Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

Not me. It was never going to be me. Because we live in a society that is rife with colourism and there is a stigma associated to women with darker complexions.

Growing up, I had some difficulty in accepting myself. I was made to believe, both overtly and subtly, that fair skin equals beauty. Some uncles and aunties had a nickname for me: kaali which means black. I am the darkest of all my female cousins so the term was naturally given to me.

I have also been called the k-word over many years by both adults and kids alike, and instead of speaking up against the use of the word – seriously, it’s never okay to use it – I suppressed the rage and laughed it off. I always laughed it off. But I have had enough.

Read more: Can we have a quick conversation about colourism?

Looking back, I realise that the attitude towards my skin colour limited me during my childhood. Not just because it chipped away at my confidence, but also practically. I refrained from playing handball during school breaks even though it was an activity I thoroughly enjoyed. But I sacrificed it in order to keep a lighter skin tone. 

I was often reminded to dab on that sunblock – not out of concern for my health, but in the hope that it would prevent me from tanning.

At the age of eight, I vividly remember one of my fairer complexioned friends telling me the reason behind her sister’s even fairer complexion was the fact that she had once fallen into a bucket of bleach. I remember how I actually seriously considered orchestrating a similar ‘accident'.

Of course not everyone’s realities are the same. In her column about colourism, former Huffpost and M&G editor Verashni Pillay notes how skin colour was never an issue in her home. But for others, including myself, this issue often came up in family discussions. And like these women, I have heard many of the repulsive things people say to and about dark-skinned women. 

...what hurts more is when the people who claim to care about us also do a pretty good job at reaffirming the belief that beauty is dependent on our skin tone.

Two generations down the line, this backwards thinking is still prevalent in my family. It disappointed me when my cousin’s 12-year-old daughter got teased by her aunt and uncle for tanning two shades darker during her school holiday. 

When I addressed the subject with her on a different day, her exact words were: “It’s okay to be dark, but not very dark.”

Two things came to mind when she said this – the pervasiveness of this belief and its implicit biases are still very much alive in my family, even after two generations. And second, that young kids who are still figuring out the ways of the world are already being told that their brown skin is unattractive is NOT okay.

“She is pretty for a dark girl,” we often hear.

Yes – the media, of course, have played their role. But what hurts more is when the people who claim to care about us also do a pretty good job at reaffirming the belief that beauty is dependent on our skin tone. 

Hindustan Unilever Limited, Unilever’s Indian subsidiary, notes that “90% of Indian women want to use whiteners because it is aspirational, like losing weight. A fair skin is like education, regarded as a social and economic step up.”

The emphasis on lighter skin definitely has an appallingly strong presence in the sphere of advertising and popular culture, but I feel the pressure to conform to these beliefs are rooted in our homes. 

It is uncontroversial that attractiveness is generally associated with fair skin in Indian culture (as in many other cultures across the globe) and it would be dishonest to deny that this is an issue that needs to be addressed more seriously.

Skin lightening is a despicable billion dollar industry: R133 billion to be exact, and is expected to reach R415 billion by 2024.

This IOL article indicates the persistence of skin lightening creams in townships and CBDs of South Africa. According to Latina.com, lighter-skinned Latinos enjoy substantial privileges such as lower unemployment rates and lower poverty rates than black Latinos.

And research conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that skin lightening products are commonly used in African countries, with 35% of South African women using them on a regular basis.

Over-the-counter skin bleaching products containing mercury and hydroquinone were banned in Ghana and in South Africa in 1992, but are still being sold on the black market. More than that, this article by Huffington Post explains that marketing strategies have simply changed and the products have now replaced the word “bleaching” with "brightening" and "toning" instead. 

Then there’s South African actress Sorisha Naidoo’s Pure Perfect skin-lightening range that came under fire in 2013, yet is proving to be profitable. Naidoo also admitted to lightening her own skin because of her insecurities with her natural skin colour.

In a separate IOL article she disclosed that some of her clients used the products – under the guidance of dermatologists – on their children, some as young as nine years old.

She’s quoted as saying being fair-skinned in Indian culture is highly esteemed and is encouraged by Bollywood – and she isn’t wrong. 

Skin lightening is a despicable billion dollar industry: R133 billion to be exact, and is expected to reach R415 billion by 2024. Unilever’s infamous Fair and Lovely was introduced in 1975 and is currently marketed to 30 countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. 

These women have powerful public platforms and yet they choose to send out a message that dents the confidence of their dark-skinned fans who worship and emulate their actions.

Their advertisements use shaming tactics to make dark-skinned women feel rotten and they do this by romanticising the pros of fair skin. In comes a depressed dark-skinned woman who then transforms into a lighter skinned woman and BOOM: she suddenly has all these romantic and career prospects. The marketing narratives depict that success in life equals light skin. 

I also fail to understand why so many successful Bollywood celebrities, including Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra, have happily endorsed different brands’ lightening creams that promotes the glorification of fair skin.  

These women have powerful public platforms and yet they choose to send out a message that dents the confidence of their dark-skinned fans who worship and emulate their actions. 

As if that isn’t bad enough, Fair and Handsome introduced a cream for men as well. The face behind it? Shah Rukh Khan, just another Bollywood A-lister. 

But wait, that’s not the worst: in 2012, an Indian advert for vaginal lightening cream went viral. Do I really need an “intimate wash” to bleach my vagina? Apparently I do, if I want my husband to find me attractive. 

This is not an entirely bizarre message since this was a reality that actually caused a Gurgaon woman’s suicide.

According to Professor Radhika Parameswaran, men are able to overcome the drawbacks of colourism when they have accomplished educational and career success. So what about a dark-skinned woman with a PhD? Nope, still ugly. Thankfully, there are women trying to bring about change. 

Read more: 10 ways the beauty industry tells you being beautiful means being white

"How can you be so confident despite being so dark?" is a question regularly posited to Nandita Das, an Indian actress who also became the face of the Dark is Beautiful campaign.

But when saleswomen try to sell her fairness creams the outspoken activist says she finds herself giving them a lecture against it instead. 

South Sudanese model, Nyakim Gatwech, has also chosen to take a stand and embrace the abundant melanin in her skin.

And after being teased for her dark skin, this adorable 10-year-old girl, Kheris Rodgers launched her own t-shirt line that instills confidence in young girls who also face the pressure of colourism. 

Local photographer Aisha Hamdulay's #whiteisnotthestandard campaign also aims to end the perpetuation of the social issue. 

And the #unfairandlovely campaign also wants women with dark complexions to embrace their beauty.

I don’t want women to believe that there are products out there to act as a surrogate for their beauty. I want my cousin’s 12-year-old daughter to believe that “not too dark” is also beautiful despite what her aunties and uncles may want her to believe.

I want her to speak eloquently of her brown skin, and to understand that fairness as a virtue is nothing but a notion that has been preconditioned into a society and that we should not take it seriously. 

Expressing rage about the permeation of corporate exploitation are good ways of activism, but they are certainly not enough.

It is the innate internalised thinking in so many cultures that will continue to encourage a market for these products. Breaking down this innate consciousness is where sustained activism must begin.

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on W24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of W24.