TGIF: Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, Who Is The Fair (and Loveliest) Of Them All?

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On skin lightening creams, va-jay-jays and my future babies.

I grew up in pre-exotic Dubai. It was the land of milk and hummus. We had bashful camels, marmalade sunsets and silky sand dunes. This was back when Dubai didn’t have seven-star hotels, luxury malls or artificial islands shaped like palm trees.

Dubai was, however, insanely hot.

My relationship with the sun was rocky. I never whipped out teeny shorts and a tank top. I didn’t fall into the downward dog.  Nope. I hid from the sun. Ninja style.

As a teenager, the only implications of the heat were rooted in my vanity. A myriad of awkward tan lines crisscrossed over my body–some permanent, some temporary.

There was the tan line on my arms from my half-sleeved school uniform. There was the perma-sock tan from knee-high socks. There was the watch-shaped tan on my left wrist. #permanent

If I sat by the window on the right side of the school bus, the right side of my face would get three tones darker. If I stood out in the sun for P.E., my forehead would get visibly darker. You get the idea.

Essentially, I had the lunar eclipse. On. My. Face.

There were three solutions to combat this crescent moon situation:

a.  The Natural Method – Location, location, location–of the sun, that is, in relation to me. If I sat on the right-side of the bus on Monday, I’d sit on the left-side of the bus on Tuesday.
b.  The Artificial Method – Using a skin-lightening cream, like Fair and Lovely.
c.  A combination of the two.

I’m not proud to admit this, but I opted for Option C. Some time in high school, I switched from my family’s treasured Nivea face cream and experimented with Fair and Lovely.

I didn’t want to look “fairer” and I wasn’t insecure about the colour of my skin. I just didn’t want to look like the Phantom of the Opera.

Chalk it up to the naivety foolishness/selfishness of youth, but I hadn’t realized that my choice:

– perpetuated deep-rooted biases;
– reinforced the hierarchy of power and colour;
– subscribed to a half-billion-dollar industry that capitalizes on insecurity.

I hadn’t realized that there was such deep pain around skin colour.

Everything changed this February at The Justice Conference in Portland,  sitting beside my pals Kelley and Idelette. We heard startling statistics about the number of young black men incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. We were sobered by the fact that young black women are often more likely to be targeted by sex traffickers.

I was angrily scribbling notes in my binder when suddenly Kelley broke down beside me. You see, my friend Kelley is mama to two beautiful black babes.

Uncontrollable, gut-curdling tears came thundering out of her. She turned her tear-stained face towards Idelette and me, looked imploringly into our eyes and asked chanted a question that still haunts me, “What about my babies? What about my babies? What about my babies?”

It suddenly dawned on me, that this not just Kelley’s problem. This was my problem too. Not just in a global, “We are one big family” ubuntu sort of way. Hold up: this is literally my reality too!

I’m about to marry a beautiful Zambian man with whom I hope to have babies in the future. Between my caramel skin and his deeper chocolate, the odds are not stacked in our favour. What we heard at the Justice Conference affects the the fate of our babies too!

“What about my babies?”

In April, Kelley wrote a stunning post reflecting on her experience at the Justice Conference called “Black and Beautiful.” If you haven’t read it, read it! In her post, Kelley spoke about her fears, dreams and revelations as a Mama of dark-skinned children:

“In the shade of the trees on that sunny afternoon, all we could do was cry and pray that our children would be spared the hurt of prejudice and the injustice of discrimination because of their dark skin.”

Later that April, Lydia Durairaj wrote a post titled Dark is Beautiful: Learning to Love the Skin I’m In. It got a tremendous response: last I checked, it had 431 Facebook shares.

This was her dream and revelation:

“I want to give to young children the gift that was recently given to me: The color of your skin is not a cross you bear. It is beautiful.” 

Having these experiences and reading these posts attuned my heart and eyes to all things that discriminated against colour. I joined the “Dark is Beautiful” movement, “Liked” Facebook pages, read articles, watched videos and began to educate myself on the topic.

What I found, broke my heart …

Take this trailer for an upcoming documentary titled “Dark Girls” for example. It explores “the deep-seated biases and attitudes about [dark-skinnedness] outside of and within Black American culture.” The movie’s producers write, “We know this issue goes beyond the United States and Black people. This is for ALL women from around the world.


Dark Girls: Preview from Bradinn French on Vimeo.

My favourite sentence in the video comes at 8:50 mark. “Rise, dark girls. Rise.” *chills*

_________________

Fair and Lovely: A Sisterhood?

Here’s another example I found. I was perusing the Facebook page of Fair and Lovely Arabia, the skin lightening cream I used to use in high school. I found these pictures from their marketing campaign.

Caption: “Life can be beautiful when someone genuinely cares for you.”

Caption: “You may love fashion but it’s the family who loves you back. Know your Shillaty (friend) sister who will be like family to you.”

Caption: “Beauty is more than skin deep. It also comes from the relationships we form. Like the one you could have with your sister.”

Wait a sec. *scratches head*

Sisterhood, family and friendship are about being accepted and celebrated, exactly as you are. How can you promise the warm and fuzzy feelings of being loved, by selling a product that primarily aims at changing you?

_____________________________________

The straw that broke this camel’s back

In my quest to find out more about colour discrimination, I came upon a skin lightening product that unleashed the lioness within me.

*brace yourself*

Vagina Lightening Creams. It’s a real thing, folks. Watch the video below.

This video features a product called “Clean and Dry Intimate Wash.”

Opening scene: a melancholic couple sits in silence, without making eye contact. Luckily, the forlorn woman has the good sense to deal with the problem head on. She heads to the shower and gives her va-jay-jay a good scrub down and magically saves her marriage.

WHAT.THE.WHAT?! 

This video made me so mad, I wanted to gouge someone eyes out. But whose?  Mine? Consumers? Marketers? My teddy?

Last night, I talked to Kupa about my angst around writing this piece. “The problem”, I told him, “is that I don’t know how to end TGIF on a positive note. The whole thing just makes me so angry.”

“What specifically makes you angry?” he prodded.

After making gurgling sounds undecipherable to most humans, I finally said:

ER-MAH-GERDD!!!  They (the mysterious people whose eyes I want to gouge out) are making money, by making us insecure about every inch of our bodies. They are making us dim our light. Stay small. Recoil and retreat.

How many lies will they sell us? And how many will we believe?
Why can’t we see that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made?
How long will we live like the sad wife in the vagina commercial?
Why are we all trying to change what is unique about us?
Why don’t we believe that we are worthy of love, friendship and joy–exactly the way we are?
How many of us are missing from the table, because we’ve believed a rotten lie?

These are some of the questions I’m asking myself. I don’t have all the answers. As angry as I am, I’m also inspired by Kelley and Lydia.

I do believe that there is hope for my babies. And I do believe that there is hope for me.

____________________________________

To A Dark Girl by Gwendolyn Bennett

I love you for your brownness,
And the rounded darkness of your breast,
I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice
And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest.

Something of old forgotten queens
Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk
And something of the shackled slave
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.

Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate,
Keep all you have of queenliness,
Forgetting that you once were slave,
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!

____________________________________________________________

So, dear ones, 

As the producers of “Dark Girl” say, this issue goes beyond African American, Indian or Chinese:

  1. How has this issue affected you?
  2. What lies about beauty have you bought into? Wrinkle cream, tanning, etc. What’s your thing?

Love you more than Blackberry, Fennel, and Goat Cheese Pizza,
xoxo,
Teen

To read more TGIFs from Tina: Click here.

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Tina Francis
My name is Tina. Loved ones call me: Teen. Words are my chocolate. Music, my caramel. Photography, my bread. Girlfriends, my butter. Confession: Some girls dream about Manolo Blahniks or their next Hermes bag. Not me. I dream of freshly baked bread, perfectly barbecued meat & steaming bowls of Pho. My dream lover *cue Mariah Carey song* is someone who would read out a menu to me in Barry White’s baritone voice. I celebrate food, ask for help, interrupt conversations, laugh and cry hard, acknowledge the elephant in most rooms, fight for the underdog and believe in the power of storytelling. I was born and raised in Dubai and currently live in the beautiful city of Vancouver, known for some of the best sushi in the world.
Tina Francis
Tina Francis