Walking through the aisles at Target and staring at beauty products that I know I don’t need and also can’t afford is usually a fun pastime, until last month, when I came across a series of skin–whitening creams.
In 1978, Unilever launched a whitening face cream, Fair & Lovely, which would be the first of many cleansers, shower gels and even vaginal washes that all attempt to lighten the skin. This is a glaring example of colorism: prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
Though the notion of colorism is not talked about as often in the western world, ideas of beauty and femininity have been directed by a European mindset for centuries. In the post-slavery U.S., the brown paper bag test was enacted for determining whether or not an individual could have certain privileges: If you were darker than a brown paper bag, you were instantly worth less and afforded fewer opportunities. These ideals have stuck with us ever since.
I remember my niece and me preferring the lighter and whiter Barbies to those — very rare — that had dark skin. In conversations about our future husbands, often my friends and I would talk about falling in love and marrying a nice “caramel”–skinned man or a man with lighter skin so that our future children could have two things: straight hair and light skin. Fair and lovely was an aspiration that we had not met, and subconsciously, we wanted our children to be what we couldn’t. Deeply imbedded stereotypes of exotism and savagery that we wanted to distance ourselves from are still prevalent today, but now they are backed by beauty campaigns, billboards, ads, television and movie stars that continue to push these notions of colorism.
Women in communities of color are fighting back against the European beauty standards pushed on them. In 2009, the nonprofit organization Women of Worth launched the Dark is Beautiful campaign in an effort to “challenge the belief that the value and beauty of people is determined by the fairness of their skin.”
These campaigns are powerful; however, they are only an attempt to fix the damage that has already been done to women like myself, who have already been dealing with internalized colorism from a young age. In conjunction with these campaigns, communities of color need to start raising children with pride in their skin tone along the entire color spectrum.