As a sixteen-year-old, first-generation Indian boy, I have been using skin whitening products for ten years. And until a year ago, I did not know that it wasn’t okay. I write this essay under a pseudonym because I am not comfortable publicly claiming that I have such turmoil. Although my school, and grade information, are accurately displayed, I have chosen to remain anonymous. The story that I write is my own struggle and should not be used to make assumptions about others. I hope that by the end of reading this, you gain a better understanding of the struggle people have with their race, if nothing else.
I always love going to India. To me, the actual country is a desolate wasteland, but a few highlights always make it worth the trip: the sixteen-plus hours spent on the flight watching movies, the street vendors selling pani puri, and reconnecting with my cousins after not seeing them for a few years are all things that I cherish.
The first time I used Fair & Lovely was when I was four years old. Even as a child, I was already darker than most of my family. My genes, most likely given to me by my maternal grandfather, make me stand out like a mud stain on a white shirt. The harsh India sun, unfortunately, did me no favors.
Ten Years Ago
“Dinner’s ready! Come in!” my aunt yelled over the raucous noises of my cousins. As we approached the door, my aunt scowled at our dirty clothes and sweaty faces. Playing badminton on the dusty roads of Anantapur, in all fairness, was a messy business. Ushering us to the bathroom, we all stood in line to wash our hands, feet, and faces. As the youngest, my aunt rushed to help me. She looked at me, clicking her tongue. “You can’t spend the whole day playing in the sun. Look at your skin!” She shuffled to the soap cabinet and pulled out the sleek white tube of the cream I would use for the next ten years, Fair & Lovely. “Here. This will make your skin fairer. Don’t you want to shine as bright as your brother?” Eagerly nodding, I quickly rushed to the sink. I couldn’t wait to be bright and fair!
Throughout the years, skin whitening has become my norm. My uncles and maternal grandfather own what I like to call a “soap shop.” In reality, Vishnu Agencies is a vendor to other retail stores. Every visit, my uncles open up the warehouse for me and tell me to take whatever I can carry. Without fail, every time, I make sure to grab Fair & Lovely in bulk to last me until my next visit.
I didn’t see anything wrong with the ads that marketed the glorification of white skin, or my mornings spent religiously slabbing on the cream. To be honest, I’m not sure if I really liked the cream itself. The scent was okay, but it had this horrible habit of drying my skin. And I didn’t want to give the promise of bright and beautiful skin, especially when every day I would hear something negative about it. Perhaps my mother who says I’m looking darker than usual. Perhaps my brother who places his hand next to mine and saying, “You’re so much darker than me. It’s weird.”
It was spring of 2020 when I started hearing about the controversy. With the murder of George Floyd, I began to see many articles publishing how skin-whitening agents are damaging to your skin and how their manufacturers support the inherent racism of the idea. At first, I was conclusively against these perspectives! To me, they were simply cosmetic items. Like a breast augmentation or a rhinoplasty, these products were merely beauty products.
I forced myself to think. Tanning was okay. Why aren’t we calling that racism? Don’t we force other beauty standards on people? It was to no avail, as all of my carefully constructed excuses began to crumble and wither.
The more I thought about it, the more the dreadful feeling in my stomach began to twist and turn. Was I…racist? Did using these items make me just like that police officer? Was my preference for white skin racist?
I rushed down the stairs to the bathroom. Scanning the shelves for the tubes, I systematically purged the cabinets of them. As I was dumping them into the trash, my mother’s comment stumped me: “How will you get fair skin if you throw those away, nalla munda*?”
I froze. My hand slowly inched away from the trash can, and I slowly trudged to the back of the bathroom. I looked up at the mirror stained with water spots and the melanin of my skin. I hated my dark skin. I did not want it. And only one thing could solve this. Squeezing the tube, I took a dollop of the cream and began to spread it over my face. It felt almost freeing, as if I had one less thing to worry about in the world. By the time the water rinsed off my face, I stared back into the mirror. My skin tone is a deep stain, I thought to myself. And like all such stains, it would take many times to finally purge it from the material.
I want to be pretty. Pretty is white. I do not want to be racist. Racism is preferring white. The conflict grows with every passing day—a war between my Indian culture and my American ideals.
Perhaps the worst part of it is my friends who berate me for using them say I contribute to a racist culture. As if they could understand. As if they could know the pain of looking in the mirror every day and seeing soiled skin. Skin that needs to be fixed, to be better.
Shaming skin whiteners doesn’t work. Shaming us makes us hide. We hide from every comment that makes us regret using them. We hide in the bathroom, staring at the mirror, wondering if you could ever look into it and see beauty. We hide under the persona that skin whiteners should be banned when just yesterday we bought one from the drugstore.
To those who read this, I ask you to consider what you say next time to those who struggle with racial beauty. I ask you to empathize with their struggles instead of lecturing them on how mercury is damaging to skin. Trust me when I say they’re probably more knowledgeable than you on the subject. It isn’t something you can stop overnight. These products are like drugs; I use them to look nice, and I like looking nice. And if you do judge, I will tell you this: You are just as much a part of the problem.
*nalla munda is roughly translated to English as black or dark one
The author wishes to remain anonymous