It is human nature to want something one doesn’t already have. Throughout our childhood, we are asked to believe that nothing is out of our reach and that if f we truly desire something and work towards making it possible, we will end up receiving it. What they don’t teach us is the distinction between things that one must strive to achieve and things that the world pressures one into believing they need in order to live a better life.
Leading young women into believing that fair skin is somehow superior to darker tones isn’t a new fad. Glow & Lovely (formerly Fair & Lovely) was introduced to the Indian market in 1975, but it was not the first time the country saw a fairness cream in the market. The idea of fair-skin supremacy began long before that in 1919 when Afghan Snow performed the same task as Glow & Lovely. Even then, it was systemic. Afghan Snow and all other ‘fairness’ products were cashing in on colonial inferiority complex and misplaced beauty ideals. Here we are, 101 years later, with almost the entire country living with the same thought — lighter skin is ‘fairer’, far more beautiful, and more importantly, the ideal desirable.
An engineer, model, anti-colourism activist, and an all-round superwoman, Seema Hari indulged in a conversation with Homegrown about her difficult childhood, her realisation of the existence of colourism across the globe and the importance of educating oneself.
Having grown up in the suburbs of Mumbai, in Dahisar, one would assume for her to have had a childhood no different to others’ — typical days at school followed by the regular evening play-sessions, with a few family outings dispersed in the process. While on the surface, it seemed to be just that, Seema was victim to bullying from her friends and elders alike. She was bullied because she looked different from the others — she had a darker complexion. Society’s ruthless behaviour led her to depression and subsequently to have suicidal thoughts.
“I have been harassed about my skin my whole life. I did not have a childhood separate from depression. It was always about how I am not just ugly, it was about how I would never find a job, love or success,” Seema recalls.
When she travelled to China for her job at Infosys, she truly realised just how vastly different humans are in appearance. Seema says, “People there did tokenise my skin colour and my hair, but it gave me a different perspective of how I’m not ugly, I’m just unique.” Her move to the United States of America played a part in her final stage of transformation, especially when she saw black women own the skin they are in. Seema remembers thinking to herself, “How can this not be beautiful?”
As she travelled around the world, it dawned on her that the desire for lighter skin exists across the globe. Beauty standards take different shape and form in various regions of the world but are underlined with the same agenda of making one feel that they are just not ‘beautiful’ enough. The definition of ‘beauty’ has been standardised by industries that profit off of women’s insecurities, and as Seema would agree, not an ounce of positivity comes from it.
“Whole cultures have been brainwashed so we can’t hold them responsible. However, if a person has access to the internet and the information and discussions it has to offer, and if you still hold these primitive beliefs, then there is a problem,” Seema opines. The onus to be better than what has been taught over the years is on the individual. Our ability to question the past and rectify its flaws put us in a position to better the society we live in, one person at a time.
In India too, the anti-dark conversations were accelerated by the Black Lives Matter movement in America. It brought into question the Indian society as a whole. People began to realise through Black Lives Matter that Indians themselves treat darker-skinned people in India the way Black people are treated in the USA. Yes, it brought an age-old corporation that promotes skin fairness to take down the word ‘fair’ from one of its best-selling products, and yes, the uproar on social media played a significant role in making it happen, but did our society experience the behavioural shift it should have?
“Society is a myth. It is nothing but a set of rules and if there is no justice, that set of rules ceases to exist, too,” Seema believes.
To be mentally strong enough to take on people that ignore your intellect, creative abilities and all that you have to offer to the world is no easy task. As a child, Seema had no name for her depression and suicidal tendencies. As she began therapy, she was able to explore not only what the world had in store for her, but also a path to create awareness and much-needed discussions around colourism.
“If I had access to therapy earlier, it would have helped me get to this point sooner. Therapists have amazing tools that unlock patterns in your brain,” she admits. As someone who loved to dance and express herself creatively as a child, Seema believes she was never able to fully express herself through those avenues because her mental health restricted her from doing so. “Until I was 29, I didn’t think I could be a creative person,” she says as she now thrives in her modelling career.
As the conversation drew to its end, Seema revealed her love for sunsets and the reason behind it — “They remind me that things end, but they start afresh too.” She recalls the time in her life when she wished she didn’t have to wake up the next morning to live the same life again, and how starting afresh each day gave her the motivation to continue.
Each new day gives an opportunity for a person to gain that last bit of confidence to take pride in their skin colour and also allows a person to change their mindset after understanding the evils of colourism and anti-darkness.
The widespread belief that if a person’s dark skin is not fixed, they remain a ‘nobody’ is problematic on a systemic level. What is there to fix, if nothing was broken in the first place?
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