A friend’s five year old daughter came home one day and told her mother that her classmates had called her black. The child in question is a lively, bright and pretty girl, and if one were to describe her complexion one would most probably say ‘wheatish’. What is disturbing is why a group of five year olds would pick on a peer for, of all things, being darker than them. They are obviously being told, or overhearing, conversations at home that include ideas about fair people being good looking and dark people ugly, and since they are still children, they think that it’s acceptable to repeat those ideas at school.

People are obsessed with being fairer all over the world, but the subcontinent has made an art of it. We fixate on complexions in every possible way, from singing wedding songs about it to buying endless lotions and potions that will transform you from sad, dark failure into a glowing, well-lit paean to airhostess beauty whose hair just naturally blows in an invisible breeze. Expecting mamas are advised to do all kinds of voodoo to help their unborn babies develop fairer skin, from drinking saffron-infused milk under the light of a full moon to looking at pictures of beautiful Caucasian babies. Too bad nobody seems to care about scientifically proven methods to help your baby be more intelligent, like listening to classical music or reading to your fetus—nope, the paramount thing is to be fair. It’s all right to be mediocre looking, feature for feature, as long as your skin is on the right side of the shade spectrum. It’s also perfectly acceptable to be a mean, vacuous dunce as long as you aren’t dark or fat. Particularly if you’re a girl. The conversation is a brief one if you’re a boy, because we all know that boys will always be petted and feted no matter what their mothers drank or didn’t.

Things are obviously at an all-time low if little kids have joined the conversation and are calling each other “kaala” after playtime. What bears highlighting is how little girls are doing it. Little boys don’t seem to be in the habit of calling each other names that involve the niceties of beauty—from a playground survey, the worst it gets is “mota” or “you’re a baby”. Girls this young are already picking up tubes of Fair and Lovely at stores and asking their mothers to buy it for them. It isn’t an amusing little thing a child might do when she is wanting to be clever. It’s a deeply sad and frightening shift in the way they see themselves, and at age when they shouldn’t care at all.

In 2010 the British clothing store Primark came under fire for selling a padded bathing suit aimed at seven year olds. They swiftly removed the offending item, but the incident goes to show that when consumers are discerning and critical and above all, protective of their children, then they can make a change. The trouble here is that many parents are not critical of the gender stereotypes that are foisted upon them and their children. They don’t think it’s limiting and unfair that boys are only allowed to play with trucks and guns and girls cook and play princess. Parents don’t limit television exposure or change the channel when there is violence onscreen—I was once at a late-night screening of a Bond film where people had brought their five year olds; inappropriate on too many levels to count. We don’t protect our children. They won’t magically remain children unless we do something about it, and filtering the world for them until they are old enough to be able to discern right from wrong is part of a parent’s duty to their child.

Companies will always prey on us. That is the nature of capitalism. It is designed to make you feel inadequate without the latest lawn print or sleek new cell phone. It is meant to make you feel fat, ugly, dark and incompetent because that is how they sell you the dream of their product—once you own the phone, the shoes, the teabags you will be good-looking, happy, successful and loved. There is a reason why the people in whitening cream ads end up getting married, getting the job, eliciting admiring looks from all. Being fair, whether you are a man or a woman, is a part of you that you cannot control. At least for adults one hopes they have enough discernment and self-esteem to be able to reject negative biases in the media. Children do not have that acumen. They believe what they are told, and if we allow the narrative that they grow up with to include such backward and unfair ideas such as dark skin being inferior, then we are failing our little ones. Do we really want them to grow up judging their peers based on their looks, or their persona? Should they think it natural that prettiness—and that too a very specific kind—is the only real marker of achievement? That intelligence, courage and ethics are only the reserve of the outcast? That beauty should be inside first? And that is the heartbreaking thing, you see. Our children are already beautiful. They are innocent and they are pure, and they trust that we, the adults that guide them, will keep that beauty intact for as long as they can. And to do that, we need to be vigilant, and fierce. We must be shields.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.