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My Tryst With Cosmetic Racism: How I Understood Skincare Products I Used

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fairness creams and colourism in india, racism protest
There was a Fair And Lovely advertisement on the TV telling us that girls become confident and get employed when they have “fair skin”.

So, Hindustan Unilever Limited just dropped the word “Fair” from its product’s name but chose to not discontinue the product which spurted nothing but racism in this country for decades. We must use this moment to recognize that the word “fair” itself is a misnomer. The word’s used to describe the shades of human skin, like any other shade, for the purpose of makeup or identification are pale, light, medium and dark.

What does the word “fair” even mean with reference to one’s skin colour? The word isn’t an adjective but attributes desirability to a particular shade which is the “light skin tone”. We must actively quit using that word to describe light-toned skin and instead use the word “light”.

Remember saying “pass me the skin colour“, referring to that light orange crayon while drawing humans as kids? There were dark-skinned babies who wondered how they could draw themselves because that “skin colour” didn’t quite match theirs. There were kids who came back home asking their parents when they would “turn into skin colour”. Language matters. The unlearning and relearning are constant.

I am also using this moment to reflect on my own attitude towards racist products. Growing up, I was never conscious of my skin colour and never really dwelled upon it. I was lucky enough to have my ignorant naivety not let me take notice of an absolutely racist Indian society that I was a part of, that constantly taunts young girls and women about their skin tone. My “wheatish skin”, as they call it, let me escape the prejudice to a large extent without my even realizing it.

Also, my years of struggle with my rapidly fluctuating body weight and PCOS left very little curiosity in me to experiment with makeup or wear a pretty face. I was prudish with makeup and learned how to wear some or use an eyeliner only at the age of 24. Having PCOS also meant dealing with sensitive/highly irritable skin and having to constantly fight hardcore cystic acne plus indefinite scarring.

While buying toiletries or searching for a face wash that could help with my situation, I constantly kept away from products that quoted “skin-whitening, lightening, brightening” in their product description. I thought it was a ridiculous claim and wondered why I would even want to look a different colour than what I was. Sans my Instagram filters and a front camera that pales out my photos, my skin is a medium brown. (I use these filters to hide my boring backgrounds, yet most of the time, I understand the intended effect of these filters and feel guilty over my playful gratification.)

And all of these musings were from my mid-twenties when I wasn’t even conscious about my outlook or my approach towards the deep-rooted issue of colourism in our society and the toxicity of “beauty standards” promoted by the cosmetic industry. All that I felt was an extreme level of cringe whenever there was a Fair And Lovely advertisement on the TV telling us that girls become confident and get employed when they have “fair skin”.

Advertisement by Garnier for a fairness cream.

I remember becoming bitter thinking about what these ads that promote “light skin as the norm and the most desirable trait in both men and women” must have made my beautiful dark friends feel like all their lives. And yet, there was no active learning on my part to understand more about the issue of cosmetic industry racism, the lack of representation of the various skin types, or what it is that I could do to counter the guff.

And then Garnier happened. A few years ago, Garnier replied to a beauty vlogger who reached out for a collaboration, with these godforsaken words: “We don’t work with your skin types”, and was later forced to apologize. The woman had acne. The irony was that she actually wanted to test one of their products that claimed to clear up acne and scars. The whole poisonous concoction that capitalism and beauty industry truly is, dawned right upon me then. I instantaneously decided I was never going to buy Garnier products ever in my life again.

But it wasn’t just Garnier. It’s common knowledge that there is this entire chain of cosmetic industries that feed off on our insecurities, which indeed have been systematically induced by these very corporate houses with a plan to profit off them. But more significantly, even in terms of skincare, I discovered that all the major brands package nothing but costly amalgamations of harmful chemicals, which in the long run are prone to damage your skin sooner than later.

It’s been more than two years that I quit using any kind of packaged product on my face. I decided I wasn’t going to subject my already tormented skin to chemicals packaged into Gennie bottles by these sham hubs that behoof off our bodily issues, all the while tricking people with genuine skin problems into believing the practicality of their products by exclusively engaging with “light-skinned women with genetically healthy skins” to play their screen tropes.

I do not even use face washes. My skincare only includes a chemical-free (for what it claims) moisturizer and some essential oils which I actively chose to not be of a brand that promotes racist advertisements, is non-inclusive or is one of those major brands like Lakme, Revlon, Garnier, Nivea, Clean & Clear, Loreal Paris, Neutrogena—you name it.

These major brands use hoards of chemicals in their products while constantly promoting nothing but light skin. A little research told me that these widely available brands in India are the ones that have the maximum amount of sulfates, parabens and other detrimental preservatives in them. Post that disengagement, my skin has never felt better, and neither has my conscience.

More than a hundred years ago, in 1915, a group of men sitting at a round table in Gillette decided to promote hairless bodies as the new norm for women by calling their body hair “filthy and undesirable”, to increase their falling razor blade sales. They decided to prey on women by having them included in their target audience. An entire gender was reduced to following a painstaking norm that can no longer be severed from their anatomical understanding of themselves. Feminist learnings gave us this knowledge which now offers us a choice and loads of empowerment.

It’s time we used this reckoning to bring about consumer awareness and pull down corporations that feed on racist tropes targeted at both men and women, body types, hair types and a range of other sexist, colourist, non-inclusive, homophobic elements to further their profit ventures. The least we can do in the larger battle is to make a conscious choice to indulge or associate with brands and products that take an ethical and inclusive stand when it comes to addressing their consumer base or marketing their product. It’s time our consumeristic instincts evolved beyond cruelty-free.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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