Summer is just around the corner and as we are consumed by tanning advertisements, I remember being told to sit under the shade during my whole childhood to preserve my precious skin tone. For women of colour, it can be frustrating to realize so many people want our natural skin colour, when we have been raised to think the opposite.
Shadeism, or colourism, is a form of intra-racial racism. Within black and brown cultures specifically, people are categorized into light-skinned and dark-skinned, with lighter skin adhering to traditional beauty standards. Not only is this point of view a form of internalized racism, the values are sexist as lighter skin is associated with femininity so women are particularly pressured to fit these standards.
Shadeism is one of the most paradoxical mentalities I have ever encountered in that everyone knows it to be toxic, yet those who partake do so very openly without reserve. Growing up, commercials for the cosmetic brand Fair & Lovely came on every two minutes. They showed a woman using a cream to make her skin lighter and everyone would instantly notice her. These messages were still subtle compared to comments by the Aunties. If you’re brown, you call every woman that’s around your mother’s age an aunty but the term has hilariously become a caricature. The Aunty is the embodiment of every sexist expectation of women (think Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice). An Auntie constantly gossips about other people’s daughters, and will point out your flaws to your face – in public.
I am not a sensitive person, so the fact that these comments got through to me proves just how repetitive and personal they are. I was very light skinned as a kid so I was called Snow White. At the time, all the princesses I knew had fair skin and I wanted to be a princess so I didn’t mind. When I started going to school and was subject to multiple outdoor recesses a day, my skin got darker and instantly I was treated differently. Aunties would say “it was a shame” I “lost” my complexion as if it was materially valuable. They made me feel irresponsible, like I betrayed myself. So instead of playing at recess, I sat under a lot of trees with other girls who got the same lecture.
Despite my insecurities, I disclose that among brown people, I am on the light skin side and held the associated privilege for most of my life. While I am aware of my privilege, I am not immune to the implications of shadeism. I saw a trend in the compliments I received and made the conscious decision to no longer regard them as compliments. Most compliments towards my skin tone are indirect insults to others. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve heard “You don’t look Bengali” (because Bengali people tend to be darker than other South Asian ethnicities) and seen how dumbfounded people got when I didn’t take it as a compliment. Did you expect me to be ashamed of my ethnicity? I’m not going to make myself feel better by making other people feel down, especially through arbitrary beauty standards that have made me feel insecure countless times.
As my observations and experiences accumulated, I realized I could no longer be a passive participant in this mentality. When I saw people doing everything they could to get “tan” for the summer, my first thought as a teenager was, “why would they want to get darker? Do they not know how much we want to be like them?” I realized the pathetic self-hate in that line of questioning. I think many people of colour go through a journey eventually coming to the conclusion that beauty based on skin colour is complete bullshit.
I have to credit other women of colour in motivating my journey of self-acceptance; from Pax Jones’ Unfair & Lovely photo series to Lizzo’s My Skin, I was exposed to people who outspokenly disagreed with the values I grew up with and I began to see my skin in a new way.
Ages ago, my ancestors adapted to hot climates so no wonder the melanin in my skin looks gold in the sun – with no sunburn acquired. While I was taught to always wear dark colours so my skin looks lighter, I learned the contrast of lighter shades against tan skin is just as striking and now my wardrobe is full of pastels. I don’t keep quiet when I hear “pretty for a dark girl” comments anymore. She’s pretty, not besides her skin colour but because of her skin colour.
I know I made the Aunties the villains of my story, but we have to remember they were once the victims. They grew up with these insecurities, except they didn’t have the positive counter images for support that I do. By speaking out, I believe their issues can be resolved and prevent this generational cycle from being passed on.
So, have I overcome shadeism? Not completely.
I, along with everyone else, am on a never-ending journey of balancing self-acceptance and self-improvement. I’m just learning which traits I should associate with the former and not the latter. We all want acceptance but I realized that some people’s well opinions are not worth having if the values behind those opinions do not align with yours, and particularly if they conflict with your well opinion of yourself.
Header Image From: https://paxjones.com/look-book