“Your cousin is so beautiful. She’s so light, I wish I had her skin color”
That’s what I heard the first day.
A few of my cousin’s friends came over for a visit, while we went for a vacation to Bangladesh this past summer. I sat in my grandmother’s courtyard, while the bright evening sun shined. I let my skin happily soak up the sun-rays and feel their warmth embrace me. While my cousin and her friends sat under the shade of the house, shielding away their skin from the exposure of the sun, in the fear of getting dark. It was disheartening to quietly witness this. They were a couple of young girls, between 14 to 15 years old. Young girls who ceremoniously discussed, contemplated and yearned for a different skin complexion, an issue which in reality isn’t an issue at all.
But who can we blame for sowing the seed of insecurity in the young minds of girls all over the world, planting and nourishing such a deep-rooted issue in society? The media? the society? The culture? Those producing skin lightening products at an alarming rate?
Many questions emerge when discussing the cause of racial prejudice within South Asia. But the truth of the matter is the harsh reality faced by many due to the color of their skin has thrived for decades and there seems to be no solution to it. Colourism is the systemic praise and preference for fair skinned women while disapproving and disadvantaging dark complexions in innumerable ways.
Living in Bangladesh for three months, I lived the severity of colorism present in Bangladesh: whether it be in media, the actions and choices of your own family member or the local market selling skin whitening products at a high rate. Colourism is a deeply problematic societal issue that is present but not properly addressed. While people make the effort to tackle this problematic societal construction by bringing awareness, on the other hand, more agencies decide to release skin brightening products in the market for their own profit without any regards to how it affects the society as a whole or on the person.
Walking through the markets, I noticed that there was at least 2 prominent shades of foundations: light or medium. And amusingly, it was “one colour fits all.” Regardless of whether it matched one’s complexion, the bottle, however, made the fainting promise that it would give a glowing brightening result. There was another instance.
Sitting at the parlour, waiting for my turn, a bride on her big day asked the makeup artist, “Make my face as bright and white as possible, I don’t mind if I pay extra.” I watched the magician with his brush transform this beautiful young woman into a complete stranger. Once the deed was done, she took one look at her reflection and saw what I could only describe as surreal. The bride stared at her reflection in admiration and acceptance, while my reflection reflecting behind hers stared at it bleakly.
My cousin and sister, both 15 and with a dark complexion, discussed my skin as if it was an object of admiration. My cousin was overly preoccupied with her complexion, before going to school she would dab talcum powder to appear a shade lighter. She would religiously avoid the sun. Her vampiric ways fueled by a fear that she would only make her complexion worse. My sister was more comfortable in her skin, she would spend her days outdoor under the sun without any worry. She soaked up three months worth of summer, with the exhilaration of returning back tanned for the purpose showing it off to her friends. It became a habit of mines to observe these two while mentally taking notes as if I was conducting a social experiment.
My cousin scornfully, with furrowed brows, would shoot back a stare at my sister from the window inside the house. While my sister, gleefully celebrated her scoring during the badminton game, on the courtyard which was exposed by the glaring evening sun.
It all narrows down to the environment that they grew up in. Indeed, it cannot be denied that racial prejudice does not exist in Western countries or the endorsement of whitening beauty products, however, the extent of it was quite different in the case of Bangladesh. While my sister grew up in a surrounding which celebrated and accepted all women of all color and continuously tried to educate and raise awareness that one should love their skin complexion and be accepting of themselves, my cousin is not exposed to the similar environment.
The environment and the surrounding my cousin is exposed to is much more critical when it comes to the issue of skin complexion. In Bangladesh, there are heavy endorsements of beauty products with the whitening agent. The huge billboards hanging in mostly every street, sponsored by Ponds and Fair and Lovely with many other small companies, continuously pushing the message, “our best ever fairness treatment, turn that dull and dusky skin into a glowing beauty for the low low price of 39.99.”
Imagine, passing by in life-sized letters of disapproval every day of your life. It isn’t uncommon for these companies to compare dark to dirt and dust; something you need to get rid of and wash away. The idea has become so toxicity embedded within culture and society, that women have become victims of prejudice and discrimination based on their dark complexion, whether it be from their own or others.
Banning whitening product is not an adequate solution to a problem that is beyond solvable. It’s a deep-rooted issue where one has to dig deep enough to dig its roots and detangle it one step at a time. Many have blamed colonization and Western standards for such beauty standards, but it does not hide the fact that racial prejudice is a problem that grew from our own society.
Rather than blaming others, we have to realize that the problem lies in our own hands; we are the creators of such absurd beauty standards and we are the only solvers of such problem. The problem lies in those who promote these products, for example, Yami Gautam is the brand ambassador and has been the face of Fair and Lovely, and has been religiously endorsing such products which she seems to have stated many times that she sees no wrong in this if it’s not hurting anyone’s sentiment.
She fails to understand, that it is more about how people mentally perceive message, living in a world of complex social dynamics we have to understand that these sort of endorsement does affect a person negatively, especially in a society where women and of course, men of dark complexion, are constantly rebuked, mocked, underrepresented and all simply for their complexion are to feel its effect. What Yami Gautam and others who endorse such products, likewise celebrities, fail to understand that their ardent fans become followers of their habits. The situation has always, and will always remain to be unfair and unlovely.