I remember as a child, I was always praised for how light-skinned I was.
“Wow, Apner meh atho fosha mashAllah ( Your daughter is so white mashAllah).”
“Tumi atho shaddah ar shundor (You’re very white and pretty).”
My cousins, on the other hand, who weren’t as “light-skinned” would receive a lot of criticism for their darker colored skin complexions. As if, this was something that was in their control. They were told that they could’ve been prettier if they were just a smidge lighter. That men like shaddah (white) women, and it was important you looked that way in order to secure a man who only had eyes for you. That a little bit of fair and lovely would do the job.
And guess what? Being young, being naive, and being absolutely brain-washed by this colonial mindset that “white is beautiful,” they did it. They bought packs of Fair & Lovely , a product most popularly known to bleach skin, and would apply it religiously. The next day they would wake-up, wash their face, and eagerly look into the mirror to see if their complexion was a shade lighter. And if not, the next night they would apply a thicker code of the cream, leave it on longer, and then would check for results again.
Finally, results showed. They were ecstatic to see that they were lighter. But it was the kind of adjustment to their skin-tone that looked abnormal and unnatural. They looked like silicone dolls, but only from the neck-up due to the vivid differences of skin-shade between their faces and bodies.
Once our relatives saw these results, they praised their younger daughters for looking more beautiful than ever. They encouraged them to continue this routine and to not stop until they became “fair like Nashiha.” This kind of “positive reinforcement” and comparison still haunts me till today.
This is the reality of many of us South Asian women. If we are born dark, even if we were brilliant, noble peace prize winners who were top performers at our education and high paid professionals in our careers, we were somehow categorized on the lower end on the scale of desirability. Simply because of our darker complexions. Our inability to match our cultural standards of beauty subjected us to harsher treatment and we were disappointments to our mothers, fathers, and relatives simply because our skin contained more than the acceptable amount of melanin.
We are put down. We are undermined. We are overlooked. We are belittled. We are in a constant battle of self-acceptance verses giving into society’s ‘fix’ to our ‘problem.’ We are so brain-washed into believing that our darker skins make us ugly, that we found ourselves apologizing for being exactly how God created us to be. And here, at this very spot, where we’re drowning under self-loathe and pity, are where brands find the perfect opportunity to emerge and capitalize.
And while I do empathize with our elders who hold this belief since they grew up during the times of colonialism, we can no longer blame colonists for our degrading standards of beauty. We cannot blame them for what we’re doing now. Colonists introduced the notion, but we? We perpetuated it.
I beg you. If you have a daughter, a little sister, cousin or any woman who you have the power to influence, please tell them that they are absolutely beautiful. Dark, light, medium-shade or black. Women suffer more scrutiny as it is, but just imagine how many franchises, businesses, and enterprises we can put off the market if we learned to love ourselves? If we learned to love others who were different from us? If we learned to block out negative comments, refused to consume false advertisements of beauty through the media, and accepted ourselves entirely?
It still haunts me. The memory of seeing my cousins rubbing this cream on their faces. It scars you knowing you grew up witnessing such an intense act of self-hate. I wish I could go back and tell them exactly what I mentioned above. That God made no mistakes. That your parents are blind and brain-washed, that you’re downright beautiful and created in the perfect shade. That I don’t want them to compare themselves to me, that I am no better than them. That skin color should not be an indicator of attractiveness or an indicator of a beautiful woman.
And finally, that I’m sorry. Sorry I was too young to not understand what was going on, and too naive to not stop it. And I’m sorry I didn’t help them recognize that from their skin to their hearts, they were already beautiful. Just the way they are.
It’s an unspoken about topic. The South Asian culture’s obsession with being fair. And the statistics show that for every one girl who is adored for her lighter complexion, there are three others being shamed and encouraged to bleach their darker skins.
I remember as a child I was praised for how “light-skinned” I was. But now looking back as an adult, that wasn’t a praise-worthy thing at all.