It was a routine day at my practice. One of the mom who had recently delivered and was blessed with a lovely girl child visited me for routine well baby check up. During the normal conversation, mother started feeling comfortable enough with me to share her personal turmoils and she suddenly asked “what can I do to make the baby fair”? Then I noticed that the baby was dark complexioned. She said she had been applying what not to the baby’s skin and the color refused to budge. She and her family was worried that on birth itself the girl was so dark, what will happen when she grows older and thence came the worry about the future prospects of the girl child especially in a country like India.
In all my years of practice, I had never been exposed to this line of questioning before. Can you guess the age of the baby. The tiny bundle was not even a month old. She was sleeping peacefully in her mother’s arms, oblivious to what lay ahead in her life.
This is not a medical issue per se but this is a great social issue in our society. Being dark is a taboo!! This is true for both boys and girls, although for girls its much more as compared to boys and generally unknown to most parents, this has great implications on the psyche of the baby as they grow up. Having personally being at the receiving end of this discrimination in school and family functions, with being placed in last rows during important events to being called ridiculous names by friends, almost 40 years back, I was surprised to see the same attitude even now.
And we say, we are becoming advanced and talk blatantly about female empowerment and equality. Although many people are now speaking up against this discrimination, the bottom line is we as a society are still into that age old colonial and patriarchal mindset that “only fair is beautiful” and that is what we are propagating and teaching our children even now.
With all this mindset, what message are we giving to our children?
That the lightness of one’s skin tone has a direct bearing on success in career, relationships and life?
Every action of ours, however subtle, leaves an impact on these young, impressionable minds.
Inferiority complex and loss of confidence and self worth, health hazards (both physical and mental), isolation by family and friends, inability to find a suitable partner and a huge number of teen and adult suicides can be traced back to just one main cause – not being fair enough, which is so unfair !!
So where does this phobia, or rather hatred, towards this dark colour stem from?
Some say it has been embedded deep in our culture since ancient times. But it became more obvious in pre-Independence era. The British rulers (i.e.Goras) painted a fair picture into our minds that altered the traditional perceptions of beauty. They reinforced a belief that a dark complexion represented the inferior or the uncivilized people, while being fair elevated one’s position in society. They have been gone out of our system for more than 70 years now, but they still reside in our minds. We, like slaves, try out every cream, talc and lotion in the market in a desperate attempt to appear fairer and the situation is so bad that we have involved our children too into it. Its so difficult to change this mindset.
Since it was brought up during a well child visit, so I decided to pen my personal thoughts (both medical and social) on it.
What determines the skin colour?
Baby’s skin colour, whether dark or fair, is determined by their genetics at the time of conception (basically it depends on either of the parents).
Genetics determine the amount of melanin in your baby’s skin. Melanin is the pigmentation that colours skin. Everyone has about the same number of cells to make melanin but how much you actually produce is down to your genes. Darker-skinned people produce more. When exposed to the sun, the body produces more melanin to absorb harmful UV rays and protect skin cells. Basically having more natural melanin means that darker-skinned people tend to develop fewer wrinkles and are less at risk of skin cancer.
Newborns might often look fair immediately after birth but as days pass by melanin production starts and the skin assumes the natural colour, which is carried later on in their life.
So there is absolutely nothing which can be done during pregnancy ( for e.g pregnant mothers being given saffron laced milk to drink) or after birth that will change baby’s natural complexion ( for e.g. in India commonly gramflour paste in milk/curd and turmeric etc. is applied on bay’s skin).
The skin can only adapt melanin production to sunlight exposure. So if your baby is exposed to sunlight regularly, their skin will get darker, and if they hardly get any direct sunlight for long, they might appear fairer ( but its not a healthy skin tone).
So keeping your baby away from sunlight just to ensure a fair complexion is not healthy.
As the child grows, outdoor play (playing in the sunlight) is very important for their overall health and physical development. But this might again lead to a darker skin. I have seen parents not sending their kids to play in sun or swimming because it makes the skin darker.
Can you do something to change the skin colour?
The answer is no.
Many mothers try to change their baby’s complexion by applying homemade pastes, ubtan or creams or even talcum powder. These are unlikely to have an effect on your baby’s complexion and may even prove harmful for your baby. they may cause rashes, allergies or burns on baby’s sensitive and delicate skin and other illnesses.
PC: Book cover by Allison Flynn
Besides the creams available in markets, may contain steroids and other chemicals (such as mercury and hydroquinone-potential toxins and carcinogens) that are unsafe. These chemicals may not be listed in the ingredients list especially in OTC products.
Some mothers are happy using ayurvedic or natural skin lightening creams thinking they are safe; however, there aren’t enough studies on the safety and effectiveness of these preparations. Some of these creams may also contain unlisted ingredients that may cause unpleasant side-effects.
What to do instead?
Came across a lovely poem in this context-
It is important for your baby’s self-esteem later in life that you accept your baby as they are rather than fretting about their skin colour. Your child will be just as adorable and will mean as much to you and to all those who love him. All they need is unprejudiced warmth and love of parents. Once you do that, you will realise how beautiful your baby is, no matter what complexion they have. Instead focus on giving them a healthy lifestyle with a well balance diet.
This might be perhaps easier to do when they are young (after all, social signals about the value of fair skin begin as soon as they are born). But the biggest hurdle to this is we, the parents. If we are not convinced ourselves, how can we expect our children to understand these delicate issues. Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.
Few people write about it, and some have started movements on this. We still have a long way to go. It requires a great and mass change in the mindset of the people to somehow overcome this doubt that only fair is beautiful and better.
Every great journey begins with a small step. If we don’t want to see people busy whitewashing their children to defy genetics, we have to take the first step. It is high time that we, as parents, realize the shallowness of perceiving beauty by skin colour or other bodily features of an individual and teach the same to our children.
So instead of waiting for a mass change, its better to start at your own home and let yourselves not get affected by these comments. Be proud of yourself and your children. Instead of depreciating them and putting a sense of failure in them, instill good values in them. Be with your child and support them when he/she undergoes this form of verbal abuse. After all color does not define character, character comes from inside.
In the same way, if you encounter your child making fun of someone for their skin color, take immediate actions and don’t wait for it to get worse until it’s implanted in your child’s mind that it is okay to do so. Discuss with your child how a negative comment can affect another kid’s life and how they would feel if it happened to them.
It’s always important to teach your child to be sensitive towards others, especially when it comes to skin color differences. Once you positively nurture them, they, too, will influence others to treat someone with different skin color equally.
Being open about the topic, not tolerating bullying because of someone’s colour, and being a role model can help you mold children to become more sensitive, open, and respectful about skin color differences.
Can’t we as parents, ignore those ads that tell us that we are not good enough if we are not fair skinned? Can’t we ignore those snarky comments and advices that the neighbourhood aunty gives? Can’t we ignore the society that keeps pulling us towards that tempting but non-existent world of physical beauty? Do we want to be guilty of teaching colourism to our kids, while we ourselves shun racism on social media? Give a thought to these questions !!
Let our children enjoy this wonderful platter of skin colour amidst them without being judgemental. Whether they are dark or fair-Does it really matter??
Stay healthy, stay happy!!
Dr Garima| themoppetsclinic 🙂