A Talk About Skin Lightening with Director of "My Beautiful White Skin", Stuart Gatt

A Talk About Skin Lightening with Director of "My Beautiful White Skin", Stuart Gatt
A few months ago, I wrote an article called My Beautiful White Skin: Skin Lightening Among Indian Women after watching the trailer to the short film, My Beautiful White Skin. In the film, a young British-Indian girl named Parita, has aspirations of being a Bollywood star, but becomes ashamed of the color of her skin as she struggles to meet the exceptionally high standards of Bollywood, alongside her longtime friend Syeda, whose skin is fair and considered beautiful.

I have had the pleasure to sit down with the director of the film, Stuart Gatt to talk about the issues of skin lightening, how this practice affects individuals, as well as what this practice reflects about our society.
1.Please introduce yourself
I’m a filmmaker from London of mixed Indian/Italian ancestry and recently made a short film that tackles the Skin Whitening phenomena through the eyes of a young British-Indian girl named My Beautiful White Skin.

2.What inspired you to direct My Beautiful White Skin?
Growing up in an Indian household (I was raised by my Mother), I was constantly aware of the dynamics of Skin Whitening within the Asian community. My Grandmother was very dark and my grandfather was very fair, as a result, she was subjected to persecution in the form of jibes from family members that massively affected her confidence. The issue was so profound that when my grandparents moved to England with my infantile Mother, my grandfather found it much easier to integrate into British society having seemingly ambiguous features due to his fair skin, whereas my Grandmother was subjected to a completely different experience; she was unmistakably Indian and was therefore painted with the negative stereotypes that white people had of Indian’s at that time.

As I grew up it affected me too, my skin tone is more European and I saw that as a massive bonus as it made me ‘less Indian’ and therefore, further from this ‘negative’ aspect of myself, which was a condition of self-hate that was inherent growing up as an Asian at that time. As I grew older I started asking myself why I was proud to tell people that I was Italian and and not Indian? It was at that point I started researching my history and in-turn, gained race pride. Through my own experiences and growing up in a predominantly Black/Asian part of London, I started identifying this same condition amongst many of my black friends and family (my half-brother and sisters are half Afro-Caribbean) and realised the condition of self-hate wasn’t isolated to Indians.

More recently, there has been an incredible boom in Skin Whitening Products with unashamedly racist advertising campaigns promoting them. Bollywood has also become so white-washed that Indian movie-stars barely look Indian, with men and women so fair it defies belief. I then felt compelled to write a story that showed the glamour of Bollywood from the other-side, to the average Indian girl whose skin is many shades darker than her idols and knows she’s inadequate, even though she has the talent to make it.
A Talk About Skin Lightening with Director of "My Beautiful White Skin", Stuart Gatt
3.Do you have an idea of where or why colorism originated?
I’m personally not a fan of the term ‘colorism’ as I feel it understates the issue massively - it’s straight Racism. I have always felt that the act of Whitening one’s skin is an act of self-hate and we have to ask, in the words of Malcolm X ‘Who taught you to hate yourself?’. If we look at the major users of Skin Whitening products - African diaspora, Asian Diaspora, American Diaspora (and by American I mean those indigenous to the Americas, although in this case, predominantly Central and South America) we notice that all have been victims of European Colonialism. One only has to look at the policies of European Imperialists when entering the lands of our African, Asian and American ancestors to realise that the condition we find ourselves in now is absolutely expected and was actually very intentional.

In order to dominate, it was necessary for Europeans to destroy the confidence of its victims by presenting themselves as superior-beings on benign ‘civilising’ missions, when in fact, their intentions were to suck the resources from the lands they occupied or enslave the native peoples. The other half of the policy was to present the indigenous as barbarians and force them into the European mould, this happened in the way of forced conversions to Christianity, forced name changes to European names and included cultural changes too. The effects of this are still very much prevalent today.

The Doll Test was first conducted in 1940’s on young African American children, where they were asked which was ‘pretty’ and ‘good’ between a black doll and white doll, shockingly, they identified the white doll as beautiful as ‘pretty/good’ and the black doll as ‘ugly/bad’. Alarmingly though, the tests are still done today with almost identical results, highlighting how deep-rooted the idea that ‘white is right’ surrounds our children on a daily basis and stays with us as adults. The evidence of it is everywhere.
4.In the media, skin Whitening is always associated with people with Asian descent, usually from India. Is skin Whitening a part of Indian culture?
It certainly is, although for how long has it been? Humans have been in India for 75,000 years and we have one of the oldest and most advanced civilisations in history, European influence tainted India just 400 years ago and has since created a systemic identity crisis that has made Indians strive to be more ‘European’ ever since, Skin Whitening is one of the more crude manifestations of it.

It is an important point to stress again that it is not isolated to Indians, but a shared crisis amongst the African and Indigenous American cultures. By acknowledging the connection between us, it helps us unite behind a common cause and fight it together. Staying isolated on issues like this allows for arguments to creep in like ‘oh, that’s just a specific cultural thing’ and soon people within the community begin to believe and accept it and no longer challenge it.

5.One thing that I know is that a lot of Indian classifieds/dating ads mention that they want their future spouse to be "fair" or of lighter skin. Are both men and women affected by colorism?
The first Skin Whitening cosmetics that were released in India was in the 1970’s and were aimed at Women, now though, there are male equivalents that sell in abundance. Women, as is always the case in this male dominated world, suffer more with this issue but men in India are increasingly striving to lighten to their skin, as fair is still seen as a preference.

The concept of skin colour and dating/marriage has a link to colonialism too. When the British arrived, they offered one Pagoda (a gold coin) to any Indian woman that would become impregnated by a White man (notice there was no bounty for an Indian man impregnating White woman). This created a hierarchy for potential partners as not only did a White man bring a bounty, it also led to further wealth in the form of elevated social status. India is just over 60 years from British rule and the effects are still felt.
A Talk About Skin Lightening with Director of "My Beautiful White Skin", Stuart Gatt
6.Do you see skin Whitening as having an effect on a person's self-perception?
I really see Skin Whitening as self-hate. Being born black is to be born beautiful, yet so many of us feel insecure about our looks. My Grandmother was without a doubt the most striking member of our family, yet she was deemed ugly due to her skin colour. Had Europeans not landed in Africa, India or America would we have this condition? Or is it just a coincidence that we do?

The character in the film, Parita, has serious insecurities that effect her in everyday life, it’s something I wanted to explore as it’s never been seen before in that way. I think it’s an absolute tragedy that women and men across the world who have brown/black skin can stare at themselves and see their skin colour as a vice. A great quote I’ve often heard is ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but who is training the eye?’

7. Your film is set in the UK around an British-Indian girl that’s trying to lighten her skin in time for a Bollywood Audition. Do you believe that people of other descents can still relate to your film?
 Skin Whitening is huge in the UK too amongst the African and Asian diaspora, there’s a lot of us here! I tried not to make the film a story that only Indian’s know but rather one that anyone can watch and relate to. I think that the issue is so far-reaching and the feedback we’ve had from non-Indians has been identical to the feedback we’ve had from the Indian community themselves. I think all Peoples of Color find inspiration from each others stories and support each other’s plights as in many cases it’s a common struggle.

8.Why should people pay attention to colorism now?
I think we’ve made so many positive steps since slavery/colonialism to gain independence and respect yet there’s still a long way to go. The fact that people are still sullied with the idea that their natural hair, skin colour or eye colour is somehow inadequate when compared to the features of a European shows how deep-rooted the self-hate amongst our communities really is. Studies have shown that skin colour has a direct affect on one’s success with jobs, partners and life in general with a huge bias towards those with fairer skin. This is something that must be overcome.

Another quite important fact that is never mentioned is that the corporations that produce the Skin Whitening products that sell so hugely in the America, Caribbean, Africa and Asia are British and Dutch companies, so the people’s that are responsible for the insecurities that blight our communities now profit from it some hundred years later.

9. How can people watch My Beautiful White Skin?
My Beautiful White Skin was just screened at the Cannes Film Festival and will tour the world festival circuit for the rest of year, so keep up to date on our twitter to find out where it will be screened next.

To learn more about Stuart Gatt's Film, My Beautiful White Skin, visit the 6th International Films website, as well as follow the film on twitter.

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