“I’m not moving away from you,” my colleague jokingly assured me as he moved his chair to an unshaded spot. “Need to work on my tan before the festival.”
It was mid-July, summer was in full blast and we had been sitting under the sun for almost 7 hours giving directions to lost looking prospective university students and their families.
“You need shades?”
I realise I was staring at the sky. “No thank you.”
Growing up with the beach within walking distance meant I loved the sun- but there was this itch inside me: I wanted to quickly grab some aloe vera from a drugstore and scrub my face off to have my old skin back. Being Southeast Asian, I was already darker than this white man next to me, but I was also darker than my usual self at that point. As the thought struck me, I hit myself. I had been fighting this deranged ideology my whole life.
This obsession with being fair-skinned has been woven into our lives via a string of sometimes borderline inferiority complexed TV ads, featuring the same old, same old:
Girls avoiding the sun to exaggerated extents until finding a Holy Grail lotion that saves them the trouble- or of some lady keeping track of the progress of her lightening skin tone using a sort of indicator strip.
This toxic idea continued, rising along with unrealistic beauty standards and the wave of porcelain-skinned dewy Korean celebrities. Will not mention any brands because I am confident that if you live outside of the Western world or white majority regions- you have lived your whole life seeing ads saying fairer equals better and know them by heart- conscious or not. I now roll my eyes repeatedly when I see one.
Colourism is the keyword. Hands up if you have ever been told you should try some obscure skin-whitening product? Or not to stay out in the sun for too long so you do not get darker -as though melanin is a disease? Or you may be on the “fairer” end of spectrum and had grown up pelted with compliments on your “whiteness”? Sadly in my culture putih or white is almost synonymous with beautiful and similar adjectives.
It would be naïve to believe that colonialism has no role in pushing these Western beauty ideals. However, I am not here to talk about colonialism and its effects- that would require more than a mere article- instead, the purpose of this is to shed light on the empowerment of women with poppin’ melanin.
The irony here is that I found closure from living in the west, mostly because skin-whitening products are barely if not at all available. I made do with what I could get. Being comfortable in my own skin was quite literal for me albeit a winding journey.
A while back, I stumbled upon a series called “Unfair & Lovely” kickstarted by the photographer Pax Jones- which encourages women to share selfies with captions of how colourism has affected them. It was a hit and has inspired the hashtag #unfairandlovely – named after the hugely popular Indian skin-lightening cream Fair and Lovely.
Go on Instagram and read. The struggle is real. Many faced discrimination, self loathe and bullying only to realise in the end their worth is not affected by opinions of the pitiful.
To update: I did end up stopping by a pharmacy later to get aloe vera -not for superficial reasons but to soothe my inflamed sunburned skin- only to find myself standing near shelves of fake tans and bronzers leaving me to think a sad reality: we all want what we do not have.
A twist on the old saying would go: the grass only SEEMS greener on the other side. Also if you face hate over your skin colour, know that a lion doesn’t lose sleep over the opinions of sheep. So roar. Dance through that fire.
Embrace yo’self. He made you beautiful and no amount of annoyingly persistent product slogans and placements can tell you otherwise.
“We have certainly created man in the best of stature” At- Tin (95:4)