When Fair Isn't Fair

Fair and Lovely is a popular face whitening cream in India. This product advertises as the first lightening cream with 100% safe ingredients, even though there are long-term consequences for continuous use.

Fair and Lovely is a popular face whitening cream in India. This product advertises as the first lightening cream with 100% safe ingredients, even though there are long-term consequences for continuous use.

When I was 13 years old, my aunt handed me a small white bottle with the brand “Fair and Lovely” etched across the front in a pretty pink front with a fair-skinned women smiling at me. She told me to wear this every day. I agreed. However, when I put it on, my face began to burn. It tingled where I concentrated the dollops of cream before spreading. I turned on the cold water and splashed it all over my face. Yet, nothing worked. The burning sensation stopped after a few minutes. 

A couple of years later, I read the label on the bottle. Palmitic Acid and Stearic Acid were the second and third ingredients listed on the bottle. However, what shocked me most was when I brought this to my aunt’s attention, she shrugged. 

I was not the only person exposed to face-lightening products in my childhood. Second-year government major Meera Sam began to use Fair and Lovely at 10 years old. She grew up around fair-skinned people, who were constantly complimented for their complexion while she sat in the corner surrounded by silence. When she saw a product to change her dark-complexion, she thought she needed it.

“I guess it does a number on you to convince you that you need this stuff you see in commercials,” Sam said. “It is super toxic because no nine-year-old should be putting it on her skin knowing that it could potentially damage your skin knowing that you’re willing to pay the price in order to be pretty, or conventional standards of pretty.”

Although Sam stopped using skin lightening creams, these products are commonly used by South Asian women, in part due to misconstrued advertising and the toxic ideology that fair equals beautiful. Sam believes accurate advertising could help.

“The first place that we have to look is within our own communities to address that problem, but I do think these brands have to do better in advertising,” Sam said. “Not calling it Fair and Lovely, but calling it skin lightening creams. Having advertisements that accurately represents what the toll it takes.”

This toxic ideology extends through the rest of Asia as well, and in most of these nations, paleness is associated with European lineage. In the Philippines, a paler face means she has Spanish blood; this idea is further exacerbated by the prominence of half-Asian, half-European people in the media who define the beauty standards for the rest of the country. 

However, colorism extends outside of Asian cultures and also dominates conversations and beliefs in Latin America. Sophomore Sociology and Latin American studies major, Julieta Suárez, is a light-skinned Latina who did not experience the same discrimination as dark-skinned people. Yet, even with her features, she is encouraged by her family to marry a man with eurocentric features. 

“I was told that I needed to better the race and marry a man with white European features - blond hair and blue eyes,” Suárez said. “Verbatim told to marry somebody and have kids with blue eyes and blond hair to introduce ‘good genes’ into the family.”

After constantly being told this, she realized she began to avoid the sun to prevent darkening and diligently wear sunscreen. 

“I realized that I felt worse about the way I looked, especially my face when it was darker,” Suárez said. “It took me a while to pinpoint what it was, but I realized, ‘oh when I’m tanner or darker I don’t like the way I look as much.’”

Due to how internalized colorism is, it becomes difficult to reject the idea that beauty is related to the color of one’s skin.

“I think that it’s super hard to deprogram yourself from thinking that I shouldn’t go outside because I’m going to get darker,” Sam said. “It’s super reminiscent of when you’re a child and you’re conditioned to think that way.”

Fair skin shouldn’t be a beauty standard especially because people cannot control their natural skin color

Fair skin shouldn’t be a beauty standard especially because people cannot control their natural skin color

With the current trend of tanning, many desire the same complexion as people of color. Appreciating darker skin-tones may encourage people of color to love their own appearance, but Sam does not want a culture lusting after people of color characteristics to be the reason she accepts herself and her melanin.

“I don’t want my self-journey to appreciating myself, and how I look, to be because white people want to look like me,” Sam said. “I want to be comfortable in my skin because I like how I look, independently. It’s not truly self-healing if you’re doing it because other people think it’s cool and popular.”

It is important for women of color to accept their skin tone, without a white mainstream culture dictating that now we can be seen as beautiful, especially since this culture perpetuated images that regarded colored features such as big lips, thick eyebrows and curly hair as ugly. Accepting ourselves because of a trend is putting a bandage on a wound that requires stitches. It may stop the bleeding temporarily, but at the end of the day when this phase ends, it opens up again.  We should accept our dark complexion solely because we love ourselves, without it being trendy and fashionable. Our skin is not an accessory or a phase. We are dark and beautiful. 

“Reclaiming the power and beauty of dark-skin, for young women out there, is a form of resistant,” Suárez said. “It’s a form of activism.  You’re decolonizing your mind by appreciating and loving yourself, your dark skin and other features - like curly thicker hair, thick eyebrows, and big lips, and all the things we were made to hate for so long.”

I still struggle with my melanin. In my junior year of high school, I only wore jeans, even in the sweltering heat of the summer, to stop my skin from darkening. At times, I nearly passed out, but I was so adamant about looking lighter that I took my health out of the equation.  

My insecurities were perpetuated by my family. They held this mindset that my fair-skinned cousin would succeed in life, solely due to her complexion and looks. It made me feel small and insignificant. To them, no matter how hard I worked, I was meant to fail because of the color of my skin. 

As you can see, colorism is strongly perpetuated in my culture. It represents beauty and economic success. If you are pale, not only are you attractive, but you are rich enough to work indoors. This idea is so ingrained in my culture that I unconsciously label dark-skin people as ugly and poor. No matter how hard I try to condition myself out of this mentality, I fall back into this trap over and over again. Each time, I struggle to climb back out of this ditch created by generations of colonization and archaic beauty standards. However, it is important to remember that skin color is not something a person should feel the need to change. You don’t have to be fair-skinned to be considered beautiful and that’s a truth that slams the archaic belief that pale skin is the only type of skin color that matters. •

Graphics by: Jasmy Liu