real life

“At 17, finding a skin-lightening product was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

I was six months old when I was told, “Wow, such fair skin.” 

According to my mum, this was the most common “compliment” I received as a baby when we were living in India.

I was three years old when I was first asked, “Where are you from?” by a blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy. I replied, "I'm Australian." He told me I was lying. That evening, my nana had to explain to me why he thought I was a liar. 

Watch: Awkward questions I get asked as an Aboriginal woman. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

I was five years old when I asked a classmate to pass me the “skin-coloured” pencil. She passed me the brown pencil instead and laughed. 

I was eight years old when I first snuck into my parents' bathroom to bleach my skin.

Read more: 'Growing up, I hated my skin so much I tried to bleach it.'

Although I have no memory of being outright bullied for the colour of my skin, the concept of white skin equating to beauty was something that I had internalised from a very young age. These are just a few instances that fueled my belief that brown was ugly and white was beautiful. 

And I tried my hardest to make myself look beautiful. From covering myself with a towel when I went to the beach with friends, to purposely not wearing sunscreen as I heard a rumour it can make you darker, to wearing makeup that was three shades lighter than my actual skin tone, to hiding my tan lines from friends who would always say, “I didn’t know you could go darker!” or “You’re so lucky you can tan”. 

I was 17 years old when I realised I might actually have a choice. On a family holiday in India, my parents and I were in a massive grocery store in Mumbai when the skin products aisle caught my eye. Particularly one product which took up an entire section. It was an internationally known brand; their products are all over Australia in pharmacies, on television commercials, billboards and even recommended by many beauty influencers.

It was a product I had never heard of before - a cream that promised a lighter skin tone by three to four shades. Three to four shades. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. This product could quite literally change my life. If I'm honest, finding that product was one of the happiest moments of my life. 

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It proved to me I wasn’t the only brown girl unhappy in her skin. It proved to me that everything I was doing to try to lighten the colour of my skin was the right thing to do. And most importantly, it proved to me that the whiter you are, the more beautiful you are. 

It wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter movement that this memory came back to me. I was scrolling through Twitter when an article from the Times of India popped up on my feed, headlined: 'Hindustan Unilever (HUL) rebrands Fair & Lovely as Glow & Lovely'. The cosmetic brand, making a profit off of skin lightening and whitening products, had decided to remove the word “fair” from its branding to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

HUL Managing Director and Chairman Sanjiv Mehta stated that in an effort to make HUL’s skin portfolio more diverse and inclusive they will remove words like “white”, “fair” and “light” from their branding. 

This rebranding was criticised by many (including myself). Not only has HUL put the focus of the BLM movement onto themselves, but the company has also skimmed over the fact that the sale of these products contradicts their rebranding messaging. 

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How can a company promote diversity and inclusivity while their products still continue to send the messaging of “you need to change the colour of your skin?" Changing the name of the problem doesn’t mean it’s fixed, or that you are no longer part of it. 

Listen to Emily on The Quicky's chat about 'blackfishing.' Post continues after podcast.  

 

After reading this article I felt sick. All I could picture was that massive shopping aisle full of skin lightening and whitening creams and the teenage girl who felt the full range of happy, confused and sad emotions in the time span of 30 seconds.

I’m proud to say that my relationship with my skin has strengthened over the years. Now, I would never think of changing the colour of my skin. However, it did take years to unlearn the internal hate I had buried deep inside. 

Watching my mum grow into power both mentally and career-wise was extremely important to the formation of my identity. It proved to me that if a woman who looks like me can love herself, then so can I. And it was around 2015 when I began seeing women like Mindy Kaling, Jameela Jamil and M.I.A, in TV shows, movies and music. These women not only looked similar to me but were also unapologetically themselves.

But this recent 'rebrand' from major beauty brands made me realise this problem is ongoing. There are still millions of women who don’t have the opportunity to be comfortable in the skin that they were born with. 

We are still living in a world where skin lightening products are promoted everywhere you go, where one of the most highly accepted compliments is “your skin is so fair”, where light-skinned people are idolised. 

I cannot and will never speak for other women of colour, but I know for me personally it felt exhausting, frustrating and emotionally draining. Hating the colour of your skin is an insidious burden that takes a long and strenuous time to unlearn.

I truly believe that if I was living in a place where skin lightening products were so outrightly promoted, I would never feel comfortable in my skin. 

Many critics are calling out HUL to stop selling skin lightening products. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be part of a campaign where we take something away from ethnic minorities (we’ve done enough of that). 

I want to live in a world where we bypass beauty standards. Where both light and dark-skinned little girls see skin lightening or tanning products but never think about buying them, because who would want to change the colour of their skin?

Feature image: Emily Vernem/Supplied 

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