Image: Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Women of Worth“We all bleed the same no matter what our skin colour or status in society,” says Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Women of Worth. With a slew of beauty soap brands tweaking their messaging to attract consumers who are now more concerned about protection from germs and infection than beauty post Covid-19, Emmanuel—who started the Dark Is Beautiful campaign in 2009 as an awareness and advocacy campaign to fight colourism—finds it strange that brands that were vocal about promoting beauty stereotypes are changing their strategy given a change in circumstances. “The threat of a deadly disease flattens the field and reveals who we really are,” she says. People would get a clue to filter false messages and toxic beliefs endorsed in advertisements now, she adds. Last week, consumer-products giant Johnson & Johnson decided to stop selling skin-whitening creams as global debate about racial inequality—triggered by the death of George Floyd in police custody in the US last month—gathers steam across the world. “Conversations over the past few weeks highlighted that some product names, or claims on our dark spot reducer products, represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone,” Johnson & Johnson reportedly said in a media statement. “This was never our intention—healthy skin is beautiful skin,” it added. Back in India, Emmanuel contends that advertisements don’t just sell a product. They also sell an idea, and very often, a way of life. “Let's be wise and not fall for beauty stereotypes endorsed by brands,” she says in an interview to Forbes India. Edited excerpts: Q. Covid-19 has given protection prominence over beauty…What’s your take on how this crisis will shape buying behaviour? It [the pandemic] has made us all stop and think about what really matters in life. This awareness should not be temporary. It should not be motivated by fear but about a genuine realisation of what really matters, and the equality of all skin shades. But any positive awareness brought about during this season is welcome. Q. What about a constant push through social movements? We do need social movements that speak up against colourism to constantly remind us of what our stand should be. What if people go back to purchasing these products after we recover from the pandemic? That would not be a genuine change. But I do hope these times change us for the better. Q. Black has never been beautiful, whether in advertisements or movies. Do you see things changing for better in India? I see some hope here from when we launched the ‘Dark is Beautiful' campaign in 2009. We do see dark-skinned models being featured in ads. The current movement on #BlackLivesMatter has also taken the conversation to another level. We see now how colourism and racism are related. I hope people see that colourism is not a surface-level issue. So 'dark' or 'black' is not just beautiful. We are talking about people here. We are all human in the first place and deserve equal dignity and equal rights everywhere. To promote one race, colour or caste over another is to dehumanise the others. So as a campaigner for the equality of people of all shades, I sincerely urge film makers, script writers and business owners to prioritsze responsible advertising and entertainment. Q. A change in mindsets could have a lasting impact… Absolutely. We need more awareness on the equality of all skin shades. The time is ripe now to make this a positive pandemic of mindset change across the nation. I hope such messages get into our student textbooks. Let the next generation grow up with the understanding that all colours matter.
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