It was at the cosmetic store. That’s when I heard it again. The never-ending belief that a lighter skin tone defines beauty. That people, from Africans to Black Americans, South Americans, and Asians, are more beautiful if or when their skin is pale or fair or light. The very pregnant black woman doing my make-up started by saying I had great skin, no visible pores. I thanked her. Then she said it. “You’re so lucky you’re light skinned. This lipstick, a lot of colors will look amazing on you…I hope my daughter comes out light. Light skinned people are beautiful.” Mind you, my skin tone is more milk chocolate than light. How sad…for the unborn child. She’s already under so much pressure to look a certain way. How sad…that her mother may not see her true beauty if she doesn’t come out with caramel skin. Maybe I should have said something but sometimes, in certain moments, there’s simply nothing to say. Besides, I chose to assume she was just trying to sell me some make-up.
For the longest time in Nigeria, commercials, movies, music videos, always featured light skinned women. Things are very different now, but there’s still this belief that a “fair complexion” -that’s what we call it- is more beautiful. Hence, why the skin bleaching industry continues to boom. Women are flocking to skincare stores, buying lotions that promise to lighten their skin, to make them more attractive. The irony is they are really not “caring for their skin,” they are destroying it. Literally.
This mindset is not just in Nigeria, it’s in Africa, it’s in the United States. It’s all over the world. Heck, I learned about the the brown paper bag test in the U.S. Basically, if your skin tone didn’t match that of a brown paper bag, you weren’t allowed to join certain social organizations, fraternities and sororities. It sounds silly but the practice still exists among teenagers, even some adults. It’s a determinant of how cool, good-looking or acceptable a person is. It determines whether a person is dateable. It’s a big part of Hollywood. Especially when it comes to women of color. It’s called COLORISM and Emmy winning actress Viola Davis sums it up pretty well.
That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire.
Which explains why some magazines deliberately lighten the skin tone of naturally darker skinned celebrities. Again, the problem is worldwide. It’s why this commercial from India implies that finding true love, getting married, is possible if you have “white beauty.” The woman’s boyfriend leaves her for someone else because she doesn’t have a fair complexion. The message? “Don’t want to lose your man? Lighten your skin!”
The problem or the cause may be due to years and years of colonization. The mindset that anything European or foreign is better. It’s due to years and years of slavery. Where slave-owners gave preferential treatment to slaves with fairer or lighter complexion, while slaves with darker complexion worked outside. Nevermind that sometimes part of the reason for this was because those light skinned slaves were family members – children of slave masters and their female slaves. Ultimately, the idea that fair skin is aesthetically more beautiful, more appreciated than dark skin was born. The problem could also be due to class issues in various Asian countries. Way before the influence of colonialism. Where the ruling class stayed indoors all day while the peasants toiled outdoors in the sun. Their skin darkening as a result. So light skin was associated with the elite and dark skin with peasants.
Kenyan Actress Lupita Nyongo once beautifully summed up her struggles with having dark skin.
I remember a time 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…My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome…Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty, but around me the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me, “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.” And these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.
Truth is there are no gatekeepers to beauty and beauty has no shade. It doesn’t matter what that commercial on the T.V screen says. It doesn’t matter what society says because as we all know, the “ways” of society are fleeting. What’s considered beautiful or “in” today may be ugly or “out” tomorrow. True beauty isn’t fleeting because it transcends the physical. Beauty is confidence. Confidence in your own skin. Be it dark or light. Confidence in who you are, exactly the way God created you. Beauty is kindness, compassion, humility, love. It’s respect for your fellow human being. It’s heart-deep. Maybe realizing this will stop people from paying billions to lighten and destroy their own skin. Then women, like that pregnant woman at the cosmetic store, will long for their daughters to be kind and confident instead of “light-skinned.”