“She’s pretty for a dark girl”, said by an older Indian auntie of mine about me, April 2018
I come from a lovely big Indian family and there are quite a lot of girls among us. As a young girl, I was always very girly and eagerly played with Barbie and Cindy dolls creating imagined worlds of glamour and adulthood. I absolutely loved it and this imagined world continued until I was about 10 or 11, which I think is quite old to still be playing with dolls by today’s standards. Anyway, I digress, I think what I’m saying is that I fantasised about being older and adult, but my fantasies were being shaped by white dolls which did not actually represent me. When I was in these imagined scenarios I felt such a sense of control and joy being these characters, but sadly, I don’t think I felt that excited about being myself, and I think that began to manifest when I became aware that I was darker skinned than others in my family. In Indian culture, there is a fascination with being ‘fair’; this is also the case in many other cultures.
I grew up with one older sister (whom I am extremely close to) and a very large extended family which I was surrounded by regularly. I think I was about seven years old when it was pointed out to me that I was much darker than my sister and cousins; I immediately felt a sense of shame about it. At times, family members would make fun of my darker skin and because I felt such such deep shame, I never challenge these comments and just absorbed the negativity into my soul and tried not to show how wounded I felt. I distinctly remember being unable to sleep one evening and visiting my parents room crying to them about my skin. Why was it so dark compared to my sister? Why wasn’t I as pretty as her? (I had entirely associated beauty to a fair skin tone.) I didn’t ever resent my sister for being fairer than me, I just felt it was deeply unfair that I had been wacked with the ugly dark stick. I remember my Dad’s face being puzzled and him not really knowing what to say to make me feel better. Remember, they were also caught up in a society and culture which valued fairness so I am sure they were both aware that I was darker than my sister. Anyway, I can’t remember what they said to reassure me but I do remember there being an attempt to do so. My parents rarely talked about beauty or being pretty; they just didn’t care about that sort of stuff which was bloody brilliant and in hindsight I am so grateful for that. So despite being very aware of my skin colour, it didn’t consume my childhood, it just lingered.
And this is kind of how I continued to feel for a very long time. I can’t look back and say I had a jaded childhood, I most certainly did not. I had a very happy and loving upbringing surrounded by an amazing extended family. My group of girlfriends in school were wicked, all of which I’m still stuck like glue to to this day. But I do think I carried a slight sense of self-loathing; I suppressed it because there was nothing I could actively do about it, but the shame stuck. This was reinforced by the pages of Bliss and Sugar I was reading which mainly showed pale skinned girls in all of the pictures and all of the television programmes that I watched didn’t show anyone like me. In secondary school when I started to get some attention from boys, I began to see myself in a mildly different light. I actually feel ashamed that it took attention from the opposite gender to validate my ‘prettiness’. “I can’t be that gross if so and so fancies me?” It was in these teenage years that I began to slowly unweave some of the discomfort I felt about myself. Unfortunately, the beauty industry at the time did not do much to discredit the assertions made by my Indian culture. I remember buying a Rimmel concealer from the local chemist to cover teenage spots and the darkest shade they had was about four shades lighter than me. “I’m just too dark”, I would taunt myself and again the shame would be shaken and dislodged.
As I have aged, there has been a significant shift in culture where diversity and colour in all its glory is far more visible, and I feel differently. I want to take my younger shame-filled self and scoop her up, tell her that her value is not in her skin or her looks, but in her as a person. I’m not trying to say there is anything wrong with enjoying aesthetics, I am a self confessed beauty addict, but I suppose what I am trying to discuss, is that in those formative years of our lives, a focus on the external can be so damaging. And when it is discussed, let’s celebrate it. Celebrate our features and what makes us unique and special to our own DNA. I wonder how my younger self would have reacted if discussions about my skin were just framed differently. It’s factual, my skin is darker than others in my family so I’m not suggesting that it be glossed over, but why did it need pointing out with such a negative undertone?
I recently saw someone comment on a photograph Jameela Jamil’s had posted of herself dressed up and looking glamorous. The comment questioned her values because her iweigh movement encourages one not to focus on aesthetics entirely yet she was posting a dolled up picture of herself. She responded by highlighting the need for South Asian women on Instagram feeds and she felt it important as someone from this culture to celebrate that. When I read this, I swear a part of me jumped and did a backflip inside. Yes! Thank you Jameela, I wish my seven year old self saw that picture and was able to question more thoroughly the beauty standards she was hopelessly oppressed by. I also feel such happiness when I go into the explore section of my Instagram feed and see so many South Asian girls of many different skin tones doing quick beauty tutorials. And hallelujah, they are not wearing base colours shades lighter than their true colour. It makes me so bloody happy and proud. Finally, our points of reference in culture are not as limited and we are celebrating our beauty in all its shades and tones. Let’s keep encouraging that don’t you think?
Interestingly, my sons both have slight differences in their skin tones. Little boy is fairer than big boy and I very consciously discuss how absolutely beautiful I think both of them are. I make a considered point of having discussions with big boy about how important a person’s soul is and that just because he has beautiful golden brown skin, if he had a heart that wasn’t kind, he wouldn’t have a life filled with love. I don’t know if I should be having these discussion with a five year old? Am I framing my sentiment correctly? Am I saying the right thing? I don’t know. But I do know how damaging feeling shame about something that will never change can be and I never want my children to experience it.
“She’s pretty for a dark girl”, said by an older Indian auntie of mine, April 2018. I think it’s important that we challenge these type of comments made by our elders. Indian culture has a wonderful sense of value and respect for its elders, but these type of comments have no place in 2018 or 2019, the way they didn’t in 1989. Let this be a warning to people, if anyone spouts any of this type of shit in front of me to anyone, (for their sake let it not be to my children!) I will not ignore it. It will be challenged because it is wrong. And the entire skin lightening industry can fucking do one too.
Does any of this resonate with you? It may not be colourism that you have experienced, but I sense that many of what I am discussing can be applied to different issues. What’s your thoughts on the above? I would be really interested to hear your stories and experiences.