by Priyanka Shrestha
I remember sitting on my bathroom counter the summer before seventh grade in a thin tank top and shorts. I was wearing my newly prescribed glasses and staring at every stretch and etch on my skin. I recalled my mom’s words, that I usually either ignored or reluctantly, with dramatic shows of disapproval, liberal eye rolling, and groaning, had grudgingly abided by.
“Don’t wear shorts today it’s too sunny.”
“You’re going to get tan, put on that sunscreen.”
“You have to wear full sleeves today, we’ll be walking all day in the sun.”
“You still need to wear your hat, the UV rays go through the clouds.”
I held up my hand, two shades lighter than my darkened face, and in that difference I found out that I reminded myself of dirt, dog food, and the disgusting burger grease at the bottom of the grill.
When we went out that day, I chose skinny jeans and a gray cardigan over my t-shirt, wearing a hat pulled low over my sunscreen–lathered face before my mom even asked.
* * *
I’m not sure exactly when the surprise of how long a summer tan can remain stuck to my skin turned into a hatred of myself. I’m not sure when the 7-day Fairness Cream ads on Nepali television and my mother’s constant nagging began to matter to me, or when my brown skin became my most despised possession.
By the time I had entered my second year of middle school, I felt trapped. Trapped in a skin that I felt writhing on me, that I wished I could shed and discard and burn and hide.
Every morning I inspected with dermatologist-like precision my dark, brown skin, its coarseness and its shadows, its texture and its hue. Every night I washed my face a little harder, thinking that if I tried hard enough, I could scrub it all away. Thinking that it was better to have no skin than my skin. I hated every pore.
One night in the living room I was flipping through our old baby albums from before my second birthday. Though I still had the same facial features, the light and creaseless baby skin that smiles from those pages are unrecognizable next to my darkened skin tone now. That night I stared at my reflection in the mirror a little longer, a little more carefully. Above everything else, my eyes lingered at the darkening gradience from my chest up to my face, and the way that the bottoms of my shoulders, though not as light as I desired, was close to the skin I saw on my baby face. I convinced myself that this skin tone was just the surface, a residue built after years of mishandling, and that on the inside I still had that peach, baby-soft skin. I had to.
From then on, it was no longer passive disgust and wistful lamentation; I was on a mission to fix myself. The precautions my mother had taught me, as a light reminiscence of the culture of her youth, I molded into an obsession.
* * *
Google Search History 07/04/2014
Skin Lightening techniques
Natural skin lightening techniques
Natural skin lightening techniques quick
How to get rid of tan quickly
How to naturally get rid of tan
Natural ways to get rid of tan at home
Natural tan removing remedies
Natural tan removal scrub
Quick tan removal and skin lightening
Quick tan removal and skin lightening naturally
Can you substitute store bought lime juice for lemons?
Is lemon juice bad for your skin?
Does lemon juice go bad?
Where to buy aloe vera
How often can you do skin lightening treatment at home?
How to get rid of turmeric stains?
* * *
I started a war against my skin. The organ that had kept me safe my whole life I scrubbed, and rubbed, and weathered until it burned pink and raw. Through online research, I found concoctions of homemade anti-tan and skin whitening remedies. I lathered body scrub and face mask on top of each other. I didn’t care that much if they damaged my skin, only wondering about things like, what if when I layer two products the results backfire and make me darker?
In Hinduism they say everything is a God and there is a God for everything. I envied with poisoned eyes the lighter skin of my dad, mom, and brother, and wondered why the Melanin God had cursed me.
* * *
When I began Mission: Lighten-My-Skin, I found my haven in the South Asian YouTube gurus who had much more experience in matters of skin repair than me. I spent hours combing through homemade remedies that were natural, that promised ‘instant’ results and boasted thumbnails of seemingly magical before and after pictures of whitening that were never seen in the real video.
They had a tutorial for everything. Natural tan removal scrubs for the summer, fall, spring and winter. Twice–a–week skin–lightening packs, whole–body ones and ones just for the face. Masks for the legs, arms, back of necks and under armpits. To their teachings I became a devotee.
* * *
Note from my phone 06/15/2016
Lemon – vitamin C, removes pigmentary effects, natural bleach
Honey – alpha-hydroxy acids and other bioactive compounds, helps decrease pigmentation, decrease dark spots
Aloe Vera – contains aloin, lighten skin + radiance, smells good Yogurt/milk – bioactive compound, reduce dark spots, cooling
Cucumber – cucurbitacin D and 23, 24-dihydro cucurbitacin D, lightens, less harsh Turmeric – curcumin, prevents spots, lightens, natural glow. careful stains
Orange peels – antioxidants, good for scrubbing
Potato – lot of phytochemicals, such as potassium, sulfur, and chloride. Lighten scars, acne, clear skin
Tomato – good for tan removal
When I wrote this, I had hoped the acidic lemon juice would vaporize my brown pigment, the potato slices and tomato peels strip away the dirt that must have been making me dark, and the milk turn my skin as white as it could be.
* * *
When I wasn’t scrubbing, I was covering. When going anywhere with even a remote chance of outside exposure, I covered myself from head to toe in long layers, an oversized hat, and sunglasses. I was determined to beat the sun. My friends would gawk as I showed up to tennis practice covered in a black, long-sleeved Under Armour and black leggings. “Aren’t you
hot?” they would ask, and I would smile and laugh, feign comfort and suppress the sweat that trickled down my raw skin as I replied and lied, “I’m just always cold.”
I bought foundation two shades lighter than I needed and sometimes wondered if you could put it on your arms as well. That happiness I reveled in when I looked at pictures of myself with a lighter face was an illusion I lost at night, as the sponge and scrub peeled back the foundation’s facade and revealed again to me everything that I really was.
* * *
A Nepali beauty product ad from when I was ten:
“I have to take my driver’s license picture,” a woman says to her friend as they walk down the street.
“Oh no,” her friend responds, a look of horror and worry filling her eyes. “But you’re still so tan from swimming, what are going to do?”
“Not to worry, just give me a week,” the first girl says back. She covers her face with her hands and starts to count: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven!” The scene around her quickens to signal the passing days. With each number counted, the skin on her hands and face lighten a shade. “Ready!” she announces excitedly, revealing her brand-new self.
“Wow! How did you do that?” her friend asks.
“With the new Fair and Lovely Seven Day Fairness Cream!” And then the ad continues with the picture of the product.
When I first saw the ad, I thought it was funny. A couple years later it was still airing on the television. Then, I wished it was that easy.
* * *
Growing up I always wondered why my mom never wore t-shirts without sweaters or shorts and skirts without leggings. “I don’t feel comfortable in them,” she told me. I had no reason not to believe her, but I still didn’t really understand. Later, as my fashion choices became uncannily similar to the ones I’d once questioned, I wondered if the discomfort was in the clothes or in herself.
There is a stigma in South Asian cultures that the only good skin is the perfect skin, and the perfect skin is flawless, smooth, and light. When I spent my summers in Nepal, in my mom’s childhood home, I found myself bombarded by whitening ads and supermarket shelves filled with ‘tan-removal’ and ‘anti-tan, 100% natural’ lotions that women read carefully while wrapped in shawls and sunglasses.
If my grandparents and aunts didn’t start a conversation with, “Oh, look how much you’ve grown!” or “Are you sure you’re eating enough?” they started with, “Oh, you’ve gotten so tan!” They blamed the American sun and outdoor swimming that I persisted with against my mother’s wishes, but assured me that it would go away.
* * *
What will little brown girls think when their mom rubs turmeric and milk on them in the shower after days at the pool?
What will little brown girls think when they hear the words ‘brown,’ ‘dark-skinned,’ ‘desi,’ ‘deviant’ for the first time?
What do little brown girls think when all the fairy tale princesses have light skin and light hair?
What do brown girls think when they pass Fairness Cream ads with white models and blond hair?
What will brown girls think when they are told “You’re pretty for a brown girl?”
What will brown girls think when their mom puts them in jeans and full sleeves for the beach?
What do brown women think when they realize they’re using the same scrubs their mother had taught them to make?
What do brown women think when they rub turmeric on their daughters and remind them why they can’t wear shorts on sunny days?
* * *
It might have worked. A little? Maybe.
Maybe I did get off some of that stubborn summer tan that followed me into the winter. I’m not sure how many layers of myself I shed before realizing that skin never ends. Before I realized that, by trying to fix my skin, I was damaging myself.
Slowly, and with the pain of an addict in withdrawal, I’ve begun to re-incorporated shorts and t-shirts into my wardrobe. When I’m outside and feel the sun’s rays on my exposed skin, I
resist the urge to flinch and cover up. I look in the mirror only to fix my hair and to apply my makeup, and I refuse to let my eyes wander. I tell myself I won’t let my own eyes analyze myself like a specimen. I’ve bought new foundation. But I’d be lying if I said I’d already won the battle. There are those days when I grab a cardigan just before I leave the house and insist that I’m “cold” in the eighty–degree weather. When I look at baby albums again and focus on things other than the cuteness. When I find myself thinking of sewer sludge and burger grease again. But instead of wallowing in it and getting drowned, I’m learning how to swim and hopefully one day I can get out.
I try and talk with my mother, encourage her to wear skirts and t-shirts, tell her So what? Remind her that sunshine in northeastern Ohio is precious, and we should enjoy what little of it we get. It’s hard to convince my mother and grandmothers, who’ve grown up surrounded by this skin–obsessed mindset permeating their everyday lives, that light doesn’t mean perfect. That there is no correct amount of melanin that makes the recipe the sweetest or prettiest. I’m not sure I will ever convince them completely.
I’ll have to start with first convincing myself completely. I can set the example for my younger cousins and for my own children. I hope the generations that come after me will own their skin proudly, unashamedly, and contently.
I will wear my face masks and packs when I want healthy skin, not light skin. I will use scrubs on my body when I want to get rid of the dirt, not the skin itself. When my friends simply remind me “Your skin tone is beautiful,” I will listen for once and look in the mirror with light eyes that have blocked out the shadows. In my skin I see cocoa butter and bronzed metal. The turmeric stains in my towel will never really disappear, but over time they will fade. While they do that, it is time for me to enjoy the warm, golden sunshine.