Poorna Bell’s skin colour was under scrutiny and commented on throughout her life, until she decided to challenge ideas of colourism in her family and social circles.
I have yet to meet a single South Asian family that doesn’t have the poison of colourism running through it. I use the word poison deliberately, because it’s a sickness, a form of institutionalised prejudice and racism that dark skin is bad, and light skin is good, that is fed to you from the moment you are born, continues to be administered as you grow up, and taints the entire foundation of your self-worth as an adult.
It’s more than just thinking you’re not beautiful. Anti-colourism campaigner Seema Hari, 32, works as a software engineer in LA. She became suicidal after relentless comments from extended family members and strangers in the street, and tells Stylist: “Colourism can cause so much damage to mental health, and lead to depression.”
While I have not endured even a fraction of what Seema has experienced, I remember my skin colour being under scrutiny and measured against other girls from a young age.
My first understanding of colourism was from comments about my older sister’s skin. She is lighter-skinned than me, and I remember her skin being commented on as a thing of great beauty. More broadly, other family members and famous people were deemed beautiful only if they had fair skin. It left you rudderless, both in terms of role models and navigating your own beauty, if you weren’t light enough.
The only thing that saved me was the fact that I had green eyes, which somehow granted me a reprieve because it made me closer to the European standard of beauty – a grotesque concept when you consider that my grandparents grew up in a time of British colonial rule.
I played a lot outdoors as a child, and it would be commented on by extended family members: “My god, look how dark you’ve gone!” The message was that doing physical activity wasn’t good because it made your skin dark. Luckily that message didn’t come from my parents and I played tennis and went hill-walking.
But, it was a refrain I’d hear over and over again. Anytime I’d go on holiday and tan, there’d be a remark. There were endless comments about other people framed in context of their skin colour. “She’d be so beautiful if only her skin wasn’t so dark,” was one. I’d see massive billboards for skin lightening cream while on holiday in India. And then the saddest of all – watching someone turn from a glossy indigo black or nut brown, into the skin of a grey ghost, because they’d been bleaching their skin into submission.
When you are brought up on colourism, you know it’s bad, but it’s so ingrained and widespread that you feel like nothing you say will ever change it. But a few years ago, I decided enough was enough.
Several things intersected at once. The first was that I was in the thick of editing and pulling together articles for the women’s section I ran at the time, and was reading a story about how the self-confidence of girls was dropping and self-harm rates were rising. I realised that girls who were subject to colourism were likely among the most vulnerable.
The second was that my little niece Leela was born so now the stakes were higher. It seemed unacceptable to my sister and I that she would be exposed to a system that would pre-determine her worth and beauty based on such insidious prejudice.
Over the years, we have launched a multi-faceted attack. The first was to reject any form of negative criticism or commentary from family members based on the darkness or lightness of our skin. It started by correcting people who said we looked “burned” by saying: “I think you mean tanned.” And then when they used the word tanned negatively, we’d reply: “I know, I look great, don’t I?”
The second was to be an ally - so when any negative comment was said about another woman’s colour, I’d say how beautiful or accomplished she was. The third was to help them love their own skin. So when they’d say about themselves: “I got so dark on holiday” in a derogatory tone, I’d use positive reinforcement and say how amazing and glowing they looked.
I had some considerable successes, such as a massive reduction in hearing comments about other women, and, for instance, going surfing and my tan not being remarked on. But the latest success was a family holiday we went on to Italy this year during the heatwave, and skin colour wasn’t mentioned once. It was unprecedented.
While in the same way that dismantling the patriarchy can’t just be done by women, dismantling colourism shouldn’t have to always be done by those most affected by it. But taking control can help for your own sanity.
Speaking to me about what worked for her, Seema said she was initially very shy talking to her family about it, because she had felt suicidal and had such low self-esteem because of her skin colour. But she was brave enough to take the chance.
“As I have started coming into my own, I’ve been very open with my family and telling them how wrong it is to warn me that going in the sun would make me darker,” she says.
“When they tell me a colour doesn’t suit me, I tell them that it looks odd to them because they haven’t seen dark skinned women wear these colours before. I’ve shared all my struggles with depression and suicide in the past with them now, to show them how deeply damaging this fair skin obsession can be. They can see the bigger picture now and are my biggest supporters in my fight against colourism.”
After moving to America from India, Seema was able to shift her sense of self image from “ugly to unique”. She says that if someone thinks she’s ugly, it says more about their own experiences than it does about her own sense of beauty. Which is incredibly giving, considering what she has gone through. Yet there is something in a softer approach that stems from self-acceptance.
Aliya Zaidi, 30, who works as a digital designer, says that while she has a wheatish complexion, travelling more frequently means that she’s mostly tanned. At first, she used to react to colourism comments angrily, but found a way to counter them that works for her.
“About two years ago, I started responding with ‘I’m incredibly happy with my skin colour because it gives me a healthy, golden glow, and I’m going to continue going in the sun and living my life’, along with a big smile.
“It’s pretty difficult for people to continue criticising you after a response like that, and after a while the message actually sinks in, so the comments stop coming.”
I don’t know that the comments will entirely stop coming, but they’ve reduced by a significant amount, and enough to make a difference to my own mental health. I no longer walk on eggshells when going to my parents house post-holiday, waiting for my skin to be remarked on. I can only imagine it must be a relief for them to not have to talk about theirs.
Image: Amber Rose Photography