Ever-Growing Colourism

When I was growing up, despite the fact that I didn’t know what colourism was, I did understand that lighter skin was preferred over darker skin. As a South Asian, I understood my skin would never be as light as many of the celebrities I saw in movies. However, my perception of fair skin changed when I went to Pakistan for the first time. I was six years old the first time I was introduced to the concept of ‘skin-lightening cream.' As my siblings and I watched TV, a dark advertisement played of a woman who was having a terrible day. But, as soon as she put on Fair and Lovely, a whitening cream, the screen lit up and she was ready to “conquer the world." Although we scoffed at the ad, it was at that moment that I truly understood how something as toxic as colourism was engrained into the South Asian community. 

My experiences with the hierarchy of light skin continued when I returned to Pakistan as a teenager. When getting ready for a wedding, a highly rated beauty parlour was recommended to us. As the make-up artist started on my foundation, she pulled out a shade that looked far lighter than my actual skin tone. My skepticism got the best of me, and when I pointed it out, she said “it always looks different in the bottle.” I dubiously sat back, unsure of what to say to next. After finishing my make-up, she turned me to the mirror and said I looked pretty. 

I didn’t look pretty. It would be safe to say that I resembled a very pasty looking Casper the Friendly Ghost. What confuses me to this day is how the make-up artist insisted that the look was considered “in." There was also an incident in which I went to get a pedicure and the woman giving me the pedicure attempted to bleach my feet. Or, how when getting a facial, I was promised my skin would look brighter, but the smell of the bleach made it clear they meant ‘lighter.'

With the constant daily overflow of commercials promoting skin-whitening creams, soaps, and face washes, it becomes difficult to see one's natural skin as beautiful. While colourism is present amongst everyone in the coloured community, it is more heavily emphasized among females. From a very young age, culturally, girls are taught to not go out into direct sunlight so as to not make their skin ‘darker.' 

Celebrities who have a great influence on the female population openly endorse skin-lightening products. Advertisements are aimed towards women, showing them that they aren’t going to be successful or happy until they have lighter skin. The philosophy of lighter skin being far superior is carried out further through films and mainstream media. Light-skinned females are often cast as the leads of films, while females with darker complexions are given side roles or rejected all together. A prime example of colourism being evident in mainstream media is fair-skinned actresses such as Mahira Khan, Deepika Padukone, and Priyanka Chopra being extremely sought after, while an actress like Sanam Saeed is rejected for not meeting the set skin colour caliber.

In addition to the South Asian community, colourism is present in the lack of black diversity. You see praise and magazine covers given to actresses including Zendaya, Rihanna, and Yara Shahidi, all of whom are considered “light-skinned.” While the praise is well-deserved, as they fight for women of all colours and are activists in every sense of the word, where are the magazine covers with Michaela Coel, Leslie Jones, and Issa Rae?

Although campaigns such as “Unfair and Lovely," “Dark is Beautiful,” and “Black Girl Magic” are a step in the right direction, colourism is still prevalent amongst many people of colour. Whether it’s a lack of love given to darker-skinned individuals or just subtle neglect, colourism scrutinizes those from the same race or ethnicity as you. In some ways, that stings even more. To know that your own people want to change the way you look is toxic. 

Thus, to every single individual who has been told they could be lighter or how they should lighten their skin: that skin colour is what makes you unique. Your worth is not limited to the colour of your skin, and true beauty goes beyond how one physically looks. 

By Meshall Awan
Illustration by Georgia Dawson

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