what do these brands mean when they say we are going to drop the word “fair”? And, in fact, in one of my other interviews I had said, I hope they’re not going to replace it with “brightening” or “glow”. [Note: Which, unfortunately, is exactly what has happened with Unilever’s rebrand.] We’ve seen it happen with other brands, where they’ve simply used “glow”, “radiant” or “brightening”. But sadly that’s what has happened. So, as much as we welcome the fact that the issue of colorism is being discussed globally today, we are sad to say that removing “fair” and adding “glow” is going to make no difference. In fact, brands like Unilever owe it to us. These brands have to take it on themselves to educate the public on inclusivity.
They [fairness and whitening beauty brands] have been around for decades, reinforcing a damaging mindset that only a certain stereotype is beautiful. They owe it to us to make a more authentic change, and to alter the narrative in a way that actually matters.
The sad thing is that Unilever was running a foundation with the same name – “Fair and Lovely” to empower women – such a contradiction! As much as we are happy that this rebrand is facilitating a conversation, we feel that more has to be done.
As long as colorism is promoted by profit-driven marketing strategies led by the size of the market, which in turn is a reflection of what society “wants”, can change truly be effective?| Even If the advertisements disappear, would colorism in the Indian context disappear? Certainly not. Because it has become a part of how we process things.
Colorism has become so unconscious that even though we don’t mean to hurt or offend others, it has become such a part of how we process things, the way we speak at home, our casual daily conversations.
So how do we change that? As I’ve always said, it begins at home. If we try to address brands changing the narrative but we don’t do anything about changing the conversations at home, we are not going to get anywhere. That is why I would like to consider “Dark is Beautiful” to be a movement or organization, rather than simply one campaign. The hero here is the message. We really want everyone who sees eye to eye with us to take this issue on and run with it. The campaign has had a cascading effect. Several others have started speaking about it. Schools should talk about it, it should find a place in our textbooks. Some parents sent me a textbook with the image of a woman portraying opposites – beautiful and ugly.And the way it was portrayed is with the “beautiful” woman as fair, and the same woman portrayed with darker skin tone as “ugly”. This is what our government school books teach our children; this is how they learn antonyms. We should start challenging and changing those narratives as well, alongside talking to brands and challenging discriminatory advertising.
When you’re a girl, from the time you’re born you’re being groomed to be a bride. That is the only thing you have to look forward to. At the risk of overgeneralization, that is what is at the back of society’s mind – she is a girl so she should be fair, she should learn how to cook, how to talk, how to dress a certain way. That’s something that happens automatically, and very often unconsciously. This mindset has to change; this is the change I want to see translated into life. For that to change, it will take years of education, awareness, exposure. But I do have hope; I see a lot of young people on our social media platforms.Most of our supporters are between the ages of 18 and 30 and I see a lot of hope there because they get the message. In fact we just published a blog of a boy from the tenth standard talking about how his passport sized photo was whitened to make him fairer. Children get it. My hope is that it’s going to be easier with the next generation.
On an ideal changed narrative | The kind of world I would like to see is where we don’t have to have this conversation. We talk about it like it is a thing of the past. I think representation matters. I would like to see people of all skin shades included in all kinds of jobs – especially acting, modeling – professions where your looks are considered important. I want to see inclusion in textbooks where children learn that every skin color is the same. And I want to see discriminatory advertising disappear.
Why do you need a product that tells you can be whiter, why do we entertain the “white ideal” at all?
It is easy for the media to say we are giving people what they want to see. But since the media is such a strong voice, there is also the responsibility on them to bring about change for good. If the media can use its power as a tool to bring change, there is nothing like it. That is the kind of world I am dreaming of.
On how we can individually contribute to the movement | All of us in our own environments have to keep talking about it, keep challenging the mindset. I have hope in the next generation – so invest in them, talk to them, engage in these conversations. You are a voice wherever you are, you never know the potential of what you can do around you. So speak up, don’t stay quiet. Challenge it. One of the important things is to challenge ourselves – the Indian community. We very often point a finger at someone else and say you are biased. But the fact of the matter is I am also biased. Even for the Dark is Beautiful team, it was a journey of introspection where we realized that we had to battle some of these attitudes ourselves.
The fact of the matter is I am also biased, albeit unconsciously. Introspect, reflect and own up to your own bias, and only then can you change it.
The problem is when we don’t own up to our bias, we don’t see it and then we can’t and don’t change it. It is a combination of introspection and challenging what you see around you that will drive change.
Getting involved with Dark is Beautiful’s incredible work | You can connect with our social media pages, contribute to our blog, you can send us pictures, send us suggestions of what we can do or take on the issue in your own environment and we will support you in any way we can. Speak up – organize lectures, coffee table conversations, write curriculums for schools. If you are into training or teaching ensure you are doing this in your classroom. In our own environments and professions, we need to list out things that we can challenge and take it from there. The Dark is Beautiful team is always available to support your efforts and share our learnings with you. We can’t do it for you, but we are certainly there to support you!There’s no perfect solution but we all need to pitch in.
You can connect with Kavitha and the Dark is Beautiful campaign via:
By Devina & Laura Ayesha, Curiosity Club, Mumbai