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The Color of Beauty
It’s time to reject the racist, sexist beauty standards in my community
Melissa Sahadeo
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“How yuh skin so white?”

“I wish my skin was as light as yours.”

I’m used to hearing comments like these from family and friends. This is due to the common yet degrading belief in the Indo-Guyanese community that beauty is synonymous with lighter skin.

Most Indian girls in Guyana, where my parents are from, have brown or dark skin, a long, thin nose, dark hair, and a dark “peach fuzz” above dark lips. Although my hair is dark, my skin is light brown and I have pink lips and a petite nose. It didn’t occur to me how different I looked until one day when I was visiting my grandmother in Guyana. I was 9 years old.

“Mommy, look, she look like ah white gyal!” I heard someone say in Caribbean-accented Guyanese Creole.

I turned my head toward my grandma’s front yard and saw a girl my age pointing at me. She was holding hands with a tall woman; both had dark skin. The girl stared at me. The awe and confusion on her face as she stared at me will be forever stained in my memory.

Hide Your Skin

When the mother noticed me, she widened her eyes and said to me, “Darling, stay out di sun! Skin like yours must be protected, go sit in di shade.”

The woman and the girl walked away. I remained in the front yard until I heard my mom shout, “Melissa! Come back in heh right now! Yuh skin guh burn and turn black!”

“But I want to stay outside,” I said.

“Yuh have beautiful, fair skin and yuh nah unda-stan’ how special it is! If yuh get darker, yuh guh lose yuh beauty. No more runnin’ outside, hide yuh skin!”

My mother’s complexion was light brown, like mine. She tried to stay pale by wearing long-sleeved shirts outdoors, even when the weather was above 80 degrees.

When my grandma heard my mom tell me to come inside, she found me in my room and said, “Get up an’ come wit me!”

My grandma’s smile stretched from ear to ear. Her eyes were dark-cinnamon swirls framed by gray lashes and surrounded by tiny wrinkles.

Grandma took me to a neighborhood park. After about ten minutes, my grandmother saw three young girls hanging out under a shady tree.

“Look at all dem gyal ova deh, wha yuh notice ‘bout dem?”

Two of the girls were brown-skinned, and the other was dark-skinned. The brown-skinned girls wore straw hats and kept their heads tilted slightly downwards, even though the sun was setting.

Fair and Lovely

image by YC-Art Dept

The dark-skinned girl wore nothing to shield her from the sun. With her arms extended upwards, she laughed and twirled in circles.

“The girl is dancing under the sun, but her friends aren’t joining her, how come?” I asked.

“See how sad dem look? Dem wan dance wit di friend, but dem too afraid to show dem skin! Dem mama must have teach dem dat dark skin is nah nice, but dah nah true. No matta’ wha skin color yuh have, yuh will always be beautiful.”

I agreed with my grandma, but I knew my mother and others in our community didn’t.

To fade their melanin, many dark-skinned Indo-Guyanese women use a skin-lightening cream called Fair and Lovely. When I was about 13, I watched an ad for this product to learn more about it. The commercial shows two sisters reuniting after some time apart. One has lighter skin than the other. The darker woman looks stunned to see her fair sister, but compliments her “lovely” appearance. The fair sister then explains that she has been using this new cream for two months and even bought one for her sister to use. Excited, the darker sister rushes to her mirror and begins rubbing the cream on her face.

I felt conflicted after seeing the ad. I wondered if the cream could help some women gain confidence in a community that praises light skin. But I also thought it was degrading and cruel. This brand encourages the belief that there’s something wrong with dark complexions, then promises a quick and easy way to “fix” your skin by lightening it. The slogan “Fair and Lovely” was the exact the opposite of what my Grandma had taught me: All shades are beautiful.

Double Standards

One summer afternoon when I was 13, I was sitting on the steps in my front yard wearing shorts. When my knees were bent, they blended with my natural skin tone due to the stretching of the skin. However, when I stood up, my darker kneecaps caught the attention of my uncle, who always had something to say.

“How yuh knees so black? It look bad!” he said.

“It doesn’t look bad, my knees are just naturally dark!” I responded defensively.

My uncle proceeded to tell me my knees should be the same color as the rest of my skin—light—and since they weren’t, they looked “shameful.” Ironically, this came from someone with brown skin and dark knees himself, who never felt pressured to bleach his skin. I think this is because colorism is linked with misogyny.

In my culture, men favor women with lighter complexions. Dark-skinned women are told, “Pretty clear-skinned girls can find any man they want, but if you’re dark, it’s going to be difficult for you.” But boys are never ordered to stay out of the sun because women don’t want a dark-skinned husband.

Feeling Insecure

I didn’t think much about what my uncle said until I realized that other girls at school with the same skin tone as me all had light-colored knees. Suddenly I felt insecure. I started to avoid wearing shorts, dresses, and skirts. For the first time, I was drawn to the idea of using skin-lightening cream. I thought it might fix the problem with my knees.

But I decided to leave my skin color the way it is. I didn’t want to use a cream that was recommended for women who hate their skin. And I realized there’s nothing wrong with my knees. The joints on your body are naturally darker than the rest of your skin. My knuckles are browner than my hands, and my elbows are darker than my arms. This is normal.

My younger sister Anmarie is 10 years old. Her skin is darker than mine. Family members often question how two siblings could have such different complexions.

As my sister grew up, I knew she would start hearing negative comments about her skin tone. I didn’t talk to her about it, for fear that it would make her aware of colorism and change the way she felt about herself. I hoped she didn’t feel like something was wrong with her brown skin, or that she should’ve been born with the same light skin as me. But thankfully Anmarie is unbothered when others point out that I’m lighter than her. She wears shorts and tank tops in the summer, and she doesn’t care about having dark knees like I did.

Now, I confront colorism when I see it. For instance, where I’m from, dark-skinned people are often called “midnight” or compared to a shadow by their friends, as a joke. I used to let these comments go, but now I speak up and let others know that they’re offensive and senseless.

I feel that light-skinned women like me have a responsibility to educate those who enforce colorism. We should reject compliments that simultaneously put down dark-skinned women. Now, when people compliment me for having light skin, I say: “Thanks, your skin color is lovely as well!”

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(NYC-2018-11-08)

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