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'White is beautiful:' Why India needs its own Oprah Winfrey

Author recalls family members telling her to stay out of the sun

Moni Basu | CNN | 9/26/2013, 6 a.m.
Tanupriya Khurana watches intently as her sister Bhavna gets a makeover at a designer cosmetics kiosk in the middle of ...
Many Indians feel the disturbing obsession with fairness in their country is compounded by Westernization. CNN's Piers Morgan Live

— "Seeking match for beautiful, tall, fair girl ..."

And those women who are the norm in India -- that is, not light-skinned -- are targeted by a $400 million skin-whitening-cream industry. It began years ago with a product called Fair & Lovely.

I was first introduced to it through a letter from India 35 years ago. It was from one of my childhood friends in Kolkata. She was getting married and wanted to look her best on her wedding day. Her parents thought they were lucky to have secured her a good husband in an arranged marriage. She was, after all, dark complexioned.

She said she had been using Fair & Lovely but wasn't satisfied with the results. She wanted me to bring her something better from America.

I've noticed on my visit here that Fair & Lovely is still on the shelves. But women who can afford it have a wide selection of products from which to choose. There is even a vaginal wash that promises freshness, protection and, of course, skin lightening.

Some people blame the industry for making the problem worse. But Shivangi Gupta of MidasCare Pharmaceutical, the manufacturer of the vaginal wash, said the company is simply ceding to customer demands.

"We had a very proactive consumer coming in and asking us for this product, and I think it would be very irresponsible of us to not to provide that as a solution," Gupta says.

In Kolkata, I ventured into a beauty products store that carried a dizzying array of skin creams. Employee Jayasree Sarkar told me the skin-lightening creams were the store's most popular products. It doesn't matter that they don't really make you two shades lighter in a matter of a week. Women keep buying the stuff, believing there might be a chance.

Their hope is fueled by Bollywood megastars such as Shah Rukh Khan, a darker-complexioned actor who had been peddling a cream made by Emani called Fair and Handsome. Khan tells Indians that he gained success after using the cream.

Pria Warrick, a former Miss India who now runs a finishing school for women in Delhi, says India is still struggling to get over its colonial past.

"We, of course, in India are very obsessed with being very fair. I think it's something the British left us with," Warrick says.

Warrick tells me she is convinced that India needs someone like Oprah Winfrey to do for Indian women what the star did for black women in America -- to make Indians proud of their culture, their heritage, their looks.

She also blames the infiltration of U.S. culture for making Indian society so focused on physical beauty.

"American culture places a lot of importance on looks," she says.

Indians stand at a crossroads, Warrick says. "How much do we pick up from the West?"

Some Indians are trying to reverse the movement to be fair. Actor Nandita Das has lent her face to the "Dark is Beautiful" campaign, trying to foment change.

"The point is do we want to capitalize this prejudice and lack of self worth and further perpetuate it," Das says in the campaign, "or do we want to address it in a way and empower more women and make them feel good in the way they are?"