“I am quite dark, do you have something for me?”
Fashion designer Ayush Kejriwal said he frequently gets this question from women looking to purchase one of his sarees or frocks online.
For Kejriwal, a 35-year-old British Indian designer based in Scotland, these inquiries from clients are reminders of how deeply ingrained the desire for lighter skin is in South Asian cultures. The stereotype that “fair” South Asian women are more beautiful and desirable is so prevalent that some “darker skinned” women feel that they can’t wear certain colors.
“It saddens me when people feel they can’t wear what they want just because they are of a darker skin tone,” Kejriwal told HuffPost. “How we look should not ... dictate how we live our lives!”
To combat the stereotype that only “fair and lovely” women are beautiful, Kejriwal told HuffPost he’s made it a point to feature South Asian models of a range of skin colors wearing his styles ― and to dress all the women in bright, bold colors.
“The most gorgeous coloured flowers of all sorts grow on dark brown soil and they look stunning. Nature doesn’t feel shy from experimenting with colours then why should we?” he wrote in an Instagram post. “Society, people’s opinion or Bollywood celebrities should not dictate what we wear.”
South Asians’ obsession with lighter skin is centuries old. Some claim it is a remnant of British colonial prejudices, while others say it also dates much further back. The myth that fair skin is beautiful manifests itself today with the sale of skin-lightening lotions, creams, and even a body wash that purported to lighten women’s labias. Bollywood’s top celebrities participate in perpetuating this stereotype by endorsing skin lightening creams in television ads and billboards.
The stereotype also shows up in ugly ways in people’s everyday lives ― through backhanded comments at community gatherings, or a grandmother’s blunt analysis of a darker-skinned woman’s marriage prospects.
Subarna Manikkaratnam is a 22-year-old British student and model who is often featured in Kejriwal’s shoots. She said that although she’s never been bullied directly, she’s had people make backhanded, derogatory comments about her skin tone in the past. They’d say things like, “You’re pretty even though you’re dark,” or “You can’t wear that because it’ll make you look darker.”
“As a Sri Lankan, it’s pretty normal to have dark skin, but a lot of young people even in today’s day and age still believe that certain skin tones are superior to others, which is truly saddening,” Manikkaratnam told HuffPost. “As I was growing up, at one point I did wish I had fairer skin, but luckily for me this was only a small phase - I know for many girls and women this isn’t the case.”
“I can now say I love my skin and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but I have to be honest, I’m sometimes wary about whether other people (especially designers) will have a problem working with me, since the media is more than often flooded with what a typical Asian girl should look like, even though it goes to say that this stereotype is far from accurate.”
Times are changing, albeit slowly. Fashion magazines have been addressing the issue on their front pages. Since 2009, the Dark is Beautiful awareness campaign has been working to educate people about the issue of skin color bias through media literacy workshops and social media projects.
Manikkaratnam said she’s glad that her photos have been conveyed in a positive manner through Kejriwal’s work. She said she’s also been contacted by women who have seen the images and are looking for advice about how to overcome their own insecurities about their skin color.
“The message I hope people will take away from the photos is that it’s okay to be any shade of brown. Whether you’re fair, dark, or somewhere in between - you are beautiful. Often we become our own worst enemy when we start hating ourselves for something we just cannot change,” she told HuffPost. “But it’s important to remember that most people will not judge you by the colour of your skin, or your size, or any of your physical attributes. They will look at whether you are a kind, compassionate person, and that’s what truly matters.”
“I really hope that I have given at least some people the confidence to be happy in their own skin, and hope I have empowered those who may be suffering from bullying as a result of their skin colour.”