Skin-lightening creams push a toxic message that has haunted me since childhood

I religiously lathered my face with fairness creams that promised to lighten me up (Picture: Namitha Aravind)

‘You’ve got darker!’

It has taken me a while to accept this sentence as complimentary, as most people in this tan-obsessed society mean it to be. 

This is because whenever it was said to me as a child, especially by fellow members of the Indian community, it was done so with the exact opposite intent: a jarring insult committed to diminishing the self-worth of young girls like me.

It may sound dramatic, but within communities of colour, prejudice against darker-skinned members is rife. The deeper the shade of brown, the deeper the connotations of ugliness and inadequacy. Even if only by a couple of hues, I’ve always been darker than my family members and most other Indian friends – and I’ve always been distinctly aware of it.

It’s the reason I loathed the skin I was born in and did everything I could to lighten it.

I tried homemade turmeric, yoghurt and lemon juice scrubs – which unsurprisingly always got into cuts. I religiously lathered my face with fairness creams that promised to lighten me up, rigorously overly-exfoliated my skin after an unwanted tan, and even let my aunt take me for a bleach-based facial when on holiday in India. 

Unsurprisingly, none of my skin-lightening attempts worked. I’m so grateful for this now, but my younger teenage self was heart-broken. Given how taboo conversations around colourism were (the term refers to skin tone-based prejudice and discrimination) and in many cases still are, I never shared these struggles with friends and family.

It was only recently that I learned other close friends, both men and women, were going through the exact same thing. This toxic complex was, until now, my own dirty secret.

We, like so many others, are casualties of colourism. These destructive ideals are rampant in communities across the UK, especially within those of South Asian, African and Middle Eastern heritage.

The damaging narrative of ‘the lighter the better’ is perpetuated by all aspects of these cultures. Lighter-skinned actors, models and other public figures are consistently overrepresented in mainstream media.

Relatives make inappropriate comments about skin tone as readily as they do about weight, and openly discourage you from spending too much time in the sun. At weddings I’ve heard the murmurs judging the shade of a bride more than her dress, which is unsurprising given how studies have illustrated that darker skin reduces your marriageability. Even unemployment and sentencing rates are lessened if you are lighter skinned.

Fairness was, and still is, overvalued. Why is this the case?

Like with most things, it depends on whom you ask. In India, the roots of this phenomenon can be found in colonialism and the caste system, both of which perpetuated and preserved white supremacy.

In African communities, there are ties to slavery and the ‘preferential treatment’ shown by white slave-masters towards lighter skinned individuals.

I now call out any of the harmful colourist comments I hear from grandparents and other relatives, whether or not they’re aimed at me (Picture: Namitha Aravind)

Clearly this is a problem that extends beyond just people of colour in faraway lands.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations around this topic have thankfully re-emerged. After all, the foundations for colourism lie within the grander pantheon of racism.

Brands have been called out for their actions, especially those behind the pernicious skin-lightening creams. The physical implications of their use are disturbing: many contain harmful ingredients such as mercury and hydroquinone, which can cause skin damage, organ malfunction and poisoning.

But there is an emotional cost too: the self-worth of young and impressionable women and men are on the line.

Indeed, one Unilever brand called Fair & Lovely has been at the centre of a media storm. They recently vowed to remove the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ from their advertising, as well as change the name of their product to ‘Glow & Lovely’. This superficial, and rather predictable, re-branding exercise means nothing. It doesn’t address the damage done.

I used their products during every family holiday in India, as did others I know. It is a household name, advertised extensively and sold in every shop. People will always associate this company with the idolisation of whiteness, no matter what it is called. Every bottle sold is complicit in the narrative that fairness is synonymous with beauty.

So to really tackle the problem, the company should take a leaf out of Johnson & Johnson’s book, and simply ban the product all together. Yet given Fair & Lovely’s profits are over £325m annually in India alone, it doesn’t take a genius to see why they are staying put.

Unfortunately, the responsibility once again is left with the consumer. It is we who have to actively boycott these brands, and challenge their usage. 

We need to question why the UK are one of the greatest exporters of these products, despite their sale being illegal within our borders.

Most importantly of all, conversations around the pervasiveness of colourism and the way it negatively impacts our societies need to become normalised. I’ve been guilty of avoiding them too: they can be uncomfortable, exposing and shame-inducing.

I don’t like being reminded of how stupid I was for using these products in the first place. Even though I now know that it wasn’t my fault – I was simply buying into cultural norms – no one enjoys having their insecurities laid bare.

These very discussions have helped me come to grips with the matter, however, and ensure I don’t pass these toxic views onto others, especially younger girls who are as impressionable as I was. It has reminded me that I also need to recognise my privilege compared to those who are even darker-skinned than I am.  

I now call out any of the harmful colourist comments I hear from grandparents and other relatives, whether or not they’re aimed at me. It doesn’t mean it always works – after all, colourism has been engrained in their minds for longer than I’ve been alive – but occasionally it can lead to reflection and fruitful discussions, or at the very least a welcome end to those conversations for a while. These small victories are still important ones.

Having said all this, I’m far from cured. I still tense up a bit when I know a sunny walk, or a beachy swim is going to leave me a few shades darker.

But through educating myself, I’m learning to appreciate that my gloriously high melanin count is a gift; a gift that allows such a beautiful transition from Caramel Cream to Hazelnut Truffle (Dulux’s words, not mine).

I’ve still got a bottle of Fair & Lovely cream hiding in the depths of a bedroom drawer. I’ll be chucking it out today.

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