An aunt twice removed met me after years, a couple of weeks ago. Slowly, a look of dawning horror washed over her face. Her mouth opened into a perfectly round and comical "O" shape, and she murmured quietly: "How nice to see you again, dear".
I prodded anxiously at my cheek. Did I develop a particularly nasty spot on the tip of my nose overnight? Had I spilt my breakfast Cheerios down my shirt? Were my eyebrows growing ever more successful in their determination to resemble furry, oversized caterpillars? Relatives can be exceptionally honest when disclosing exactly what they think of you. It didn't take long to discover what she had found so disconcerting about my appearance. "Of course, you've grown so much since the last time we met," she told me soulfully. "But isn't there something you can do about ..." Her voice dropped conspiratorially and she gestured vaguely at me. "That?"
"What?" I asked, bewildered.
"Your skin, dear," she declared, and my fears were confirmed, although she made it sound as if pimples were a life-threatening condition. One of the many beautiful gifts of adolescence is a profusion of acne, which no smelly concoctions enriched with extracts of important-sounding herbs or chemicals seem to cure. That wasn't what she had been referring to, though, I discovered. She simply couldn't believe how dark and tanned I was, how, as she put it, "careless you could have been", as if spending hours in the sun was a crime worthy of imprisonment.
"It's all right," she interjected quickly, noting my expression. "Nothing a tube of Fair and Lovely can't put right!" Fair and Lovely is a popular skin-whitening cream; just one of the many cosmetic brands scrambling to join the bandwagon of products that promise to turn healthy dark skin into the unnaturally pale. There is now even a Fair and Handsome, to tap into the potential market of men who have been surreptitiously stealing pots of cream from their wives' dressing tables in an effort to make themselves, erm, fair and handsome. I muttered something about outdoor sports and a hectic extra-curricular activity schedule, hoping to soften her up before planning a hasty escape. She gave me nothing but a magnificent snort by way of a response. "Outdoor sports! So you run around with a ball and pay no attention to what your complexion is like?" She gave another hearty sniff and meandered away.
It's funny how certain stereotypes are so ingrained in our psyches. In my home country as well as among Asian communities in this region, being light-skinned is automatically perceived as desirable. There is no dearth of advertisements featuring soppy women sobbing because they've been rejected by the man they love and turned away after a disastrous job interview when along comes the pretty friend who has been subjected to extreme airbrushing to tone down her skin colour to such an extent that you can barely make out her nose. She slams whatever product she happens to be endorsing down on the table. The distraught young lady cheers up, her boyfriend can't believe how he could have ever spurned her and the job interviewers fall over themselves, vying with each other to add her to their payroll.
Disturbingly, these companies are increasingly targeting vulnerable teenagers whose minds are easily swayed. Brightening lotions for tanned people and tanning ones with names like Fake Bake for paler ones.
There's no harm in enjoying a sensible amount of sun to fill your daily quota of vitamin D while ensuring you adhere to the proper precautions for protecting yourself from harmful ultraviolet rays. Furthermore, it would make sense for teenagers to steer clear of products that need to be studied and tested further.
Stereotypes concerning what successful people should look like rarely have a reputable foundation. Flicking through a copy of The National a few days ago, I spotted a picture of a motherly looking figure, clad in a traditional sari - perhaps the last person our judgemental minds would have considered to be a potential physics nerd. Yet, she is Tessy Thomas, India's top ballistic missile expert and the "project director for the Agni-V long range nuclear capable missile". The media and the advertisements we are bombarded with have trained us to think of life's winners as young, tall, waiflike and in possession of freshly coloured and perfectly blow-dried hair.
Given the progress in telecommunications and global travel, you would have thought that the world would be becoming a smaller place by the day, an eclectic melting pot of cultures where people of all shapes, sizes and skin tones are accepted. However, it doesn't seem to have worked out that way at all. Instead of being able to embrace our differences, we have grown increasingly commercialised, with the retail sector capitalising on the insecurities these differences have spawned. Telling ourselves to love ourselves for who we are may sound like something Stephen Covey would advise us to do in an overtly-cheery self-help book, but it could work wonders for a world made out of a rainbow of colours.
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The writer is a 16-year-old student in Dubai