“Make sure you buy all the products you will need for the next 6 months before you leave Paris for India,” said my friend. “Oh no, there is no need for that,” I said. India has diverse people, so I will definitely find products that cater to my skin. Having lived in Europe for the last 2 years, I struggled to get the right products for my face, especially when it came to make up (not that I use much of it anyway). Finding the right foundation shade for my skin color was particularly difficult in countries that had limited products for darker skinned women. Sometimes I would resort to buying from Amazon, specifically in times when I needed familiar products I used back home. Thank God, my saving grace came in the form of Lush products, natural products that were pricey, might I add.
In the case of India, I did not anticipate that this would be a problem for me. As I mentioned before, India is diverse and my perception before I arrived was that since majority of the people are brown-skinned (different shades of brown) there would be more options for women of color such as myself. Little did I know that the struggle would be of a different kind. You see, my cosmetics issues in Europe may have been about the lack of product, but my experience with make up in India became more of a struggle surrounding the color of my skin, and more so, the marketing geared towards denying it.
As soon I settled into my new home for the next 6 months, I decided to go cosmetic shopping. My facial products where almost finished and I needed to re-stock before I ran out. What I did not expect was to spend almost 3 weeks searching for the right product. This time, it was not because the products I normally use were unavailable, on the contrary, there was almost/is every international brand I am familiar with from Olay to Neutrogena and Ponds. Many of the stores even supplied French products that I formerly used in Paris.
You can imagine my excitement when I laid my eyes on all these different products. “Yesssss!” I screamed inside. Finally, I have a variety of products I can choose from. However, that excitement quickly died down, when to my disappointment, I realised that most; if not all of the products on display had something I would have never expected, whitening cream. For those of you who are not familiar with this, whitening cream is just as the name implies, meant to make your skin lighter than your natural complexion.
The ladies, who assisted me from the different cosmetic shops I had entered, said more or less the same thing in different words.
“Ma’am, this product is good; it has whitening cream so it will help your skin become lighter”
“……… but, I am just looking for facial cream that will moisturize my skin, I don’t want any lightening products,” I explained to each one of them with a tint of irritation in my voice. And every time, it was always the same brain washed rhetoric about how whitening creams were better because they would shoot two birds with one stone, moisturize my skin and at the same time make it look lighter.
“You will become more beautiful ma’am they said.”
Fortunately for me, I eventually found the precise product I was looking for, and more importantly, a product that did not contain any whitening ingredient. Still, this experience left me surprised and uncomfortable. Surprised that I had to spend half of my time explaining to the ladies in the cosmetic shops why I did not want to buy a skin lightening product. Even more surprising, the fact that they found it odd that a brown-skinned girl like me was refusing to use a product that would make her “skin lighter.”
Strangely, through this process, I observed that my feelings changed from shock to anger, to irritation and then finally concern. A concern which led to the question why? As I reflected on this experience, I realise that every time I entered a store, the lady assisting me never cared to ask which product I needed but instead, assumed that I would instantly go for the lightening product because of the colour of my skin. Even more, what concerned me the most was the shock that was visible on their faces each time I replied with a “NO, I DO NOT WANT TO LIGHTEN MY SKIN.
This worried me mainly because I felt that every time someone offers me or any women of color, a whitening product they are more or less implying that dark/brown skin is not good enough or beautiful enough. The fact that these products are sold means there is a big market for them in India and everywhere else in the world. And what saddens me is that because a market exists, people are actually buying into this propaganda that they can only be beautiful if they have a light skin.
I know some may argue that some of the products sold do not actually contain whitening cream but just an illusion to get women to buy and that the products are actually not harmful to the skin. For me, that is not the point. My argument is that these products should not exist in the first place. Whether they contain whitening formula or not is irrelevant. The point I am trying to drive across is that, every time I or any brown-skinned women enters a beauty store and sees these products, indirectly or directly it sends a message that dark complexion is not beautiful enough. Even more disturbing is that many young women will grow up believing this crap.
With so many issues grave issues in the world, such as poverty, climate change and violation of human rights in different forms etc, it is easy to overlook this issue as unimportant, however, I strongly believe it is a crucial subject to speak on. It not only sends out the wrong message to women and society but leads to psychological issues such as low self-esteem, a negative mind-set, inferiority complex and skin deformities due to using harsh products or skin bleaching.
As a Motswana and African, I know this problem of skin complex is not foreign to my country and continent and it plays out in different forms. For example, yellow bones (light-skinned women as they are called) are usually considered to be more beautiful in some parts of society, and they definitely are, but so are brown and dark-skinned women. In fact, the point I am trying to drive across is that a women’s outer appearance should not even be a standard to measure her beauty in the first place.
Qualities such as being kind, intelligent, ambitious, humble, compassionate, funny, selfless, the list is endless should be what make all women beautiful regardless of the color of their skin. Now, I am very much aware that the root cause of skin complex is much deeper than whitening creams, but I guess I am hoping that through this post maybe, someone, even one person will resonate with this because, after all, the idea that beauty is only skin deep, should be true for everyone, especially women.