Last week I was invited to a film screening about skin lightening in the British born South Asian community. The film centred on a young and very talented girl from East London with dreams of becoming a professional Bollywood dancer. The story followed her struggle of accepting her skin tone as well as coping with the harsh criticism from her mother and community. It was agonising and really touched me
I won’t give away any details of the film, but I have to say that it really did make me think. I’m of Punjabi descent and most of the people in my family have very light brown skin and very dark hair. Earlier this year I was on holiday in East Africa and I went half a shade darker than my normal skin tone. I didn’t mind; I thought I looked a bit healthier! But the comments that some aunts made really surprised me. I found myself feeling insecure, reluctant to go outside and willing my tan to disappear. Can you imagine feeling like that every single day of your life?
It’s like South Asians who don’t look like a stereotypical South Asian (whatever that means) are heralded and paraded around as an example of what we should be aiming for looks-wise. This is called shadeism – I like to think of it as racism’s distant cousin – and it’s everywhere in South Asian culture, both in the Diaspora and the motherland.
The seed is planted from a young age
There’s a lot of articles, radio shows, podcasts and individuals who speak out against skin bleaching on the Internet; to an extent it feels over done. However, the film addressed the psychological aspect and explored it; this is something I haven’t seen people discussing. It is all too easy to berate those who use skin bleaching products and boycott the companies who make billions out of this industry. In fact, it’s almost too easy.
What we forget is the people who use these products do not do it for pure vanity. They feel so disgusted, so insecure and pressured to look a certain way for most of their lives that they are prepared to do anything to be accepted by their community and those around them. The seed is planted from a young age: the comments we hear from our family members about ideas of beauty, the images we see and the films that we watch. The harshest comments tend to come from members of the same community and I’m sure many of have been witness to this. It ranges from comments such as “such a pretty girl, pity she is dark” to “You’re way too dark to be a Punjabi?!” and “He is so fair for a Tamil!”
I don’t know a solution that will fix the problem, give millions of men and women their self-esteem and self confidence back. One way is to acknowledge and appreciate the wealth of beauty within the South Asian community. More and more women of South Asian descent who are not stereotypically fair skinned are becoming more prominent – Nina Davuluri and Mindy Kaling are prime examples. But the most important thing is to understand that the ideal version of beauty in our heads and magazines does not and never will exist. There are millions of works of art that are even more beautiful than the images in our heads. And the best part? They are real.