I grew up believing that I wasn’t beautiful because I wasn’t fair-skinned.
I know I’m not the only one who grew up this way; that belief is deeply ingrained into my South-Indian roots. Generations of my family’s dark women have wanted to look like white women. As grandmother gave birth to mother who gave birth to daughter, this ideal trickled down and found itself right at my caramel-coloured feet.
In middle school, Yahoo! Answers became my home remedy bible. I searched for magic potions hiding behind kitchen cabinets to make me any shade of white – any shade of beautiful. Numerous lemon and milk masks later, I gave up, amused at my futile attempt to try to lighten my body’s largest organ.
But for many women and men in India, Japan, the Middle East and Africa, attempts to appear whiter are long-lived, and results in many buying into a skin-bleaching industry currently valued at over $10 million worldwide. This industrial phenomenon is a result of shadeism – a form of discrimination against those with darker skin tones, which ultimately promotes the idea that lighter skin tones are superior.
I sometimes wonder if the fair-skinned beauty ideal took root in the aftermath of colonisation; even nearly 70 years after the British left India, it still feels as if we are chasing the afterimage of the white British woman, under the belief that her race still holds some power over ours.
Whatever the reason, our obsession with fair-skin crossed borders and immigrated to foreign lands alongside us – or perhaps the stereotype has been subtly embedded in Western media this whole time.
White actors in coloured worlds
There’s no questioning the over-representation of white actors in different media sectors, whether it be in late-night talk shows, movies or CP24 at noon. What we’re left with is a media industry that doesn’t appropriately represent minorities.
According to Asma Maryam Ali, a registered psychotherapist and director of Concentric Care Wellness Services, this lack of non-white visibility perpetuates the stereotype that fairer skin is better skin.
“When we see a white woman on television and we see she’s happy, drives a nice car, has the perfect husband, et cetera, we think ‘that’s the ideal,’” said Ali.
She argues that this lack of non-white visibility can lead us to associate fairer skin with a specific type of lifestyle – one that could be more privileged than our own and that included its own benefits like wealth and empowerment.
Despite whether we make the connection subconsciously or consciously, the effects are the same: we end up placing a greater value on whiter skin tones compared to others.
Ali told me that throughout her years providing therapy, she has come across multiple real-life examples of this association. When she counsels Canadian Arab Muslims, she says that although they may visually be fair and appear outwardly “white”, they want to be “another kind of white”, because of the lifestyle and freedom they associate with the Caucasian Canadian.
I don't know if my lack of self-esteem at the time could be traced back to feelings of inferiority to the white woman. As an awkward teenager whose days were filled with anime and classic novels, I didn't watch many popular North American TV shows highlighting the white woman who "had it all". All I knew at the time was that I wanted to look like her, not for her fancy car or successful career, but because the South-Indian culture I was born into identified her fairness as the embodiment of beauty.
Yet surely if the ideal took root in colonisation so long ago, it would have dissipated with the rise of future, forward-thinking generations. My question here was simple: what kept this racist ideal fuelled for so long?
“Cultures grow to value exceptions, like fair skin, over the norm,” said Ali. “People are psychologically wired to give value to exceptions.” Essentially, no matter how socially progressive the views of future generations would come to be, they couldn’t shift entire generations, nor an entire culture that had grown to positively value that exception. The idolizing of fair skin in the South-Indian community is like an unwritten convention- no one needs to voice it for it to be understood.
Racist filters – and why we buy into them
This insidious notion has even seeped into the crevices of popular social media platforms, like Snapchat and Instagram.
In a world dominated by likes, comments, and followers, social media users are under constant pressure to maintain an image of popularity and beauty that doesn't always represent their true selves. Only adding to this complex are the endless slew of filters put out by apps that can hide virtually all our visible insecurities. After all, Vogue article on Instagram rules recommends using black-and-white filters, because they “help hide everything from a bad sunburn or spray tan to red wine lips".
But what if these filters are hiding more than just food stains and sunspots? These filters that are supposed to be "enhancing our beauty" – what are they really doing to our pictures, and more importantly, our self-perception?
In 2016, Snapchat came under fire as users of the popular image messaging app claimed that some of their more popular filters, like the infamous flower crown, were "whitewashing" users by making them appear fairer-skinned. The same can be said about Instagram’s pink flower crown and puppy ear filters, that makes users appear lighter than they really are. It's impossible to say whether people are using filters only because they want to appear fair – in reality, that simply isn’t the case. Because filters act like simplified versions of Photoshop, we're all guilty of using them to look more 'beautiful', whether to you that means having fairer skin, longer eyelashes, or a sharper nose.
Although designed with the purpose of “enhancing” our beauty, filters achieve their purpose primarily by lightening skin tones. It’s clear that even through the mere act of giving users this option, social media platforms continue to spread the toxic fair-skinned beauty ideal.
It wasn’t socially acceptable Vanity Fair was accused of lightening actress Lupita Nyong’o’s skin for their February issue in 2004. So why is it acceptable for social media platforms today to do the same through their filters? And why do we, as consumers, continue to support them?
According to Ali, filters ultimately give people who want to have fairer skin the chance to “chase their ideal”. Filters give them the freedom to choose how others see them, unlike in real life – which is what maintains their popularity. However, she says, this can be damaging in the long run.
“Altering one’s complexion to appear lighter definitely impacts people negatively," said Ali. “One, they’re chasing this ideal which is not really who they are, and two, they’re altering who they are for the sake of appearing beautiful to please others or themselves.” Ali was essentially alluding to a lack of self-acceptance-and it was only after my talk with her that I realized how much our notion of beauty had to do with this concept.
From filters that make us look whiter, to the insane amass of selfies on social media, we're constantly trying to achieve a certain look to fit society's beauty ideals, as these ideals slowly morph into our own. It seems we're never ready to accept our true selves, dark skin and all, and the social media industry most definitely thrives off of these insecurities.
If only I could go back and tell my younger self that beauty isn't contingent on colour or race – in time, she too would come to love and accept her skin in all its brown glory.