Bollywood's Obsession With Fair Skin Made Me Consider Bleaching As A Teen

My youthful ignorance was snatched from me at the tender age of nine after I had finished getting dressed for a wedding.

By AWP reporter

As a third-generation British Indian, I have always felt somewhat removed from culture-related issues, except one, the obsession with fair skin.

Growing up, I was blissfully unaware of Indian cultural standards of beauty.  I grew up with progressive parents, who challenged cultural norms and encouraged me to disregard many of them.

But as anyone with an Indian heritage will understand, frequent encounters with extended family members are a normalised part of life.

My youthful ignorance was snatched from me at the tender age of nine after I had finished getting dressed for a wedding.

I floated down the stairs in my new gown feeling like my own version of Hermione Granger making her grand entrance at the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The moment was short-lived when a distant relative glided past me and erupted into a reel of praise for another family member, who was around five foundation shades lighter than me, taking extra time to hail her “beautiful, fair skin.”

I felt my body seize up as I looked down at my wheatish brown hands acutely aware that I couldn’t compare to that.

That one encounter was followed by what felt like hundreds of comments as I entered my teenage years. It was hard. I found myself becoming more outcast by family members, becoming the victim of preferential treatment towards my fair-skinned family members, and being encouraged to take photographs in “brighter” lighting.

I was even repeatedly urged to wear a hat to avoid becoming “too dark” under the rays of the sun during a holiday abroad.

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I was then encouraged to avoid wearing sunscreen as this would “make me tan more.” I vividly remember one occasion when I proceeded to question why tanning would be so awful, was it not just a sign I had been on holiday? After all, when all my friends got darker after they went away they were always so desperate to boast about their new tans.

The response I was given? “You look dark enough as it is.”

That’s the moment I credit as the tipping point. I began rapidly researching skin lightening methods online, even braving the prospect of asking my mother if she knew of any products or creams I could use

I was a teary-eyed 12-year-old child desperate to have a complexion more like that family member, whose fair skin mirrored most of the women in Bollywood films.

Surprisingly when I broached the topic, my mother revealed to me that she had experienced the same discrimination growing up. She had a lighter-skinned relative and other family members would often make her feel “unworthy” to the point where her self-confidence vanished.

Whilst having my mother confide in me made a mark, I struggled to shake off the years of conditioning and decided to do my own research.

A Google search suggested putting lemon juice on your face everyday to “naturally lighten your complexion.” I was sold. If I couldn’t do it the “professional” way then I had to do something.

So every day, for over a year I applied lemon juice to my face several times a day, despite the acid causing me to wince from the burning sensation. I eventually gave up when I failed to see any results.

It was only later after I stopped that I realised how fortunate I was to not have suffered any skin rashes or worse - a phototoxic reaction, which is when your skin gets a chemical burn.

I hadn’t realised that this so-called lemon remedy had serious side effects and the truth is a lot of women taking extreme measures to get lighter don't realise the damage they're causing their body.

And while some of them do - heartbreakingly - they believe it's still worth it.

Bollywood, glorifying skin lightening

I know many of you readers - especially those with an Asian background - will relate with my experience.

In India, darker skinned women face unfair treatment and not just by the media. It's even been reported that some arranged marriage websites let families filter out prospective brides by skin tone.

Such discrimination has meant some women have turned to skin lightening products, an industry that the World Health Organisation says amounts to about $500 million in India alone.

Delving into this topic as an adult has led me to encounter countless friends and family alike that all have their own horrifying anecdotes of colourism. It’s far from a surprise when adverts, films, music videos and even song lyrics targeting an Asian demographic all help push the fair-skin agenda.

Bollywood is estimated to be worth a staggering $2.83 billion, according to Yahoo! Finance, and has played a critical role in the glorification of skin whitening.

Skin bleaching is something that is not only embraced but encouraged in the industry. A number of actors including Bollywood giants Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Deepika Padukone have all come under fire over the years for reportedly starring in adverts which promote whitening products.

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