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Are You Uncomfortable In Your Skin?

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Rebecca remembers her childhood in Singapore like she would a nasty burn. As a six-year-old in school there, she was given a separate seat and desk. If at all anyone needed a pencil from her, the borrower would pick it up using a handkerchief. None of her classmates called her by her name. She was always the 'dark pig'. Today, at 50, she still leaves the room when a fairness cream commercial appears on the television screen.

Dr Varghese P. Punnoose, associate professor in charge of child and adolescent clinic in Kottayam Medical College, believes that human beings are programmed to prefer lighter skin tones. "A fair skin is a better display board, because assessment of emotions - like a blush, for instance - is simpler. Also when we see a person for the first time, it is his or her complexion that strikes our brain first." Add to this environmental factors and sociological conditioning and what we have is a full-blown cognitive distortion that fairness equals approval.

This is the case even in regions like Kerala, where the average skin tone is dusky. "In Kerala specifically, fairness is associated with the upper-classes, affluence and general appreciation," says Dr Punnoose. "The advertisements we are constantly watching are living proof of this. The fair girl always gets the job. Or the man of her dreams. Either way, the inference is that if she had been dark, her life would have been another story."

In Kochi, the skin lightening industry is growing from strength to strength, given the general preoccupation with skin tones. "I have seen people put everything from onion peels to what-not on their faces in order to become fairer!" exclaims Dr Meera James, one of Kochi's top cosmetic dermatologists. The fact is, 90 per cent of her clientele visit her for whitening treatments, whether owing to natural pigmentation, scarring or to simply be a shade lighter until that right marriage proposal can be worked out.

From popping beta-carotene tablets to going in for chemical peeling and micro-dermabrasions, there is no dearth of possibilities. But dermatologists point out that people always opt for such treatments only as the last resort. Most start with over-the-counter fairness creams and beauty tips, with emphasis on natural products like turmeric and sandalwood. "What they don't realise is that long-term application of fairness creams affects the skin's natural immunity against sun-damage and such skins get darker after their prolonged use," reveals James. Ditto with turmeric and sandalwood, which have been found to have photo-toxic substances that make the skin absorb UV rays more efficiently. The result? Hyper-pigmentation, which, in turn, forces many to go in for more radical solutions.

Explains James, "We are all darker than our natural colour because of long-term exposure to the sun." So, technically, we can get some shades fairer." But that involves following a step-by-step procedural treatment coupled with life-long care of the skin through the use of the right soaps, face-washes and sunscreen lotions prescribed by a doctor. However, because people tend to buy cosmetics based on what the advertisements say, there is a sharp increase in skin disorders. "A lot of our cases are precisely those who have wrecked their skin through the use of skin products that had promised a lighter or more glowing skin. Allergies have now become extremely common and lead to dark patches on the skin. Treating them could take years," adds James. And, contrary to popular belief, an allergic reaction can be set off by the same product that one has been using for 10-20 years without any obviously adverse reactions.

Dr Lissie Benjamin, a dermatologist with the Alappuzha Medical College, has similar experiences to relate. "I have mothers coming with dusky daughters, college-going girls and even boys, who want me to do only one thing - make their children fairer," she says. She finds that most of her adolescent clients are emotionally disturbed, often suffering from depression and low self-esteem. "They bunk school because their classmates take constant digs at their complexion. Many impressionable kids cannot concentrate on their studies, as a result, or try to escape their immediate environment and search for new acquaintances."

In reality, when dark-skinned people with low self-esteem fail an interview, for instance, they conclude that their skin tone had something to do with it. They are already suffering from low self-esteem, and they view every reversal in terms of their dark complexion.

It is not just the impressionable adolescent who is falling prey to the fairness trap. The number of women in their thirties and forties in perpetual quest of a fair skin is rising alarmingly. Reveals James, "For many, facials and pedicure starts off as comfort therapy. But with skillful manipulation, they end up doing whatever the beautician suggests." The list of myths is never ending: Some maintain that a facial once a month is compulsory after 30. Others insist that the skin must be exfoliated through the use of scrubs - and so it goes.

The only counter is to build one's self confidence on a more secure foundation than the shade of one's complexion. Here family attitudes are paramount. If children are brought up with confidence in their abilities and talents, they grow up into individuals far better equipped to deal with social discrimination. Unfortunately, many parents do not realise this and their thoughtless remarks often create deep-seated complexes. Even very young children can perceive discrimination and unkindness. Dr Benjamin recalls how she has had to counsel parents many a time about not bringing up the issue of skin colour when the child is present.

In fact, experts say, most behavioural problems in children can be traced to low self-esteem, with anxieties about physical appearance being one significant factor. They also agree that an important counter in a self-esteem crisis is the child's temperament. Temperaments cannot be created, they come from within. Some children are genetically equipped to deal with obstacles, overcome them and become strong, confident adults. Others simply cannot do this. They grow up to become unsure, introverted individuals with numerous complexes.

Ironically, self confidence can also bring about that dearly-sought "glow" to one's skin. Says James, "A positive attitude alone can go a long way in bringing a glow to the face. Most skin problems are stress-induced. Some come to me with so many worries about their skin but I would need a microscope to spot anything! It is all in their minds."

Today, Rebecca, looking back on her traumatic school years in Singapore, considers herself lucky. "I was surrounded by love at home. My family helped me face the discrimination in school with humour and good sense."

Gifted with a deep, strong voice, she is one of the most popular live-band female lead vocalists in English around the Nilgiris. "Half my frustration was worked out through singing," she states with a smile. Her musical abilities quickly brought her social recognition. Even in her 20s, complete strangers would come up to her and claim they knew her very well, thanks to her semi-celebrity status. The ignorance and prejudices of her former classmates is now just an ugly legacy that has long been left behind.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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