“I often have to wonder [what] my great grandfather, who converted to Islam from Sikhism in Delhi, would [say if he were to] see all this. He broke from his family, lured by the egalitarian and authentic message of Islam. How would he feel if he knew, generations later, [that] his son would be confronted by educated, religious Muslims who are obsessed with skin color?”
After the first piece I wrote on the obsession with fair skin, I received many responses from readers that I believe need to be shared. These personal anecdotes will shine some light on the underbelly of these self-defeating thoughts on superficial beauty. In the following excerpts people have shared their stories; perhaps their tales resonate with your own.
The obsession with fair skin is not exclusive to Muslims. My dear friend, of another faith, shares her struggle of cognitive dissonance springing from the fixation with fair skin.
“The fact that this sort of [bias] still penetrates culture in India today is disappointing, and if there is any doubt that this issue permeates the life of someone like me, an American-born Indian, doubt no more. With the vast majority of my family back in India, I am faced with this cruel stereotype of beauty more often than I’d like. Every two to three years when I visit India, one of the first things my grandmother always asks me is why I sit in the sun and bake myself into my deep chocolate brown. I am a student – I don’t have the time to go outside very much. This is how I am, how I was born. My grandmother knows this.
For most of my life, I have grappled with the concept that I am unattractive because I am dark-skinned. The most frustrating aspect of this is that no matter how many steps forward I take, no matter how much I have come to realize that beauty is from within and glows through the skin and to the surface, no matter how many friends and loved ones [remind] me and show me every day that they find me beautiful…I will always flinch with just one comment about my skin. It is ingrained in my psyche. I struggle, I push, and I realize the irony in all this. The grandmother that consistently obsesses [about] skin is the one whose genes made me as I am.”
In many communities, the skin color obsession runs in the opposite direction. Tanning is the name of the game and this habit can have extremely harmful effects on one’s skin.
“It’s interesting how there’s yet another side to the obsession with skin color. [The fixation with tanning and tanned skin is] especially prevalent in Europe and the U.S. The risk of melanoma [climbs] exponentially with tanning and despite this knowledge, many women continue to go to tanning salons to achieve their [ideal] of sexual attractiveness, [all the while] putting themselves at greater risk for skin cancer….”
When embracing our skin color, we must be careful not to come from a place of superiority. While self-acceptance is crucial to our happiness and contentment as humans, self-pride can be counterproductive. We then risk isolating those who do not fit our rigid standards and perpetuating age-old bigoted clubs based on skin color.
“I know a white Muslim girl who feels she has to demean her background and heritage because she hangs out with a lot of brown Muslims who [take] pride in their skin color. I think sometimes a negative consequence of having said pride is that it can lead to divisions within the community.”
Men also struggle with the complexion obsession. Perhaps, they don’t receive as much attention when it comes to battling with self-image, but they too have issues with perception, both internally and externally.
“I am the darkest person in my family and apparently “too dark” to look Pakistani or even look Muslim. I never really noticed my skin tone until I was in college. There, I met international students from Pakistan, who I befriended for a time. [They all belonged to] Pakistan’s elite (naturally, they paid $60,000 a year to study in America). It became something of a routine joke to remind me that I was dark. Looking back, [this seemingly innocuous ribbing] was backward, awful nonsense that [left] me paranoid about my appearance, like somehow I did not look legitimately Pakistani.
Later in college, as I began to learn more about Pakistan, I began to understand the pigmentocracy that has existed among Hindus and Muslims alike in South Asia for centuries; wealthy, successful men have sought fair brides, and so light skin has become a sign of affluence. And with time, the upper classes tended to be fairer than the lower ones.
I often have to wonder [what] my great grandfather, who converted to Islam from Sikhism in Delhi, would [say if he were to] see all this. He broke from his family, lured by the egalitarian and authentic message of Islam. How would he feel if he knew, generations later, [that] his son would be confronted by educated, religious Muslims who are obsessed with skin color? In various ways, I’ve been reminded that I am dark, and repeatedly I have been expected to think that somehow that is a bad thing. Fortunately [with time I became] mature and educated enough in my religion to appreciate how truly misguided this obsession with color can be. It still makes me sad that I will probably meet observant Muslims throughout my life who will find it an interesting observation that I look like someone out of Orangi slum in Karachi rather than Clifton.”
Negative thoughts of superficial beauty, specifically skin color affect many of us, irrespective of religion, gender and race. Conversations like these remind us of our collective human struggle – that of image, acceptance and love. The point of nexus for change starts at the individual; it is the place we can truly unlearn the self-defeating thoughts from a place of higher values.
Sarah Jawaid is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.
Photo Credit: Diogo A. Figueira