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
  • Sarah Bessey

    This post – and that poem – gave me shivers down my spine. WHOA. I am one of the fair-skinned (read: I’m so fair, I’m clear), complete with red hair, blue eyes and freckles. Most of my insecurities are weight related (and specifically large-breasts-related) but even those are being lovingly dealt with, slowly and gently by our Jesus over time. This is a post that crawls down into the ROOT of insecurity though. And I can’t wait to hold your babies.

  • Allison

    I am a caucasian woman and a very fair skinned one at that. I remember having little “crushes” on the asian and dark skinned girls and boys when I was very young and later being jealous of their gorgeous skin colours. Actually, I still am…it is so beautiful. We are all beautiful. The movie preview was a shocking revelation to me. I had no idea that black women loathed their own colour and was unaware that fair skin was so coveted. I don’t even know what to do with this information. It is so sad to find that this is how people think. God made us all beautiful. We need to receive that and embrace it.

  • Chervelle Camille

    You wrote the rhythms of my heart… Thank you. *literally crying* (again)

  • Anna Cooper

    Hey lovely. Thank you for increasing my awareness around this topic. Oh toxic chemical near your sexual organs… brilliant… I don’t tend to get upset by these things because I expect so little from commercialism.

    Black women hoping to be lighter, mean while millions of white girls are going to tanning salons. Change change change.

  • Sandhya

    Kudos to u my darling Teenbug for this beyond amazing piece…. And the anger, we need it to bring about awareness and change!!!!

    How has this issue affected you?
    I hate, I hate whitening skin ads with a vengence: examples of these ads- u can’t get a job, a guy, have guts to sing, to win, arranged marriage situations, being a leader and what not rubbish.
    I have boycotted these product of extra whitening (I love my skin tone and have no intention of lightening it)

    What lies about beauty have you bought into? Wrinkle cream, tanning, etc. What’s your thing?
    I used to be entraped by ‘fair n lovely’ and the works when younger but then I grew up….
    I use oil of olay 7 affects and also seba med sunscreen (cancer, heat burn in dubai cause of heat). Oil of olay might promise the world but my skin tone has remained its natural colour which I love (its just a cream we use) and seba med spf is the good way to go and love my super dark summer skin….. GIRLS WOMEN learn to say NO to the skin lightening products and even treatments at saloons…. Tell please clense my skin but please no bleach or whitening enhancing stuff…. Just keep me my natural self…

    Here’s a toast to ur future gorgeous dark skinned babies and their revolutionary mom…

  • Joy

    Just loved reading this. loved it, loved it. am black like the beautiful woman in Songs of Songs, sun burnt in the equatorial Africa. oh how I love me. lovely reflections Tina.

  • Samantha

    Wow! So…. I don’t know what to say. Walking in downtown, Nairobi’s river road area, you get mobbed by women who call you all sorts of ‘endearing’ names like sweety, super, mummy, only to ask you if you’d like ‘mafuta’ (translated ‘oil’) what they mean is whitening/bleaching cream as they are commonly known. The saddest thing is that some of their faces look like a painful and I mean painful pinkish-orange color with almost black cheeks (indicates burning). In the coastal area, and areas where Kenyan muslim women are, there’s pressure to look Arab and so some of them use one called ‘mkorogo’ (means mixture) and this is taken through the mouth so as to get an even tone (unlike the others that tend to leave knuckles and fingers darker) – so that even the scalp matches the shade of the body. The other day, my sister came from a salon shocked. She said she watched, with horror, as one lady (from the Muslim community) came into the salon and asked for a service. The salon owner, a dark lady, then brings out a bleaching container and proceeds to apply it on her customer’s face. After a minute she says ‘ouch yawasha! yawasha!’ meaning it’s burning. So they leave it for a bit, then rinse it off and she pays for it. Sadly, it’s an ongoing process so she will be back for another session. What shall we say?!*

  • Urmi

    What a breathtaking post 🙂 I identify with the pre-exquisite Dubai, because that’s where I grew up too!!

    Keeping in line with the topic of this TGIF, I have a lot of people in my close family who are very dark skinned and there are people in the same family who are colour-prejudiced. It is VERY unfair. I am fair but my husband is the colour of caramel. Samarth has my complexion and it does not at all matter to me that my yet unborn baby could be a very beautiful shade of caramel like its father. It will hurt me deeply if there are any obvious comparisons to the older sibling Samarth if God forbid, there are differences in looks and complexion. I think that could be a point I missed reading about in your post 🙂 Or wait, would it be a different story on its own? 🙂

  • t

    Tina, Good article. I have a few comments.

    1. While I thought the video was good….I must say that It bothers me that virtually ALL video documentaries and articles focus on skin color issues related to the black American community. The discrimination exists within ALL communities. I wish that the film makers would have gone beyond their additional commentary (saying this extends to people outside of xyz community) and have actually taken the step to include those other communities. I have observed so much of this shameful hatefulness within our own cultural community among parents and even people in our own age group. These are issues that need to be addressed publicly. This is what also bothers me about black history month in schools. Yes we need to talk about black history month – but we also need to talk about asian history month. Its not all black and white. The “other stuff” can’t just be a side note or a “by the way…”.

    2. Dark skinned groups of girls often, when they can, bully light skinned girls or make them feel badly about having that skin color. I almost feel like the message should not be related around dark skin or light skin – but that any and all skin tones are valued and special – that we are more than just skin tones. When we focus on dark it can (unfortunately) perpetuate the cycle of victims who become bullies because they have so much hatefulness and resentment of those that “hate” on them.

    3. Children are born into this world and my belief is that almost always – these attitudes start in the house. Children acknowledge and process variations in shade and color – nose size, hair size, etc. However it is the adults that surround them that add the “stigma” of these attributes. ie “Her nose is too big. She needs a nose job” or “She’s too white” or “She’s too dark”. EVERYONE does this. We frown on traits we don’t like because we are conditioned to. Whether we do it in the privacy of our homes or not – it happens, and it is something to work on and try to change.

    Its a great topic to discuss and I wish more attention was brought to it. The Indian community is FULL of this. I was not on the darker skin end of the spectrum but I have seen this throughout my life and it has greatly saddened and angered me. Whats more ridiculous is that some of the people that feel so “terribly” about how people can be like this go on to then say “um… she’s pretty… but she’s so dark!”.

    Ridiculous!

    • Dia

      I loved this article, and growing up in India have experienced the same kind of discrimination – which is almost funny because everyone skin varies by about three tones, but then is not because it actually destroys peoples lives.
      I just finished a short documentary about this, set in Kolkata in India – the most touching part for me was Sameer who is afraid to go to school because he gets bullied because of his dark skin. All his friends tell him when he grows up no one will marry him. He is ten.

  • Because my husband is mixed race, my babies have varying degrees of skin color. (And at birth, they look so different from Irish-AmericanMutt me that I get quizzical looks from the hospital orderlies. “Can i just check to make sure your name tags match?”) It’s a great doorway into discussions about race in our family: no two are alike, yet we are all beautiful.

    Tina, you and Kupa will have GORGEOUS babies and I pray they will live free and strong in their skin.