Colourism and Beauty Standards in South/South East Asian Community
Colourism is an issue that continues to run rampant in the South/Southeast Asian communities. At its core, it is an inherently racist belief in which lighter complexions are favoured over darker complexions within a single race. This can affect a person in many ways especially when it comes to their overall value as a person - and it only reinforces power imbalances in relation to race. Colourist narratives are often pushed onto our communities by cosmetic brands, media and our own communities. This plays a big part in mental health issues amongst young South Asian/Southeast Asian people.
We brought together two youth who are a part of those communities to share their experiences with colourism. Zayde, who is South Malaysian, and Evlyn, who is Indo-Fijian, discuss how colourism and beauty standards affected their upbringing and how they were able to overcome this issue.
EVLYN: I’m glad we can openly have these conversations, especially when we come from cultures that shame the youth into silence. How did colourism affect your upbringing?
ZAYDE: I feel like it was growing up with my cousins who are fair skinned and watching how family and friends would treat them. Family and friends would always call them beautiful and treat them much nicer than me. But honestly, I feel like I only really started to notice colourism when I was offered lightening creams at a young age.
E: I went through a nearly identical experience as you because my sister is fair skinned and the way she was treated by family and friends was vastly different from the way I was treated. As a kid, I never really understood why I was treated so differently but when I was offered lightening creams in my teen years by my grandmother, it was very clear that my complexion was directly attached to my value in my family’s eyes.
Z: What products were you offered?
E: I was offered many different kinds but the most common one is Fair and Lovely, which is a skin lightening cream for your face and body. I never used it though because I was really scared of how it would affect my skin. More importantly, something inside me also felt like it was just wrong and I didn’t feel comfortable trying it.
Z: I was offered Fair and Lovely too, yay trauma! Growing up a lot of friends and family members offered me lightening cream as a “gift”, I think because they thought I would have a better life being lighter. It was really only until highschool where I started experimenting with skin lightening creams and whitening methods (lemon, sugar masks).
E: How did using these products affect you overall? Physically, mentally and emotionally?
Z: In terms of physical complexion, I was slightly lighter. However, my skin was a complete mess. I started to get acne and break out very easily. Also when I applied the products my face would just feel like it was physically burning. I can’t exactly describe the feeling but it was very painful and tingling. Those products are dangerous because what they do is destroy the pigment on your skin, it makes your skin extremely sensitive to the sun and they can be poisonous and affect your organs. Mentally I think I just had a hard timing liking my own skin and feeling comfortable looking the way I am. In photos I was very hesitant to show my skin or I would photoshop my skin to look lighter. I also just had terrible confidence in my own body. What about you?
E: I also went through a really tough time feeling comfortable in my skin and the way I looked. I felt like I was always surrounded by people who were of a lighter complexion and I would immediately feel inferior. It’s just the sad truth that the darker your skin, the more you’re naturally going to feel like you’re less valuable as a person. I had always felt like if my skin was just lighter, everything in life would be okay. I felt like people would have liked more, talked to me more, given me more opportunities, I’d probably have a better relationship with females in my family. Unfortunately, being a dark skin South Asian woman did contribute to me dealing with things like depression and anxiety. What really helped me though was seeking counselling and I got really lucky that my counselor was an Indian woman, so she could understand what I’m going through. I would definitely recommend for South Asian youth to seek out any sort of counselling or therapy.
Z: Definitely, and comments from family and friends didn’t help either. What are just some downright terrible things that family or friends have said to you?
E: One time a family member, as a joke, told me that I wasn't a part of the family and they had gotten me from a jungle - because I have thick curly hair and dark skin. As a child, I just cried but today can I understand just how truly terrible that is and the weight a comment like that holds. Unfortunately, this is the reality of “humour” in our communities. It’s often demeaning and degrading but it’s passed as a joke so there’s never any sort of consequence. It always comes at the expense of someone getting hurt as well.
Z: NO, THAT’S SO TRAUMATIC! For me some of my distant family members would get mad at me for going outside because I was going to look “too dark”. Also in highschool I would get comments like “Oh, the lights turned off we can’t see Zayde” or comments that resembled my skin to complete darkness in a mocking manner. Most of the comments were not intended to harm me, however they still leave a very bitter taste whenever talking about them. I feel like both of us are fine with the way we look now so those comments don’t really affect us that much.
E: Yeah, now I am okay but it definitely took some time and work to get here. I think I was 17 when I finally started my journey to love my skin. I have to be honest, it was seeing female black women unapologetically love themselves that made me feel I could do that too. And I have to give that credit to black women because sadly, I didn’t see that anywhere within the South Asian community or media.
Z: Yes, that's so true. I feel like in Asian media there is only one ideology for beauty which is pushed on a lot of women, and that is essentially “looking white”, despite Asia being so diverse. And you can definitely see that in the media, because there’s so little representation of dark skin women in a positive manner. I feel like they are never seen as desirable, smart or likeable in the media.
E: Even in Bollywood, you will almost never see a dark skin woman casted as the lead role or sometimes casted at all. In 2019 there was a film released called “Bala” in which it was meant to talk about the discrimination dark skin Indian women face...but they casted a fair skinned actress and literally did brown-face. It’s a known thing that casting agents in India will not cast a dark skin actor/actress and just use makeup instead. But all of this actually stems so far back to the caste system - in which the lower your caste level the more discriminated against you were - Bollywood reflects that societal mindset and instead of making changes and progressing forward, perpetuates it. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, we cannot rely on this industry to represent anyone with dark skin fairly.
Z: With comments from family and friends as well as watching media, is there anything you still struggle with in terms of colourism today?
E: I do struggle with the fact that it’s still so normal in our communities and it’s going to affect a lot of kids' upbringings. I wish I could protect all the kids who are going to hear negative and colourist language from their parents, aunts and uncles or grandparents. I want to empower any individual who is willing to stand up against their family or friends and tell them that what they think and say is NOT OKAY. I always wish I had an aunt or uncle or someone who was an elder protect me from this and teach me to love myself. I would say to South Asian’s is to call out their family or friends when they hear any kind of colourist and racist language. These abusive cycles have to end with us.
Z: Yeah, I could’ve definitely used a cool woke auntie growing up. And it sucks because so many young women experience this at a young age and are still pushing these colourist ideologies of beauty towards their friends and family, without realizing how harmful this is.
This issue is definitely prominent within family life, but did it affect your social life?
E: This definitely affected my social life growing up. When it came to friendships, I always felt like the odd one out, for a multitude of reasons. I felt really disconnected from my identity in my friend circles because I was never considered “Asian”, instead I was just known as the “brown girl” - probably because I had significantly darker skin than the Asians I hung out with. For a long time I just never really understood my identity because I was never perceived as what I am.
With dating, I had felt like no one was ever going to love me for me because I did not live up to the Eurocentric beauty standard. I’ve dated men with fair skin tones and there was this sort unsettling feeling of inferiority - like I felt like when people would see us out together they would be thinking “why is someone like him with her” or the fact a white man was dating a woman of colour was like HE was some sort of amazing person for being in an interracial relationship or that I’m lucky to be with a white man.
I think when it comes to creating relationships with people, it definitely sucks that these things are what we naturally think but I do believe we are going in direction where we are more empowered, are working to dismantle these mindsets and calling out these negative beliefs as we face them.
Z: Honestly, same here. In highschool, I felt like I would be deemed as “desirable” or “attractive” if I had lighter skin, straight hair and less ethnic features. Wow that sounds bad.
If there’s any advice you can give to 15 year old Evlyn, who was dealing with this, what would tell her?
E: In our culture, it’s ingrained in our head that we don’t go and share what we’re dealing with to anyone, because it’s seen as a shameful thing to do. So if there was anything I could have told 15 year old Evlyn, is that seeking help is okay - whether that is talking to your doctor, a school counsellor, through city programs, counselling groups - anything that is going to help you build a strong, loving relationship with yourself. We need to normalize our communities seeking mental health help. I think it’s important to have a safe place to express what you’re feeling and to know that there isn’t going to be any repercussion for it. I also think it’s important to have someone help you work through these feelings and to help you break down these narratives, to create new and positive thinking patterns. When you create that love for yourself, you begin to live beyond the beauty standards and colourist ideologies within our community.
Ultimately, colourism is an issue that needs to be addressed because it clearly showcases that our communities have an anti-blackness problem. If we want to support other communities in their fight against racial injustice, we need to be able to face ours as well.
If you are a South/Southeast Asian Youth seeking help, here are resources below: