People Told me I was Pretty and it Made me Hate the Colour of my Skin

The ‘lighter’ child

“She’s the fairest of my children- she gets my complexion” I remember my Mother boasting to people as they tried to decipher which parent I looked like as a child- often, talking about me as if I weren’t even there. Family friends and relatives often remarked that I was “the lighter one”, and my Mother often called me ‘gori’, which literally translates to ‘fair one’ in urdu.

This, I understood, was a good thing. To be fair was considered a sign of beauty- I should consider myself lucky, that in having slightly less melanin in my skin than my siblings, I somehow had hit the genetic jackpot and was better off in terms of looks. As a child, I never knew how to respond to such comments and statements- I’d never done anything to be the colour I was, and I didn’t understand whether this was something I should be proud of. I got used to smiling awkwardly while people (usually South Asian people) told me how lucky I was to be ‘the fairer one’, while my twin brother, who was a couple of shades darker, was given sympathetic pats and told that he was just out in the sun a lot, so he shouldn’t feel too bad.

This idea became ingrained in my understanding of the way other South Asian people often perceived beauty, especially within their own ethnicity- almost every time a South Asian woman was described as being attractive, she was also deemed ‘fair’ or ‘light skinned’. My father didn’t like anyone pointing out that my brother was darker skinned, as if it was a silent defect in his DNA we had to be sensitive about. Adverts on TV for products promoting fairness further perpetuated this idea, and it became subconsciously established in my mind that fairer was somehow better. In my own family, I began to accept that because I was ‘lighter’, I was at an advantage somehow. I was pretty. I started to look at myself this way, and for a while it made me more confident.

At a multiethnic school however, among a myriad of different shades of skin — some much lighter than myself — this began to get confusing. It wasn’t until I was fourteen that I noticed I would hesitate to touch or shake hands with classmates who were significantly lighter skinned than myself. It almost felt like I would contaminate them with my darkness. As I buttoned up my school shirt every morning, I noticed the stark contrast between the crisp, white of the cotton sleeve and the brown of my skin. Summers turned me a deeper shade of brown, and rather than enjoy the glow that so many pander after today, I despaired that people would notice I was darker than usual. I remember scrubbing my hands in a school sink, wishing the brown would wash off. Brown was the colour of dirt, and the more I noticed lighter skinned people around me, the dirtier I felt.

In restrospect, I didn’t really hate that I was brown. I hated that I was a darker brown than others. I was perfectly content being brown, when I was around other brown people, more particularly those that were darker than I was. I flip-flopped between feeling glad that I was ‘lighter’ than some, and conscious that at the same time, I was ‘darker’ than others.

Ironically under the guise of well-meaning praise, people around me had bred a nuanced and subtle insecurity and hyper awareness of skin colour, based on the idea that comparitive ‘lightness’ constituted beauty or superiority. My own family and community had enabled a colourist and shadeist mentality among themselves, which caused my constant and confusing shift in self perception.

My battle with an inner critic constantly gauging how much lighter or darker I was around others is not dissimilar to the struggles of so many other young women of colour who are constantly told that fairer is better, and more beautiful. Although the caste system is supposedly long abolished, its debilitating and self perpetuating colourist ideas haunt South Asian communities. The only way to break this cycle is to think before we talk about what makes one beautiful: a misguided ‘compliment’ can be just as disarming and degrading as telling children that they are dark, therefore they are not beautiful.