This Harmful Beauty Practice Is More Common Around the World Than You Might Think

Some women are responding to the pressure to be pale with extreme measures.
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Some women are responding to the pressure to be pale with extreme measures.

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Art Credit: Regina Leah

Nisha Kumar is an ugly woman. At least that’s what she’s been told.

Her petite 5-foot-3 tall frame reflects her delicate face, surrounded by textured black hair. She has no horrendous mutations, no glaring or repulsive deformities. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone deeming her unattractive. But as a dark-skinned child raised in east India, Nisha believed that she would never be destined for beauty.

WANTING WHITE

In the United States—and especially in white America—weight is the most common source of obsession among women. In many non-white communities, skin tone is to blame for beauty-related anxiety.

In Indian culture specifically, the color of your skin largely determines your successes, failures, and opportunities. Light skin signifies power, wealth, and sophistication—an overall desirable reputation. Popularity in school, snatching the attention of boys, and even landing a steady job are tasks made all the more difficult for darker Indian women—a concept foreign to tan-obsessed America.

“Skin color is a very touchy topic in India,” Nisha says. “It’s just an unwritten rule that if you’re lighter, you’re much more accepted than if you’re on the darker end.”

This dark skin stigma runs deeper than the Ganges River, dating back to the beginning of the civilization itself. Lightness may seem a total vanity, but its historical connotations make it socially valuable. The caste system—a hierarchy model still used today—is partially to blame. People born to higher castes, like Brahmin or Kshatriya, tend to have fairer complexions than those born into lower social groups. The only hope for changing one’s caste is to marry into a higher division, and very few of the country’s elite are willing to accept dark women into their families. Nisha points out that fair skin is regarded in India as an education is in the United States: a social and economic asset. Flipping through the matrimonial section of an Indian newspaper would shock any American unfamiliar with this structure. Parents arranging marriages for their sons will specify that they are seeking a “very fair woman,” or “a Brahmin woman only.” But the stereotype transcends even the unshakable caste system. Given two women of parallel social status, the lighter is still granted more respect than the darker.

Though color discrimination seems an outdated and barbaric prejudice, it is perpetuated through Indian print, broadcast, and film outlets. Many darker models have their photographs tweaked to appear lighter in magazines or advertisements. Most Bollywood actresses, from Karisma Kapoor to Amisha Patel, could almost pass for white. Aishwarya Rai, Indian-born actress and Miss World 1994, dons smooth, pallid skin and the epithet "the most beautiful woman in the world." In 2010, Vaseline released a controversial Facebook application through which Indian users could lighten their profile photographs in a few easy clicks. In a world like this, it’s unsurprising that the wish for whiteness consumes and compromises women every single day.

This color-obsessive phenomenon  is not limited to only India. The trend is prevalent on nearly every continent worldwide, from Accra to Rio de Janeiro, from Shanghai to Chicago.

In China, for instance, the fairness of one’s skin represents social power. Because, historically, spending time outdoors as a servant would cause field workers to become dark, skin color in China—as in India—became an easily identifiable marker of social class. Asian aristocrats used to swallow powder made from crushed pearls in hopes that it would make them fairer. In modern China, this bias remains, although creams, soaps, and other products—sold by companies like Unilever and Nivea—have replaced the old opulent treatment.

In Nairobi, unregulated lightening injections have made an illegal appearance all over the city in the last five years. The promised effect of these shots is a clearer, “cleaner” complexion. Intended to be used only on the skin’s surface, the elements contained in these formulas can include mercury, steroids, and alpha hydroxy acids, which are capable of killing live tissue.

Even in the United States you can find examples of a preference for lighter skin. When Lupita Nyong’o—who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Twelve Years a Slave—recently graced the cover of People magazine’s annual “50 Most Beautiful People” issue, it was newsworthy because Nyong’o is a dark-skinned black woman. Indeed the accolade of “beautiful” has almost overshadowed the recognition of acting talents which brought her to national attention in the first place.

DESPERATE MEASURES

The close connection between skin tone, perceived beauty, and personal worth can lead dark-skinned women to extreme measures.

The effort to lighten begins at birth. The first step: covering up in the sun. Tank tops, tanning mirrors, and baby oil are rare possessions among girls who fear for their skin. Even in temperatures as high as 110 degrees, it is not uncommon for women to shroud themselves head to toe, keeping the UV rays at bay. “Once you’re dark,” Nisha warns, “you’re no longer beautiful.”

As one of three daughters to a soldier and a homemaker, she was always the darkest of her family. Nisha and her parents did their best with what they had. They would dress Nisha in tans and oranges, never blacks or browns, to give her a lighter glow. They would ask her not to play outside midday when the sun reached its most malicious angles. At a young age, she learned to come to terms with the fact that she was less appealing than her pale and preferred sisters.

Topical remedies are the next approach. Many families have their own herbal recipes, applicable to the surface of the skin. When that isn’t enough, mass-produced ointments and creams come into play. Many such products contain the bleaching agent hydroquinone. This chemical interferes with the enzyme tyrosinase (responsible for the production of melanin) to limit pigmentation. This scientific solution may seem very promising until the risks are considered. The suppression of melanin cells can cause outbursts of dark splotches after continued use, and hydroquinone has also been linked to ochnronosis, a disfiguring skin condition that leaves the body covered in dark lesions. It often contains mercury, which can lead to liver or kidney damage if absorbed into the body. For these reasons, it has been banned in both Europe and South Africa, but remains a legal contender on the U.S. and Indian cosmetic markets.

Fair and Lovely is one of the largest producers of skin-whitening products in India. It promises a three-shade difference in four to six weeks with a twice-daily application. Although it contains no hydroquinone, some experts say a successful lightening is a health hazard in itself—paler skin is more susceptible to burning and disease, especially in climates where inherently dark skin is meant to be a means of protection.

When over-the-counter products fail to help, laser procedures, chemical peels, injections, and even bleach may be employed. Though Nisha herself has never gone to such extremes, nor has she ever been a habitual user of whitening agents, many of her peers have struggled through years of trial and desperation. “I get it,” she says, “because skin color is one of those things that hangs over you and hurts you over time. And if there’s a way to fix it, people will fix it.”

No matter which plan of action a woman may choose, however, the prime peril is not physical. To alter one’s natural body for beauty is indicative of a problem more profound than vanity. The value of women and girls, to put it bluntly, is being determined by their color.

MORE THAN SKIN-DEEP

For Nisha, everything changed in 1985. Her parents moved to the United States and placed their daughters in American classrooms, hoping such an education would give them an edge. Just as she was starting high school, Nisha was suddenly thrown into a culture where nearly everyone was light-skinned. “It was strange,” she recalls. “You just naturally think everybody’s beautiful except for you.” She had long ago been dismissed as an “ugly child without the acceptable color” and realized that she would have to rely on internal characteristics to get by in a competitive world.

It happened in October. An eager student, Nisha always arrived to class early. This particular morning, she sat alone at the back of the room, her geometry book and stack of paper plopped atop the desk. She watched quietly as a teacher from the previous class finished erasing markings off the chalkboard. He clapped his powdered hands, grabbed his leather briefcase, and looked past rows of empty desks to where Nisha waited patiently. He wore an energetic smile. “Do you know that you’re beautiful?” he asked lightheartedly. With that he strode toward the door, leaving her dumbfounded in a vacant room, his kind words reverberating off white walls and clean slate. It's the kind of comment that could land you in hot water today, but it was just what Nisha needed to hear.

Her initial astonishment faded over the years, but the moment changed her forever. It was the first time anyone had commented on her appearance in such a positive way. It was the first time she realized someone, somewhere, could find her somewhat appealing. And it was the first time she considered anarchy against the laws of beauty.

Lupita Nyong’o—People’s “Most Beautiful” person—shared a similar perspective-altering experience in a recent acceptance speech at the Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. “I remember a time,” she said, “when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned … And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine, and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was.”

Even the “most beautiful” person admitted that she required the approval of others to finally recognize her dark skin as beautiful.

Every woman wants to feel beautiful; it can give us a sense of value and confidence. The new perspective on herself that teacher unknowingly gave Nisha, helped her to confidently reaffirm an even broader view of herself: Her value as a person is not determined by her physical appearance. Nisha is a beautiful dark-skinned woman, but she is also a wife and a mother and holds a high-ranking corporate position. She has shed her girlhood self-image—along with a wardrobe of tan and orange—and uses her newfound confidence to talk openly about her past. What she once viewed as lesser, she now sees as merely different.

And perhaps, with her personal success, she can inspire others from around the world to break free of their own culturally imposed colorism: to recognize beauty as it is found in every shade, and more importantly, to recognize that others' perceptions of one’s beauty does not define one’s worth.

Nisha Kumar is a beautiful woman. And she has finally conquered her fear of the dark.