On Brightening, Lightening and Whitening II: What is Beautiful?

This is the second part of a post that I began here

I do not think that fair skin is inherently better than dark skin (or vice versa). I think that skin is skin, and if you have it and it’s healthy, you should be grateful and take care of it. But I’ve often been told that I am too pragmatic for my own good. Skin is the first thing that people see about your physical self, and apparently they’re going to make snap judgements based on this superficial physical feature that you had little or nothing to do with. Even if everyone in the world was blind, we’d still find something else to use as an excuse to piss on other people like whether our skin is rough or smooth or oily or dry. Humans are shitty that way.

Apparently black, brown and white people bleach their skins. I have no idea why white people “lighten” their skin, since I am not white and I haven’t met a white person who does – I may have watched a video at some point that mentioned something about “removing blemishes”. In any case, I quietly pity all the darker people who feel they need to burn off the melanin on their skin in order to get a better chance at jobs and promotions, to be considered more attractive by potential (sex) partners, to feel beautiful, or to have better self-esteem (can self-esteem really be found in the shade of your skin?). I pity them, but I don’t criticize them, and I’m not going to join any “stop-the-bleaching” campaigns because in spite of my pity, I recognize that there exists a variety of reasons why dark people bleach (or at least there is a variety of reasons they give the rest of us – we’ll just have to take their word for it). Ultimately, it is their decision what they do with their skin. Still, I cannot ignore the racism/colorism that has established the not-quite-subtle skin-shade hierarchy that puts light skin at the very top and dark skin so far at the bottom that in India, many people feel perfectly comfortable insulting, jeering at, and beating up black Africans … because they are black. As much as Sede Alonge argues that some black women just prefer light skin, and that this is ok, preferences don’t exist in a vacuum and it stops being about mere “preference” when those who are in the un-preferred category literally feel or are made to feel uncomfortable in their own skins.

This is one of those conundrums where personal choice, aesthetic inclination, agency, and prejudice collide to give us a tangled jumble that is the discourse on skin-bleaching that we have today. Personally, I think skin-bleaching/toning/lightening/whitening/brightening is weird. But I would, wouldn’t I: My hair is natural (not straightened, not dyed), and I don’t wear make-up. In addition I avoid inorganic and/or processed foods, I opt for herbal remedies rather than factory-made medication whenever I can, and I think that we should collect rainwater to use for everything except cooking and drinking (since air-pollution has probably rendered rainwater noxious). I am generally paranoid about anything with chemicals that we didn’t cover in secondary school Chemistry. My biggest reason though, is that I just don’t give enough of a damn about what people think about how I look to buy expensive, unnecessary and unhealthy chemicals and regularly put them on my skin and risk kidney failure, mercury poisoning, burnt skin, and skin cancer.

Going back to Elnathan John’s rant, where he cites a woman as saying:

Since I started [bleaching]I know how many doors suddenly opened for me…. …same men who ignored me suddenly started toasting me. Since I got fairer people started noticing me. Don’t tell me about bleaching

What doors are these exactly? The doors that would lead to more men flirting/sleeping with her? Who are these people who notice her now that she’s ‘fairer’ and why exactly do they notice her – is it necessarily because of her skin? And if it is, is it because they think she’s more beautiful or is it because they KNOW she’s been bleaching and they’re looking at her like “yep, there goes one of them”. While it is possible that some men “prefer” women with (naturally or artificially) lighter skin, is that all there is to this woman’s story? More pertinently, is she (or is Elnathan) implying that it is a woman’s role to inconvenience (read: endanger) herself in order to fulfill male fantasies of what a woman should look like? Ok, maybe they’re not directly or deliberately implying this, but I feel like this conclusion is not far from where they are now.

Among the reasons that people cite for bleaching their skin, the word beauty tends to turn up quite frequently. I have two things to say about this. First, beauty is a vast and multi-faceted and diverse thing, and second (this one’s a question), is beauty the most important thing about a person?

When I ask myself what I think is beautiful, several things come to mind: eagles, the smell of the air just before it rains, guitar music by Trace Bundy, wrists (I have a weird thing about random body parts), the taste of a merveilleux purchased at Pittman’s bakery in Lille, patterns on leaves, bursting the bubbles in bubble-wrap, the curtains in my mother’s parlour, charcoal, pencil and dark ink drawings, trees with full foliage, ankles, anklets, anklets on ankles, Indian clothes and jewellery, Indian women’s hair, Ulzibayaar Chimed the contortionist, Afro-kinky hair, the film Belle by Amma Asante, expressive eyes, Tuareg women, Fulani women with face tattoos, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 In A Major K 488 Adagio (second movement), especially when played by my former piano teacher Mrs. Shin, dancing with Afri-theatre, my lips, Angélique Kidjo’s voice, the birds that sing outside my window every morning, the hills that surround Abuja, intricately patterned fabric, Terry Pratchett’s writing, the moment when a baby falls asleep in my arms, my cousin’s laughter and my brother’s smile, to name a few. I could fill an entire bookshelf with the things I think are beautiful, and I am just one person. I assume that each sentient person finds a variety of things beautiful and so the grand total of beautiful things would take a rather long time to count. Yet, for some reason, in popular culture, we manage to disregard the diversity of beauty and narrow it down to sex appeal – and only one perspective on sex appeal at that. “Beauty” often means that a woman is considered sexually attractive to a man (in rarer cases, the inverse is the case). And it is the pursuit of this ideal of beauty that makes some people do things like bleach their skin (or put sodium hydroxide in their hair, or get labiaplasties).

As pleasant as beauty is, just how important is it in the grand scheme of things? Well, really rather important, I think. You can’t eat, drink, or breathe in beauty, and beauty won’t shelter you or cure your illnesses. Nevertheless, a world without beauty to take us out of ourselves and feed our souls would be a limitless burden. Now, how important is the physical beauty of human beings? In my opinion, not particularly important, especially considering that physical beauty standards change gradually every week and drastically every year. And even if by some weird turn of events, we managed to decide on just one never-changing beauty standard, the simple fact that the human body constantly morphs with time would render “beauty” an ideal only obtainable for a brief period in the course of one’s life, if at all. The people who have been most significant in my life haven’t been the most beautiful, per se; they have been the kindest, most helpful, inspiring, loving, hard-working, gentlest, and sincere people. While it is nice to get compliments about our looks (even I won’t deny that I smile every time someone says I look nice), I don’t think this is what we should live for.

I have been told that it is easy for me to take my current stance on skin-bleaching because I have “light skin”. Well, I’ve seen lighter. And I’ve seen people with fairer skin than mine who bleach anyways, so what’s happening there? Besides, I’ve been in places where the standard of beauty was not necessarily light skin. In my hell-hole of a boarding school, “beauty” went hand in hand with socio-economic class. Consequently, only the rich girls were considered “hot”. In addition, because there seemed to be an obsession with girls who had “hourglass” figures, or “figure 8” body types, some girls who looked like Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin, who weren’t necessarily one of the rich kids, were also invited to partake of the nectar of the hotties. A lower middle class child with an oversized head and even bigger shoulders (I looked like a lollipop wearing a coat hanger), I didn’t even remotely make the cut. As if that wasn’t bad enough, someone used to call me the Terminator while someone else hinted that I walked like a gorilla. For a while, I felt like crap. And I believed I looked like crap too. However, thanks mostly to good advice and good friends, I said “damn it all to hell; I may not be beautiful, but I am wicked smart, I am an excellent goalkeeper, and I draw like a boss”. Well, maybe I didn’t say it quite like that, but the point was that I decided my self-esteem was not going to be tied to my looks and I would find fulfillment in things I could actually control. Which turned out to be a good idea, considering that in all the years since then, different people have felt an inexplicable need to comment on my appearance, but can’t seem to make up their minds; their opinions vary among beautiful, pretty, ok-looking, could-be-pretty-with-some-make-up, “meh”, not-fine-but-has-fair-skin-to-compensate, and “I wouldn’t give her a second look”.

In essence, I am saying that I don’t think anyone should bleach their skin (except dermatological patients whose doctors have prescribed a bleaching agent which will only be used on a tiny surface area and for a really short time period) because it is at best unnecessary if you really think about it, and at worst, unhealthy. I have listened to the arguments about “fitting in” to colorist societies, but quite frankly, unless you’re Michael Jackson, or the Whitenicious lady  with oodles of cash to spend on expensive bleaching products, when you bleach, you don’t look light-skinned; you just look… bleached. And besides, is fitting in really worth risking damaged kidneys?

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