On our obsession with skin color
I live in Durban, South Africa, the city that houses the largest population of people of Indian descent (outside of India, that is) in the world. This can be attributed to the late 19th to 20th century indenture of laborers who came from India to work on the sugar cane plantations of South Africa’s east coast. When these indentures expired, most laborers chose to remain in South Africa, instead of returning to India, with hopes of prospering and making a better life for themselves and their families. Although South African Indians are very different from their South Asian counterparts, a really pressing issue can be linked to both groups of people: their obsession with light skin.
A few weeks ago, I was watching a soccer match with a group of friends. In the blistering heat, I was forced to remove my tracksuit jacket, to reveal my arms. One of the guys in the group remarked how “fair” my arms were, and asked if that was my “natural color,” because he’d never really taken a look at my arms, only at my face—which happened to be a darker shade of brown, due to tanning. Later that evening, I found myself fiercely researching ways to make the skin on my face lighter, because I believed it would make me more appealing. Right in the middle of copying down a recipe for a face mask consisting of chickpea flour, turmeric powder, and honey to diminish my tan, I stopped myself, shocked and disgusted that this comment could have made me so insecure about the color of my beautiful skin.
The reality is, if I had still gone ahead and used this mask, it would have probably taken me a few weeks to remove the tan on my face totally, since the ingredients were all natural—and it would have required a ton of maintenance to keep it that way. Unfortunately, some people don’t have the patience to wait for a few weeks and to maintain lighter skin, or are unhappy with the color of their skin color regardless, thinking it’s too dark. These people often resort to the quick fix—skin-lightening creams that are full of substances like mercury, which is carcinogenic, and hydroquinone, a chemical used in photograph processing, in hair dyes, and to make rubber bands. Initially, radical improvements in the lightness of the person’s skin can be seen; and I mean REALLY radical, a few shades lighter in a couple months. But suddenly, the skin starts turning red and blotchy; to which skin-lightening cream merchants respond with, “Try a stronger cream, one that can lighten and remove the blotchiness,” to which these unsuspecting people (mostly women) gladly oblige. Let’s just say I’ve seen a 29-year-old woman with wrinkles and a permanently crimson face that not even half of her bottle of foundation could cover up. Why would anyone do this to themselves?
I’ve been trying to unmask the reasons behind this dark fixation with fair skin. Could it be because of the apartheid regime the country had faced from 1947 until 1994? It was a time of great oppression for non-white people, and the darker your skin was, the worse you were treated by the government. Did this prompt people to equate light skin with being superior, and hunger for it themselves? Or could it be because having fair skin meant you were too posh and rich to go out and do any work and get tanned, thus making people lust after fair skin to show off how affluent they were? Whatever it may be, I think the people of my city and country need to realize brown is brown, and brown, no matter its shade, is beautiful.
Dharini Rangasamy is a 15-year-old girl from Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. She is still trying to find herself, but learning more every single day.