By Sneha Singh

Don’t go out in the sun or you’ll get tanned. Oh no, you are tanned. Try this whitening cream. If you don’t use these creams, bleaches, chemical peeling treatments and fairness injection, how are you going to compensate for this “unfortunate” complexion. And if you think just making your face white is going to help you, you are wrong. You also have to use the armpit and vagina lightening cream.

Growing up in India, I would always hear my grandma sigh, “Her skin colour is okay but unfortunately she didn’t get her father’s complexion”. And if, god forbid, you are slightly dark skinned, a doomsday prophecy is written for you the moment you enter this world. And always refer to the slightly dark skinned person as wheatish (not dark). Just another euphemism in India for brown skin and a way to comfort people that they rank higher in hierarchy than “dark” people.

If someone asked me about how I felt about my skin colour, I would say that I never wanted to be lighter, but I also did not want to get darker or wanted any tan on my skin. This is one part of the problem. Another major problem I noticed was when I moved to Europe. Suddenly, my skin colour became exotic. Was that really a compliment? No. It’s racial fetishisation. And it happens frequently.

Being dark-skinned means you are not upmarket. And if you are not upmarket, you get associated with economic struggle. In India, one’s skin complexion is also associated with the caste system, a socio economic hierarchy. Another ugly face of it is gendered colourism – dark skinned women face more discrimination, struggle to find good jobs and marriage prospects, because all men want very fair wives (men’s complexion is less problematic in in most societies and they have other ways of compensating for it).

Kathy Russell Cole, in her book “The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium”, says that people from lower castes had darker skin because they worked out in the sun. Since caste and class often intersect, fair skin is also perceived as being evidence of “better financial and social status of a person”.

The various invaders, settlers, and colonisers who came to India are to be blamed for this national psyche. With the British rule, this prejudice was deeply engrained in the society. Similar problem exists in Africa and it began when African countries gained independence. Whiteness was always used by white women to communicate purity, thus, the idea of skin lightening spread. Everyone wanted to feel powerful and privileged. Hence, the idea of being fair and successful was built into our societies and embedded into our brains.

The fixation with white skin is nothing but a deadly mix of patriarchy and colonialism. For decades, women of colour have been bleaching their skin, colouring their hair, getting a lip, a nose job because light skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, sharp nose, thin bodies were believed to be physical manifestations of the light of God. Naturally dark skin, curly hair, broad noses are just unacceptable.

Racial Fetishisation

Coming back to the “exotic” looks of a brown or a black woman – calling a woman exotic just because she is not white, is not a compliment. It does not feel like an admiration. It just feels like racism. And now you can find hundreds of women walking on the streets with their bodies sprayed with a weird tone of orange/brown, which just looks weird. There are white woman literally spray-painting their bodies to resemble that of a black or a brown woman. This kind of imitation is not flattering. It is just another way of telling us that you are privileged.

When white women try on colours on their skin, it is only because that look is trending currently, “exotic” for the moment and they can always take it off once they get bored. It does not affect the way they are represented in the society or are treated by others. As put in by comedian and writer Paul Mooney, “Everybody wants to be Black, but nobody wants to BE Black”.

Impossible Standards of Beauty

It is not just the colour of our skin that we need to worry about, the impossible standards of beauty that society builds up is unbelievable. Television and social media constantly reminds women of what is considered beautiful – and these beauty trends change as you blink. These standards of beauty are impossible because mostly what we see in these adverts and the social media, are the computer-enhanced pictures of models.

Then, there are beauty companies which thrive on these insecurities. Although, with growing awareness and campaigns, most of these brands were quick to jump on the feminism bandwagon. Dove’s “Real Beauty campaign” was all about loving and accepting all body types, but how can we ignore the fact that its parent company, Unilever also sells skin lightening creams for women of colour. So, love your body….. as long as it is fair?

Attaining that beauty nirvana is almost impossible for us, but being comfortable with how we look is not that difficult. Run when someone tells you that your skin starts ageing in the 20s and you need an anti-ageing serum. Run off faster when they tell you that your skin needs a day cream, night cream, under eye cream, cuticle oil, lose all your weight in a week, get longer legs in 10 days, etc.

With changing times, women of colour are getting more representation in the media, but the numbers are still low. Women today are more confident and comfortable in their skin, but this does not mean we have overcome the white skin obsession. It is just mentioned in hushed tones now. We call it “skin toning”, “skin glowing”, “glow heightening”, etc.