Loving the skin you’re in: Unlearning the obsession with fair skin

Looking into the mirror, I stare at the reflection of my chai-colored forehead; I pause and consider the shades of color slowly descend down my face. Peeking through the brown, a soft pink highlights my cheekbones and the dimples around my crooked smile. The protected skin around my eyelids is the much coveted milky cream color that incites the unwelcome thought of discontent at the shade of my skin.

 
I squint, then blink away the thought of conforming my skin color to the expectations of others. I no longer want to be a woman who compares her image to unrealistic advertisements and the South Asian obsession with fair skin. As I began to deconstruct my concept of beauty, I realize saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder is an oversimplified cliché and rarely accounts for the societal forces that impact the lens through which the beholder sees beauty.

Growing up in my household, conversations on beauty were almost always centered on the fairness of skin color – a commonly held perspective amongst South Asians, perhaps due to historical colonial dominance or its association with purity, high class and wealth. The more troubling effect is the environment this misguided idea creates for the beauty industry, which capitalizes on this obsession and perpetuates it by inundating markets with whitening creams often containing harmful ingredients. Not exclusive to the South Asian experience, parents in many ethnic communities tell their children to stay out of the sun for fear of becoming undesirable. Why are we fighting against the skin we’re in? We are caught up in this illusion that for six billion people, fair skin is the gold standard, altering ourselves drastically to fit this unrealistic drive for conformity.

Peeling back the layers to understand why we’re hung up on the obsession with fair skin, it is important to note the role society, community and most directly family has on an individual’s concept of beauty. Society’s membrane saves what the collective decides as commonly accepted stories, including concepts of beauty. One of these storytellers, the mainstream media propped up by the advertising industry, broadcasts images of beauty that pay for advertising slots in TV shows and magazines. The individual is then forced to constantly compare his/her reflection with the image the media has amplified, rather than realizing this is a fabrication of reality.

Beyond society, an individual’s extended social network shape concepts of beauty. For example, in certain ethnic groups voluptuous women are more appreciated than thinner women, perhaps representing aristocracy. Furthermore, at the center of it all is the family unit, which acts as a clearinghouse for what values are to be encouraged in growing adults. When parents get hung up on their child’s skin color, they create an environment that inhibits a child from accepting who he/she is naturally. And as these children enter into the world, they seek approval and validation of their burgeoning identities from peers who probably had similar experiences, creating a generation chasing after beauty ideals that reject the natural and authentic in favor of the façade.

In essence, we’ve lost control of our image, allowing others to define us by unrealistic standards instead of appreciating our diversity like other communities have done in the past. In the 1960s, the Black is Beautiful movement emerged amongst the African American community to confront racism and self-hatred by creating a culture that promoted allegiance and affection. Similarly, the Chicano Movement worked towards ‘social liberation,’ using the slogan Brown is Beautiful to embrace Indian-Mestizo physical features. Perhaps we are pacified, financially secure, and not facing blatant identity assault that we do not feel compelled to take charge of our image in the same way. Granted, these movements occurred under the auspices of the Civil Rights Movement so it may be hard to relate but, notably these movements created a shared history incorporating an appreciation of physical characteristics.

Even with the creation of a shared history and community support, it is still difficult to unlearn the language of self-hate, leaving the only real power to change with the individual. We have the greatest agency to identify, reflect and deconstruct concepts of beauty in hopes of finding our authentic selves. Going further, we can detach ourselves from the negative thoughts perpetuated by our tribe, including our parents and our culture by replacing self-defeating beliefs with thoughts of self-appreciation and love. Once change happens within, we can begin to cultivate strength, sustaining us to go from the internal to the external. And we can begin to have those difficult conversations with parents, friends, and community members, demanding an appraisal of our shared values and a creation of beauty ideals that appreciate the diversity that we have in common with rest of creation.

I close my eyes, tired of staring into the mirror, and an image of my mother and father enters my thoughts: him with his warm dimples and her with that crooked smile. Shortly after, as if in one continuum, I am reminded of my grandparents’ beautiful brown skin, the shell that carried them through the tumultuous passage from India to Pakistan in 1947. Overcome with emotion, tears open my eyes, flowing down my cheek from the same place that shed tears over an ill-family member, the birth of my sister and a broken heart, like so many before me in similar and perhaps, disparate experiences. There is so much history here, how could I have ever wanted to erase it?
Sarah Jawaid was an Associate Editor of AltMuslimah. 

 

Photo Credit: Nathan Gibbs

12 Comments

  • Saadia says:

    I agree that we should nurture what we have instead of constantly being discontent with what we are not. Additionally, it is good to aspire to what is beneficial instead of letting static definitions of identity define us, whether imposed from within or from external forces.

  • Saadia says:

    In Paris I noted African women who had pride in their skin. Over here I think Michelle Obama is a prominent example of self-pride. Her confidence and strength are positive qualities, which also happened to be shared by many people in government and other areas, even though they aren’t all literally married to the President. I say this in spite of coming from a culture where an acceptance of one’s disposition, even if its quiet, can be a subtle spring of confidence.

  • living3d says:

    I personally feel that skin color should mean nothing.  I am thereby equally offended by the idea that a person should have “pride” in their skin color ( no matter what it is)as I am by the fact that so many people lose self-esteem over it.

    Similar is the whole “skinny/fat” ordeal.  To me it’s dumb that people (especially women) obsess over trying to be skinny.  Likewise, it’s just as dumb that other women then respond by “taking pride in ‘curves’ (or a higher fat ratio)”.  Beauty and attraction can take an incredible array of forms – in this case, all that’s important is that you’re healthy.

  • Saadia says:

    I think pride means appreciating what you are instead of trying to look like someone else’s standard of beauty or having self-hate. I think people’s beauty comes out more when they take care of themselves, including their own health.

  • living3d says:

    It would be nice if that’s what it meant.  I think that’s the idea that they opposition to the norm hold – but it’s often not the way it ultimately gets enacted.

  • Saadia says:

    Can you give an example of what you mean?

  • living3d says:

    I have often found that people who “take pride” in their skin color are doing little more than mirroring the bias which has been leveled against them, if not just providing (in my mind) a pretty transparent cover for hate amd fear.  Such is the case with many people who espouse the “brown is beautiful” mantra – there’s a very palpable bias against those who are “white” or have mixed parents and thereby lighter skin. 

    Likewise, there’s the “white pride” mantra.  Modern white racists have very sucessfully adopted the exact same idea to support very old biases – that essentially it is “unfashionable” to be white today(they cite proof in rap videos, etc)and thereby white people should re-invest pride in their skin color.

  • Saadia says:

    You are talking about is some of the things that have happened in these movements, so I see what you are saying.

    I think we are using the word “pride” to just mean having appreciation for what you have.

  • living3d says:

    I know that’s what *you* would like this idea to mean.  But the ultimate manifestation of focusing on even the “appreciation” of something as trivial and unchangeable as skin color is going to be negative in the end because ultimately you’re continuing to divide people.

  • Arwa A says:

    Hey Sarah, Just want to say well done for looking at this topic without trivialising it- its a rare feat. One thing that I personally can’t stand is all those adverts with women who have lush, long, straight hair…!! Aarrgggh!!
    In the Arab world there really is an obsession that straight is beautiful whilst curly hair is not… As a person with curly hair it used to drive me insane when my mum, aunties (and all other female members of my family) used to offer constant advice, tips, lotions to straighten my hair..
    BUT I did grow to just ignore them and now I just say ‘No,thanks. My curly hair is perfect the way it is.’ 🙂 I think that despite the negative influences all around and the colonial echoes, people have realise that us mere mortals can’t do a better job than god when it comes to the way we look 😉

  • sarahjay says:

    @ living3d and Saadia

    Thanks for sharing your comments. Throughout this article, I was definitely speaking from a place of self-love, combating the cognitive dissonance that can occur after years of harmful conditioning. And yes, it is important to find balance and not take self-love to the point of only seeing value in ones self and not recognizing the beauty that exists in the rest of creation, in all of its diversity.

    @Arwa

    Thank you for the kind words! And yes, in regards to hair, we seem to always want what we don’t have…the grass always seems to be greener on the other side.

    I will be writing a follow-up piece delving deeper into these issues, so please stay tuned! 🙂

  • Anjum says:

    I guess I’ve been lucky to grow up in a household that does not put a strong emphasis on its girls being fair. but perhaps thats because my mom got loads of BS because she was the darker of her 3 sisters. But as marriage talks start coming up in conversation, we do still get stuff about being tall and slim (of which I am neither). so I guess, if its not one thing, its always something. If only we were all tall, slim, fair, with thick straight hair down to our lower backs.

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