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Navigating the spectrum of skin and bleaching creams

By Eda Kamal, October 25 2023—

My mother once told me I wasn’t allowed to bleach my skin.

I hadn’t asked her if I could. But as we wandered through the claustrophobic aisles of a Desi shop, she pointed out a cream on a shelf, “This will make your skin lighter. You don’t need to use it. It’ll burn you.”

I am grateful to my mom for instilling the belief that nothing about my skin colour was flawed before I had the chance to believe otherwise. I was in elementary school at the time of this conversation and didn’t fully understand why I would want to bleach my skin in the first place. Wouldn’t that hurt?

I grew up in Canada, surrounded by a good amount of diversity in my everyday life. It was inherently known to me that humans were simply meant to look different — even though the majority of the people I interacted with did not look like me, this wasn’t something that separated us as human beings. My mother, however, was raised in Pakistan. Beyond the variety of different ethnic groups, there are very few citizens of the country born elsewhere in the world with respect to its population, making Pakistan a fairly racially homogeneous population. People of all shades exist within the race — from pale to tan to dark. Despite all being members of the same race in the same nation, there is still, according to my mother, an extreme amount of discrimination based on the darkness of one’s skin in Pakistan. This is not unlike North American standards (perhaps even more extreme), and one may argue the South Asian subcontinent’s history of British colonialism has contributed to the disharmony based on skin colour in the nation. 

My mom showed me an advertisement that ran on TV when she was younger, of a skin bleaching cream. The implications of the ad were that lighter skin would make you more attractive to a man. The actors in the TV shows would have pale skin unless their character was the villain or comedic relief — in any way, darker-skinned people in media were not meant to be taken seriously. When considering a bride for their sons, the mother will often suggest girls with lighter skin so that her grandchildren can then also have lighter skin. Women with coloured eyes are overwhelmed with marriage proposals based solely on their looks. Darker-skinned people are also stereotypically known to take dirty service jobs, like cleaning trash on the street or dealing with animals. The systemic colourism in Pakistan is so bad that it impacts every single aspect of one’s life. 

When she was in grade school, a student from Canada joined my mom’s class. She was half brown and half white, with pale skin. All of the more popular girls (who happened to have light skin) flocked to her, while the girls with darker skin were jealous of the new student’s beauty and would call her what translates to “Canadian monkey” because they were so unused to the presence of someone from out of the country. 

My skin tone is around the middle of the spectrum that exists in Pakistan — and I cannot deny there were times as a child and teenager when I wished for lighter skin or my distant relatives’ green eyes. But being raised around all types of people, watching cartoons starring characters that did not look like me, and my mother’s determination to separate herself and her children from the impossible and colourist biases of her home country all helped to ensure I grew into someone who did not define her worth by the single trait of the tone of her skin.

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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