Society Magazine

Why I Bought Skin Lightening Cream At 11 Years Old

Posted on the 13 April 2015 by Juliez

One brand of fairness cream

I was 11 years old when I succumbed to buying my first tube of “fairness” cream. It was right after a popular boy teased me by calling out “Weh blackie” to me.

Before he teased me, I internalized most of my negative feelings about my dark skin. As a second generation Indian, I felt the influence of the inhumane Indian caste system which idolizes those with fairer skin. Lighter skinned individuals are considered superior within this system and those with darker skin are regarded as dirty, useless and — especially in the case of darker women — less desirable. This boy’s remark, though, was the first time I felt so deeply humiliated. I felt hatred and disgust towards my skin.

Although I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who don’t believe a human’s color has any significance, I was told to stop swimming or playing in the heat multiple times by visiting elderly relatives who had grown up influenced by the caste system. They reasoned my skin would become too dark and I wouldn’t be able to find a fair, handsome and rich groom (because that’s all girls should care about, right?).

I also grew up watching advertisements on Indian TV that demonstrated how women who use fairness creams have better clothes, more friends, appreciative lovers and prospects of finding good jobs as compared to their darker counterparts. By 11 years old, I falsely believed that because I didn’t have the “right” complexion, I was somehow weaker than my fair-skinned counterparts and couldn’t possibly meet these standards.

It seemed that all of these things converged with that boy’s comment. Convinced “fair” meant “better,” I ran home that day and gathered all my coins from my piggy bank and loose bills from under piles of clothes. I joined my mother on her weekly shopping trip, secretly determining which brand of skin lightening cream I would sneakily buy once at the store.

My plan was foiled, though, when my mother caught me holding the tube of fairness cream. She stopped me in the middle of the aisle and questioned why I had even thought about picking up the cream. My (oh so stupid) justifications included everything from ‘I’m not liked for being dark’ to ‘my friends are all fair’ to ‘someone called me a name’ and, the worst, ‘I don’t want to be ugly.’

My mother had had enough and for a second I almost thought she might slap me. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She pulled back and composed herself while listening to my complaints. Then she reacted in what I now believe was the best possible way: She let me buy the cream under the condition that I could use it for three weeks only. I instantly agreed, reasoning that I’d rather be fair for a short while than not at all.

Two weeks and some days into my self-treatment, a feminist family friend visited our home. My mother told her about our little agreement and our family friend couldn’t help but lash out at me for my foolishness. “You think the color of your skin will be a game-changer?” She asked me. “And even if it does change things, the outcome will be shallow and not worth you! Wake up!”

I remember laying in my bed that night and wondering whether fairer skin would lead to my intellect being valued and the questions I raise taken seriously. How would the lighter color of my skin change people’s perceptions of me? I wondered. Would I be considered purer, cleaner, smarter and more sophisticated with fairer skin? It was then that I finally realized that these characteristics had nothing to do with one’s skin color. I had internalized the belief that fair people were better people — a completely inaccurate and harmful idea.

By morning I felt I had the answer. I threw the cream away and told my mother about the conclusion I’d reached. She said she had been waiting for me to come to my senses. When I asked her why she hadn’t stopped me in the first place, she explained that I had clearly already been broken by a racist society and her explanations or words of encouragement alone couldn’t change that. I had to teach myself to love my real, dark self.

I later learned that research shows that children form racial biases between ages 3-5, but environmental factors determine when they express those biases down the line. If a child’s environment (like their home and school) does nothing to correct these biases, then a child may continue to develop and internalize these prejudices.

Thus, we need to consciously teach our children to love every human regardless of color, caste or creed. The raw truth is that we must question a society fixated on fair skin and which upholds skin color as more important than one’s humility or intellect. We must question the root of this system and refuse to perpetuate this racist mentality any longer.

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