*This article was first published in October 2016. In light of the recent Watson’s Hari Raya video, we felt that was the right time to bring up this article to educate Malaysians on the things our dark-skinned friends have to go through.*
It’s tough growing up with dark skin in Malaysia. Although it is 2016 and we’re supposed to be progressive with flying cars and hover boards, we’re still bogged down by something so trivial like colourism.
Since I was young, dark skin has been my arch nemesis. My relatives would come over and repeatedly tell my sister that she is SO PRETTY (she has fair skin), while I turn into Ms. Invisible standing right next to her. They adorned her with pretty hairbands and dresses.
Every time I had a crush on a guy, I’d find out that he liked some other girl who was fairer and therefore, prettier. So I started imagining myself 10 years into the future, a time when I’d have enough money to bleach my skin and be beautiful like those girls we see in Tamil movies 🙁
But thankfully, I never went through with that plan. Instead, I did what any marginalised member of society would do – I looked for people with the same problems 🙂 I did some research, talked to some of my fellow dark-skinned sisters, and hey, found out that I’m not the only one facing these nuisances; and we have a lot in common!
1. The colour pressure starts from a VERY young age
I remember when I was about 7, just starting primary school, my mom freaked out when she saw me one day right after school.
“WHO ASKED YOU TO PLAY OUT IN THE SUN YOUR SKIN IS SO BLACK NOW!!!”
So it got ingrained in my head that dark skin = Bad. EVIL. White is better. Even when my aunties came over, the first thing they said to my mom was “Why has Gowri become so dark? Did you let her out in the sun?” And my mom would glare at me and say, “See! I told you!” then I’d feel guilty cos I made her look bad in front of everyone.
Some of my friends had it worse, even being told what to wear 🙁
“A family member once said to me, ‘Of course Chinese girls can wear short skirts, what is their level? What is your level? What’s the point of you wearing such attire?’ They literally equated status and freedom to skin colour, which is actually irrelevant.” – Kasvini, Teacher
Apparently we’re supposed to cover up as much as possible cos we shouldn’t offend people with our dark skin!
2. And it gets worse in school…
When in school, it’s much worse because we were kids who didn’t know how to tell people to shove their opinions up theirs. Every time there was a class play, there was no way I could be the princess. Forget it. Prince maybe, or even the servant, but not the pretty girl in the play. If only a fairy god mother could appear out of thin air and turn my skin as white as King Joffrey’s face when he died!
Some of my other friends suffered even during Pendidikan Jasmani lessons…
“During PJ lessons, the teachers will ask us to make a circle and hold hands, and I will always hear a few girls saying ‘yeerrrrr’ and move on to someone with lighter skin. That hurt me a lot, until I was much, much older and learned to ignore them. But I would go home and cry.” – Jaya, not real name
My friend from the Chinese school had it the worst. Even though she is Chindian, which means she’s like 100000x fairer than me, she was still considered ‘dark’ and ‘unattractive’.
“I grew up in a Chinese school, so even though my siblings and I are Chindian, we were darker compared to the Chinese girls. My sister once told me a story about how her group of friends ranked each other in terms of beauty. It was a harmless girly thing, but I thought it was odd. Cause, why was dark skin immediately ranked as least beautiful? But I didn’t say anything at that time as I was just a kid.” – Kasvini, Teacher
3. And then parents tell you that your only hope is an arranged marriage
Cos who would want to date you when you have skin like mocha latte?? And don’t you dare say you’re still “waiting for right one”, or be prepared to be met with condescending eyes…
“Even NOW at 30 years old, people STILL come up to me to comment about my skin colour. Nevermind my grandma who basically gave up on me getting married, but STRANGERS. ” – Nadia, Civil Servant
But if you think arranged marriages are any easier, you’re as wrong as that seafood sitting on a pizza.
Two of my friends in their early thirties confessed that arranged marriages are the worst option if you have dark skin. (Also, did you guys know we have marriage brokers in Malaysia who charge like RM900 per proposal?!)
“Usually, when the guy’s family hear that I graduated overseas and am making very good money, they’re hell bent on getting my photo. But once they find out I have dark skin, they will say things like ‘it won’t work out’, without any explanation at all. What the h***.” – Jessie, not real name.
“Once, this guy and his family said okay upon seeing my photo, but later I realised that they only said OK because my mom gave them a photo of myself with bright lighting and I looked fair. When we started texting and he saw my whatsapp photo, and he asked me which was my real colour. When I asked him why did it matter, he just went quiet.
Never mind that he was over weight and also had dark skin, but my skin colour was a problem. I told my mom to stop giving out my photos.” – Shania (not her real name)
4. And then there’s Tamil movies. Yay -_-“
Just like how most leading roles go to white women in Hollywood, in Indian cinema, the female leading roles go to the fairest of them all. Most of the female leads in Tamil movies are in fact imported from the north, where they have lighter skin. Best part is you don’t even need to be able to speak Tamil–as long as you have vanilla coloured skin, the director is more than happy to do dubbing later on.
Tamil film director AL Vijay won the contest of who can cast the fairest of them all when he casted Exhibit A above, Amy Jackson, in a leading role in a Tamil movie. And nope, she speaks no Tamil and doesn’t have any prior acting experience.
Dark skinned actresses are usually casted in a supporting role; sister, cousin, friend, servant. And yes, I know you guys are gonna say that there are some dusky toned actresses being introduced as of late, but we all know they are heavily outnumbered. Maybe we should start a hashtag #IndianCinemaSoWhite, because the majority of us really aren’t that fair..
5. But hey, thank god there are whitening products for people like us!
If I had a ringgit for every time someone asked me if I have tried Fair & Lovely, I would be richer than the Lannisters, living in a castle of gold and have Chris Hemsworth AND Benedict Cumberbatch hired as my butler.
When I was about 13, my mom was starting to get worried because my skin was getting darker (you know, sports practice) and I was getting older. So naturally, she got me that magical fairness cream tube that everyone was using. When she saw that it had no effect after months, I had to switch to papaya soap. Then tomato soap. Then she pretty much just gave up on me–she doesn’t even believe me now when I tell her I have a boyfriend.
The truth is, no externally applied cream can change your skin colour, unless they contain harmful bleaching agents. We have been SOOOO brainwashed by commercials on TV that we believe that fairness creams actually work! And it’s not just the Indian community. Beauty brand Qu Puteh by Dr.Vida has also taken the Malay community by storm because of its promise to deliver instant fair skin; although some of the products have been banned by the Malaysian Health Ministry for containing harmful substances.
And it doesn’t stop there. If the fairness creams don’t work, don’t worry cos there’s skin bleaching AND 50,000 different types of facials you can try:
Hey, I’m all for a woman taking care of herself, but don’t hurt your face with harmful chemicals in the process!
6. But the problem is much, much bigger than that
Actress Zendaya was recently scrutinized after news surfaced that she’d be playing Spiderman’s love interest. This 19-year old black model, Khoudia Diop from Senegal was bullied all her life before she turned that around and became a supermodel.
About 70% of women are reportedly using skin lightening creams in parts of Africa.. In Telenovelas, darker skinned Latino men are portrayed as villains as opposed to heroes. Women in Korea are not considered beautiful unless they have pale to white skin..
And that’s not all…
The more research I did, the more jaw-dropping were the results. For example, this one study conducted on black women who were imprisoned showed that women with lighter skin had spent at least 12% lesser time behind bars.
A simple survey done on over 325,000 members of SimplyMarry.com, an Indian online matrimony site, showed that people with lighter skin tend to also make more money. Looks like light skin does come with a lot of perks!
Lanita Jacobs, an anthropology professor from University of Southern California said that this behaviour could have been inherited by years of colonialism and slavery. It could have been influenced by who works at home and who works out in the field. But however and wherever it started, it has to end with us!
Thankfully, being dark seems to also bring out the strongest in (some of) us
As our confidence ebbs, we start looking for validation. Luckily for Mogana, Miss MalaysiaIndian Global 2014, that validation changed her life and started her journey towards self-acceptance.
“During my adolescent stage, I had considered bleaching just to fit in. Furthermore, bleaching was and still is costly and reaps more negative health effects than positive ones.
But all that changed when I was crowned in front of 300 people. My confidence surged sky-high that night on October 3rd, 2014 when the Emcee announced my name as the winner of Miss MalaysiaIndian Global 2014. That moment–which still feels like a fairy-tale–was the start of my journey of self-acceptance and love.” – Moganasundari Mahalingam, Miss MalaysiaIndian Global 2014
Thanks to other role models like Tyra Banks (not EVERYthing is a whitewash) who actually helped a young 13-year old feel confident enough to be the epitome of mainstream beauty – a model.
“When I was 13 years old, I watched the first season of America Next Top Model. That is when I decided that I wanted to become a model. Tyra banks is my inspiration. It was through that show I realized that modelling is not only for fair skinned girls. Ultimately, when you’re with good people that encourage you and support you, you will gain confidence.” – Vanizha Vasanthanathan, dancer & model.
OMG. Christina Aguilera was right! (even though she’s white)
Also, one day, I actually Googled dark skin and found out something really cool.
“…dark skin is less likely to get sunburned and less likely to develop skin cancer.” – HowStuffWorks
OMG. AND… Dark skin is also less vulnerable to skin diseases, as opposed to lighter skin. Dark skin is also scientifically proven to be sexier than lighter skin! (okay I made that up)
I am in no way against fair skin. If you’re born with fair skin, AWESOME! If you’re not, AWESOME!!! Beauty is not limited to one particular shade no matter what people try to tell you. There are 7 BILLION people on this planet and we can’t all look the same. And colour is only skin deep. There’s so much more to each and everyone of you; your talents, your intelligence, your career, your family, don’t let something like skin colour get it the way of you achieving anything.
How to move forward? Here’s what some of my friends had to say:
“I love Melizarani T. Selva’s poetry that discuss skin colour. Seeing, reading and hearing more dark-skinned people in positive lights can help change the perspective.” – Kasvini
“Kollywood (Tamil cinema) still has yet to put a woman of color (with the exception of the amazing Nandita Das in a limited number of brilliant low-key movies) in one of their leading roles; considering the majority of women who watch these movies find either self-acceptance (or the lack of) or a form of physical ideal from these lead heroines. The moment we start to change of thoughts, will we then slowly become that change.” – Moganasundari
“It has to start with ourselves. Make conscious decisions. As hard as it is, don’t succumb to skin whitening products. Embrace yourself. Love yourself. A few dark skinned actresses like Priyamani and Vidya Balan are slowly rising in the film industry, so there’s still hope.” – Gina, student
I’m 26 and I still go home to my mom nagging me about spending too much time in the sun. Sometimes you just have to accept that you can’t change how people look at you. What you can change is how you look at yourself, and just let the world realise your beauty on their own 🙂