Fair is lovely and black is ugly. That's how most Indians around the world feel. Indian women still seek out "miracle creams" to brighten, lighten or whiten their complexion in the belief that fair women are more beautiful.

Durban sociologist Ashwin Desai said Indians need to stop obsessing over skin colour.

"South Africa is an incredible country. Last week the Chinese were declared blacks. When Indians apply for a job, they want to be black to benefit from affirmative action. But an overwhelming number really want to be white," Desai said.

"On weekdays many Indians want to be black and on weekends they put on their whitening creams and want to be white. I am not against the use of whitening creams, but if skin colour determines whether a woman wins a beauty competition we are regressing to apartheid. Indians who judge beauty by skin colour reflect the hypocrisy of the community."

Desai said some Indians considered whites role models of what is attractive. Even in Bollywood all the actresses have round faces, big eyes and are fair, he said.

"Many Indian girls want to look like Bollywood stars, such as Kareena Kapoor, because they are fed the idea that fair women are beautiful. Even if a fair woman is vindictive and cruel, these characteristics are overlooked because she is fair," Desai said.

"It is strange that 90 percent of the actresses in Bollywood are fair, whereas 70 percent of Indian women worldwide are dark skinned. Even the Hindu gods and goddesses are depicted as fair. Is there no possibility they could have been dark?"

Former beauty queen, television and radio personality, Sorisha Naidoo, who markets a natural skin whitening cream, Pure Perfect, said some darker people were confident about their own natural beauty, but there were people who preferred being lighter.

"Fair-skinned people like to tan and now darker skins have the option of getting lighter. When I won Miss India SA, certain friends and cousins thought lighter-skinned counterparts should have won because they were lighter and, therefore, prettier.

"I was disappointed when this news got back to me. It made my victory pointless. I started to look at all sorts of big-name lightening products and came across one that helped me," Naidoo said.

"I use this product because it has evened out my complexion. I have lightened several shades and, yes, it has improved my confidence. But before trying any lightening cream, research the ingredients and check with your dermatologist to make sure it is suitable for you."

Naidoo said some people preferred to buy her product anonymously because they were anxious about the stigma of wanting to lighten their skins.

Her clients included 2 000 Indians and about 480 Africans and coloured people, adding that 40 whites used the product to even out skin tone and get rid of redness.

"I have clients who put their children on the product - some as young as nine-years-old, with a reference from dermatologists, so that they are not the slightly darker child in school or in the class picture," Naidoo said.

"In parts of the Indian community, being the slightly darker cousin or sister means that no matter how striking, intelligent or skilled you are, being fair still means more."

Naidoo said there were at least 90 lightening products on the market, 85 percent of them illegal, harmful and acquired on the black market, but they existed because there was a strong demand.

Former Miss India Maashi Rampersad said it was disappointing that society still placed so much emphasis on fickle things such as skin colour, when there were so many more important issues.

"Women like Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Vanessa Williams and Halle Berry are beautiful black women who exude femininity, elegance and grace," Rampersad said. "Traditionally, beauty was only skin deep; however, sheer elegance, personality, intelligence and humour have enabled women around the world to attain the status of being 'bold and beautiful'."

Rampersad represented South Africa in the Miss India Worldwide pageant in New York in 2000. She said this allowed her to be an integral part of the "world of beauty".

"Beauty pageants are a platform created for women who have a combination of talent, intelligence, personality and beauty. Having judged various beauty competitions, I am always inclined to choose a winner who has something unique about her and is able to use this to her advantage," Rampersad said.

Rampersad opposed the use of lightening creams, believing people should be happy with the way they looked and not get sucked into a "superficial" world.

"We are responsible for creating a market for these creams and should not support products of this nature," she said. "People who use these do not do justice to their true beauty.

"It's a myth that 'fair equals beauty'. This mindset has been changing drastically in recent years and Indian women are popularly seen as among the most beautiful women in the world, irrespective of skin colour.

"More Indian women are gracing magazine covers, tapping into the Hollywood film industry and becoming more recognisable on a global scale. Dark, medium or light-skinned Indians are making our mark as a beautiful race in a league of its own."

Cosmetologist and chief executive officer of the Mrs India South Africa pageant, Anusha Bisaal, said the belief that the "fairer you are, the more superior you are" had to go.

"It is understandable that most women want to have beautiful, clear and toned skin. But when they want to change their appearance, that becomes a problem," Bisaal said.

"The use of skin whitening creams over time damages skin and makes a person darker. I would be sceptical even with skin whiteners that claim to be 'totally natural' because they may contain a minute percentage of chemicals."

Bisaal, who runs a beauty clinic in Durban, said many clients came to her hoping she could lighten their complexions.

"I always ask them what is wrong with their skin colour. All of these women are attractive. Some have exceptionally good skin, but still believe they will be more attractive if they are fairer. If women want to be conscious of their skin, they need to ensure their skin is healthy. This is what makes them look beautiful. Good, healthy skin, not fairness, is the essence of beauty," Bisaal said.

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