Looking back at my childhood, it is heartbreaking to see the differences in the way myself and my sister, who has darker skin than me, were treated. As a child, you’re not interested in beauty or skincare. I never owned any creams or skincare products, save for the SPF 50 sunscreen my mother would force me to wear. My sister, on the other hand, had one product she needed to wear every night and every morning: her skin whitening cream.
I remember once having a fight with her in school and sitting with my group of friends when I was in grade school. One of the things my friend said to console me after this falling out was “she’s black and you’re not”.
In retrospect, I can list a plethora of similar instances with varying degrees of racist comments. Pakistani society is obsessed with fair skin in women. There is a major disparity between the “fair” skinned women and the “dark” skinned women, primarily due to the deep racism we have internalised from our colonial past. We’re so used to sitting with our elders watching them flippantly throw around racist comments such as “I just want my son to marry a fair women”, we don’t even realise the adverse effect it’s having on our mindsets and perceptions of beauty even for those girls who don’t suffer from the dark skin disease.
Women are already rife with insecurities thanks to social media, our families, patriarchal societies and the entertainment industry. Today, I look my sister and see the glaringly obvious effect her dark skin tone has had on her mental health and perception of herself. Her vanity boasts a hoard of make up products, while mine is only half the size of hers. She is stiff and uncomfortable meeting new people, always feeling the need to make sure her physical appearance is perfect regardless of whose presence she’s in, a sentiment I cannot relate to. Her self-worth is heavily focused on her physical appearance and while I can understand that to some extent, unlike me she doesn’t have the same interest in wanting to be successful or intelligent or knowledgeable about the world around her, she just wants to be attractive. Her insecurities have manifested in every facet of her personal relationships, particularly her romanic ones. As I witness each unimpressive, rude and sometimes downright abusive man enter and leave her life, I feel confusion and shock at how much she will tolerate and how she can allow so much disrespect in her life. The difference between my self-worth and self-esteem against her’s is a stark one, sadly.
This is not to mention the health issue of whitening creams and injections in our country; girls as young as four or five are forced to wear creams that contain chemicals such as mercury in an attempt to whiten their skin which can lead to a host of other skin problems such as skin cancer. These creams and treatments can even include the use of bleach and steroids which also cause irreversible damage to human skin. What kind of society is this, where we value a fair skinned woman instead of a healthy one?
The world is moving in a positive direction when it comes to the acceptance of dark skin. Movements such as the “Dark is Beautiful” movement will be monumental in changing our societies perception of beauty and are instrumental for the younger generation who is currently still forming their opinions on these issues. In Pakistan, however, movements like these have yet to begin with the fairness cream industry still booming. The advent of social media has helped, with more women speaking out about their experiences and encouraging the acceptance and recognition of beauty in darker skin tones. It is important for our celebrities and influencers to speak out about this too; only with increased discourse and awareness can we begin to attempt to see a change in our society.