If you saw the world through my eyes, then you would believe, as I do, that beauty comes in every size, shape, colour, creed, gender, and shade of skin.
I believe the inner-spirit and character of a person are far more important than what someone looks like on the outside. But I also believe that there are no restrictions to what makes someone "beautiful" on the outside.
As an American-born Indian woman (and a dark-skinned woman at that) I have spent my entire life hearing about how "Fair is Beautiful." I have listened to our community elders caution their children to "stay out of the sun before you get too dark." I have watched Indian women (and men) buy creams and scrubs, promising better beauty by virtue of lighter skin. I have witnessed my fellow Indian youth stare in the mirror over the years and dislike the face staring back, because they too have begun to judge their own beauty and self-worth by the shade of their skin.
Skin colour bias exists in every community, but I am especially concerned with the way it permeates my South Asian community. And, I have an even more intimate understanding of this issue as an actress in Hollywood.
It began many years ago, when I was in consideration for the lead role on a film being produced by a major Hollywood television network. When my final round of callbacks was through, I sat by the phone eagerly awaiting my agent's call, relaying the final decision of the director and producers.
One evening my phone finally rang. On the other end of the line was the director's assistant, calling me on behalf of the director to say that they absolutely loved my audition; I had nailed the role and brought the director to tears with my acting. I was flattered and honoured. However, my joy quickly faded when this lovely woman informed me that they would not be hiring me, and had indeed decided to go a different direction regarding the casting of this role. After thanking her for her compliments and their kind consideration of me, I quickly asked her if she had any feedback to give me that I could use to better my own acting process. I will never ever forget her response:
"We don't have any acting notes; You were marvellous. The director and producers simply feel that you don't look 'Indian' enough for this role." I could barely process what she had said, as I thanked her and hung up the phone, my mind reeling, shocked and confused.
Confusion quickly turned to anger... I don't look "Indian" enough?? What does that mean? My bloodline is 100 per cent South Indian! In fact, I represent what the majority of people in India look like! And, yet this question had been asked of me time and time again in the acting world: "Sharon, what ethnicity are you? Haitian? Caribbean? Are you African, or Mixed-Race? etc, etc..." Why didn't Hollywood look at me and see "India" as clearly as I did? And, in that moment after my phone call, the profoundness of what had occurred overtook me. I knew why. It was because they didn't know any better. We, in our own Indian media and entertainment, had never clearly shown them that Indian people come in a variety of shades.
Historically, our Indian society has been so ashamed of dark skin that we have painstakingly shown the Western world only our fairest, and lightest-skinned leading Bollywood actresses. Western civilization has learned from us that these fair-skinned -- albeit beautiful and talented -- women are "what Indian women look like." And, if that is all they see, then that is all they will ever know. When I, a dark-skinned Indian actress, was in front them they didn't perceive me as "Indian" enough. It angered me, saddened me.
"Something needs to change," I thought. And, a fire was lit in my heart that has fuelled me over the years in my acting career. I vowed that day to be the bridge between the Western world and my Indian community, teaching everyone that East Indian people come in a multitude of shades -- light, dark, and everything in between -- ALL of which are beautiful. I've made it my mission to not only do good work in my acting, but also to proudly be a darker-skinned face, and a loud voice in Hollywood, representing my incredible Indian community in our truest form.
Times have definitely changed for the better in Hollywood casting. I now see beautiful Indian girls of every shade at my auditions, and it makes me smile. Still, there is work to be done and awareness to be raised. I want Hollywood to showcase Indian actors of every shade, and I want us to be featured in bigger and better roles, not just small roles as the occasional "cab driver," "convenience store owner," or stereotypical "doctor."
I want little Indian kids everywhere to grow up seeing their true faces and skin colours, properly and prominently represented in mainstream entertainment, so they can feel proud that their role-models look like them; so they can know they are beautiful both inside and out. I want to open doors in Hollywood for the next generation of Indian children, so they know that there are career-possibilities for them here if they so choose... all of it begins with us. It's time for Indians to stand up and be proud of our culture and our many skin tones. This is the only way that the rest of the world will see how incredible we truly are. This is my continued mission. And, I wholeheartedly embrace this difficult challenge.
I am proud of what I've accomplished so far. I am happy to be paving my road through an industry that is often less travelled by Indians. I am proud of my dark skin colour and am overjoyed to have played some great roles as an Indian-American woman; roles where my skin colour was considered a beautiful asset. It is an honour to represent India in Hollywood. And, I hope to stand proudly in the California sun for years to come, without hesitation of "getting too dark." My dear Indian community -- fair skin is beautiful, medium skin is beautiful, dark is beautiful. There are no exceptions.
Photography By: Liz Barlak Photography
"It is of utmost importance to know that we are all simple superstars! That we are valuable and beautiful just as we are, in the uniqueness of our skin colour and the way our bodies appear." -Wilbur Sargunaraj
Dark is Beautiful is an awareness campaign that seeks to draw attention to the unjust effects of skin colour bias and also celebrates the beauty and diversity of all skin tones. It campaigns against the toxic belief that a person's worth is measured by the colour of their skin. Launched in 2009 by Women of Worth, the campaign challenges the belief that the value and beauty of people (in India and worldwide), is determined by the fairness of their skin. This belief, shaped by societal attitudes and reinforced by media messages, is corroding the self-worth of countless people, young and old.
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