On one of my unproductive days, I stumbled upon a video on YouTube by a standup comedian. He talked about his experience being dark-skinned in Indian society. As funny as his anecdotes were, his remarks resonated with me — about how people assumed that he was a chain-snatcher because was dark-skinned, how his mother growing up would give him almond milk to make him fairer, how his relatives made fun of him for his skin color. It hit painfully close to home. Most of what he went through, I did too, and still do.
Just recently, I visited a few relatives in India. The first thing most of them asked me was why I grew darker. They called me irresponsible for not taking care of my complexion. Some of them did not even bother asking me how I was. In their eyes, I was clearly unwell.
Even as a child, being the darker one compared to my brother, I was always made fun of. In a way, all of my nicknames implied that I was darker. I knew that they did not intend to make fun of me or offend me, and it was all in good humor. Therefore, I did not take them seriously.
A while later, my niece was born and I watched my entire family gang up on the poor 3-day-old and point out the color of her skin. Yes, that poor child whose skin pigment had not even fully developed. That was the first time it hit me how important color was. My aunt made it her mission to make her newborn fairer. She would send pictures of her daughter’s skin every week, turning a shade lighter each time.
This annoyed the 12-year-old me for two reasons: her pictures were taking up too much memory space on my old, slow phone, and my extended family would call and ask me what I was doing about my skin, as if their snide remarks weren’t enough to make me feel bad. I would always hear comments about how I was pretty despite being dark, or how I was smart even though I could improve in the color department. People would tell me to try home remedies or fairness creams to lighten my skin tone.
These were my aunts, my uncles, my grandparents. My own family. As I grew older, I grew more aware of my society, and I realized that it wasn’t just my family that had this obsession with lighter skin. Our entire society is built around the belief that “fair” is better.
Interestingly, even gods are not above this prejudice in our society. The dark-skinned Lord Krishna (whose name means dark) is often depicted as blue-skinned, even though the religious scriptures clearly describe him as a ‘neela-megha shyama’; this essentially means “as dark as the rain-filled cloud.” For some reason, we cannot stand a dark-skinned hero, even if he is a god on a mission to impart justice to the world.
It is therefore not surprising that of the Rs. 3000 crore (About 4 Billion USD) toiletries market in India, the skincare segment boasts of Rs. 1,200-crore (1.6 Billion USD) with a gross of Rs. 700-crores (946 Million USD) just from fairness products. (Gundala, Raghava Rao. Kavita Chavali. Ethical Aspects in the Advertising of Fairness Creams https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=Gundala%2C+Chavali&btnG=)
All of these fairness products or skin-lightening creams resort to the same harmful marketing strategy. In the beginning, a dark-skinned person is shown to be interviewing for a job or is looking for a prospective life partner. Both the job and/or the suitor will reject that person solely because of their dark skin. Then, some very nice well-wisher will recommend said fairness cream, which in only seven days will grow one’s complexion three shades lighter. The job that rejected them? The individual will interview again after using said fairness cream and get the job. Likewise, it's suddenly love at first sight for the suitor.
Because, if you are fair, you are automatically talented, smart and beautiful. If you are dark, you are an idiot, a bad person and not fit for anything. All those degrees you earned hold no value. Hundreds of young adults buy these creams and slather them on their skin to become fairer, because it is associated with comparative wealth, desirability, prestige and attractiveness. For women, it means increased matrimonial prospects and lesser dowry. With matrimonial ads continually asking for tall, fair-skinned brides and grooms, this practice seems unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Now, before we get to the psychological implications of this practice, we must first discuss its physical health implications. Most of these fairness creams contain harmful substances like hydroquinone, steroids, mercury salts, hydrogen peroxide and magnesium peroxide, among other derivatives. These may cause neurotoxicity, mercury-induced nephropathy, immunotoxicity, ochronosis, hyperchromic or hypochromic erythrocytes and neuropathy. What’s worse is that 60% of the users may suffer at least one complication. (P. Ravi Shankar. P. Subish. Fair skin in South Asia: an obsession? http://www.jpad.com.pk/index.php/jpad/article/view/695/668)
The fairness creams are also a blatant personal attack on an individual, degrading them solely based on their skin color. They thrive on the inherent pigmentocracy, widespread in our society today. Everywhere dark-skinned people turn, they are faced with insults to their color, and the availability of these creams only adds salt to their wounds.
For someone who already has low self-esteem, the constant insulting makes them feel worthless for something that wasn’t in their control in the first place. They have no choice but to try to change the one thing that they hate the most about themselves; in most cases, it is the color of their skin. They are willing to pay whatever price it demands, even if it was their health. In this scenario, health is literally wealth. It’s worse when you are a woman, because the patriarchal construct around you already devalues you because of your gender.
So, how did we get here as a society? How did we begin to value the color of their skin more than the people themselves? Historically in India, most conquerors — from the Mughals to the Colonizers — were light-skinned. Additionally, both movies and scriptures portrayed heroes and heroines, especially the virtuous and kind, as light-skinned. The villains, especially the horrible and psychotic ones, were portrayed as dark-skinned with grotesque features. It could’ve started because the upper castes were considerably more light-skinned than the lower castes, and the systemic oppression of the lower castes meant that anything associated with them was looked upon as dirty. It could’ve just been because of the way the advertisements were made.
It appalls me that although we have progressed as a society in most spheres, we still hold onto our regressive opinions, and we continue the same practices from the 1800s. The only difference is that women of that time consumed arsenic for pale light skin and today, we consume mercury.
It’s high time we change these perceptions. It’s time we dark-skinned people stood up for ourselves, let the world know that we are our own individuals, and we no longer want to be defined by our skin tone. It will seem like a trivial issue for many people — some might even think it is unnecessary. However, I strongly believe that learning to love and celebrate dark-skin is the first step in dismantling the historical systems of casteism and patriarchy. Once you see that everyone is equal no matter how they look, it won’t take you much longer to understand that no matter the birth or the gender of a person, they aren’t any less than the others.
It is a difficult process and it will take a lot of time to unlearn things that were instilled in us from our childhood. However, we must start somewhere and the first step is to accept ourselves. Then, by sharing our journey with others, we can support others and together become the best versions of ourselves. If it helps, Lord Krishna is in on it with us too!