NEW DELHI, India (CNN) — Tanupriya Khurana watches intently as her sister Bhavna gets a makeover at a designer cosmetics kiosk in the middle of one of Delhi’s most popular malls, Select Citywalk.
Shades of velvety pink blush roll over Bhavna’s olive cheeks. She holds up a mirror and inspects the results.
Behind the kiosk, a clothing and lingerie store displays trendy fashions on mannequins with blond hair, blue eyes and milky white complexions. They look nothing like Tanupriya and her sister or the hundreds of other Indians milling about this upscale shopping complex on a Sunday afternoon.
Even the advertisements and store posters that use Indian faces promote a look that is unattainable for most Indians: long, silky straight hair; a tall, thin body; and, most importantly, a fair complexion. The most popular Bollywood stars such as Aishwarya Rai — a former Miss World — look more white than Indian.
“Being white is the preference,” says Tanupriya, 23, an insurance brokerage firm employee. “There’s a different psychology here. I think Indian women have problems with acceptance.”
“Gori hai sundar,” she says. White is beautiful.
Khurana says this tongue in cheek. She knows it’s racist — and disagrees with this collective thinking. But she’s right. As far back as I can remember, a woman’s complexion has been a very big deal in my native land.
When I was a child, my aunt forbade me to play outside lest I turn several shades darker in the sun. The same aunt lamented after one of my trips to Iraq that the strong sun had made me “black.”
“You used to be so pretty,” she said. In other words: “You used to be so light-skinned.”
Many Indians feel their country’s disturbing obsession with fairness has been compounded in recent years with the invasion of European and American retail outlets and widespread access to information via the Internet.
The discussion was reignited after Nina Davaluri, a woman of Indian descent, was crowned Miss America. Many here wondered: Could someone as dark complexioned as Davaluri win a pageant in the country of her heritage?
Pratima Singh, the kiosk employee doing the makeover on Tanupriya’s sister, says she often has clients who choose foundation or powder that is too light for them.
“They say they want to look like her,” Singh says pointing to a giant clothing ad featuring a white woman. “But you can’t camouflage what you are.”
Khurana agrees. “That’s the saddest thing in our country,” she says as her sister’s face is transformed into Bollywood glamor. “Looks, color of skin — we should ignore such things.”
Should, yes. But even those here who do not dispute the new Miss America’s beauty said this: A pageant or a Bollywood role is one thing, but when it comes down to finding a bride for a beloved son, Davaluri, despite her stunning looks, would be too dark to make the cut.
Sure enough, matrimonial ads in India — arranged marriages are still the way many young people choose to wed — often read like this:
“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?”
Back at the Delhi mall, Jai Shukla, 31, says it’s a shame Indians are so obsessed with skin tones. “I think mentally, we are not free,” he says, admitting that he once tried lightening creams on his own chocolate skin.
He says he used to teach Hindi to Westerners at the posh Imperial Hotel in Delhi. Sometimes, the guards assumed he was a laborer. He says he was a victim of profiling because of his dark complexion. He tried skin-lightening creams but gave it all up once he began to gain more confidence in himself.
Rajat Tyagi, 28, rattles off a list of actresses he says personify his ideal of beauty: Kate Winslett, Angelina Jolie and Indian actor Katrina Kaif, who is light-skinned. But Tygai goes against the grain. When it comes to marrying someone, he says, he won’t care if she is white, brown or black.
It’s what inside that matters, he says.
“Really?” I ask him.
“Really,” he says.
I didn’t know whether to believe him, especially in the midst of the retail madness of this Delhi mall. His answer is cliche. But I am glad he said it.
CNN’s Mallika Kapur contributed to this report.
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