What It’s Like To Have Darker Skin In A Culture That Tells Me It’s ‘Ugly’

“I brought a new brightening face scrub for you to try.”

“Why do you run so much?”

“After this year, quit band to focus on your studies.” 

“Don’t you have long sleeves you can wear while you’re outside?”

If a stranger were to hear this in passing, they might think that these comments from people in my community were made out of worry about sun damage to my skin, to make sure I’m keeping good hygiene by exfoliating, to make sure I’m not doing poorly in my classes because of my extracurricular activities. And when I was younger, I didn’t think about the deeper meaning behind any of them either.

I’m an Indian-American born in New York and raised in East Tennessee, and my parents are immigrants from South India. I grew up in a mostly white town with Hispanic and Black families, and could count the number of Indian families living there on my hand. While I stayed a little connected to my parents’ culture, I definitely saw myself as less “Indian” and more “American.” I can definitely pinpoint a few cultural similarities between the American South and South Asian culture: Religion holds many communities of people together, family comes first and tradition is valued.

Of course there were still plenty of differences between my white American friends and myself. One perk of having brown skin is not worrying so much about getting a sunburn, while my friends were more aware about reapplying sunscreen when we had field days at our elementary school. I would put on a little sunscreen because I knew it was supposed to keep my skin healthy, but my friends put on more sunscreen to avoid the painful stinging sensation of red and blistering skin. Interesting exchanges would always occur between us regarding my different skin color, either with my friends or their parents. Such as “I wish I could just tan in the sun like you,” or “Your skin makes you look so healthy!” It was an odd experience, because my parents never made a big show of complimenting my skin the way others had. In my eyes having brown skin wasn’t that big of a deal, but I would later learn that this wasn’t the case.

My parents never made a big show of complimenting my skin the way others had.

In fourth grade, I began noticing the negative comments about my skin from my parents. In the hot afternoons during recess, I would run around carelessly with my friends and release pent up energy from sitting at a desk all day. The only thing we were concerned about was who could reach the other side of the playground the fastest, or who could launch themselves off the swing set the farthest without falling down. I remember coming home and being told “Why don’t you play in the shade when you go outside? Your skin is getting dark.”

After that, I distinctly remember noticing that I was living in two different worlds with my skin tone. It didn’t help that I had hobbies that fueled my parents’ vitriol to my tanned skin, and they made it very clear they didn’t approve of these hobbies for those very reasons. “Do you really have to run outside all the time?” and  “Why are you still in marching band if you have to be outside all the time?”  Suggestions of wearing a long sleeve shirt when its over 80 degrees Fahrenheit turned into yelling matches after every summer of how I need to start using Fair & Lovely, a commonly used skin bleaching cream among South Asians, so my skin wouldn’t get darker than it already was.

It felt like no matter how much I told them how hurt or angry their comments made me, the conversation would always end in “You have to listen to us because we’re your parents.” There were instances where I tried explaining that no one made me feel worse about my skin color than other Indians. It seemed as if the rude and judgmental glances from extended family or “well-meaning” strangers fueled my parents’s desire for me to lighten dark spots or avoid sunlight.

Things finally came to a head the summer I joined my college’s marching band. I didn’t think about how dark I was getting when I went to band camp. I made sure to always keep a water bottle on me to stay hydrated, reapplied sunscreen to protect my skin from its mid-August rays in East Tennessee, and I wore a hat to keep the sun out of my eyes. When I went outside for rehearsal blocks, I was always thinking about the music, the drill and double checking to make sure I had a pencil to correct any mistakes. I welcomed the new challenges and opportunities to make more friends who loved the same thing I did. 

Once band camp finished ― and before classes started ― my parents helped me move some things into my permanent dorm. After two weeks of 12-hour days, memorization tests, new friends and sore muscles I heard the same words again: “You’ve gotten so dark, why are you still doing marching band in college?” 

It seemed as if the rude and judgmental glances from extended family or “well-meaning” strangers fueled my parents’s desire for me to lighten dark spots or avoid sunlight.

My floor mates had done other summer programs before classes started, and most of them involved camping, hiking, canoeing or just participating in team-building activities outside. While they were in the hallways and elevators talking to their loved ones about the amazing time they had, the first question I was asked sounded like “Why are you happy when your skin looks horrible?”

Dark skin, historically, has been assaulted on two fronts. Those with dark skin were badges worn by laborers working outside while many folks considered a higher social status would have fairer skin. I also have no doubt that one of the side effects of colonialism in India contributed to a Eurocentric standard of beauty; however, this problem existed before Europeans set foot on Indian soil. The concept of colorism may have been emphasized during this time, but it was definitely not invented.

No one on my floor ever looked at me with malice because I had gotten darker during band camp. In fact, being in the marching band was something everyone I met was impressed by. Not once did anyone give me a spiteful glare or suggest their favorite brightening face scrub. I was using sunscreen; I kept myself hydrated; I ate healthy; and I looked happy.  

My relationship with my skin since that moment became a conscious tug-of-war. When I met other students of Indian origin on campus, I found that many of them went through similar experiences. I learned that being told not to go outside, cover up and use skin-bleaching beauty products were common pieces of advice. Many of us had been told, “it’ll make you pretty” or, “others will like you more.” There’s a lot to unpack there, and I didn’t start seriously questioning how deep the disdain for dark skin is in the South Asian community until my later years in college.

What came first: the fairness creams or the obsession of having light skin? The most recognizable brand perpetrating the skin lightening trend is Hindustan Unilever’s Fair and Lovely. With the introduction of Fair and Lovely in the 1970s, if a “well-meaning” relative didn’t outright insult your dark skin, their message was clear when they suggested a tube of this skin bleaching cream. The message is always the same  – “you’d be more beautiful if your skin was lighter.” 

I realize that in my parents’ views, they were trying to help me. They wanted to make sure I didn’t receive the angry glares, that my skin tone wouldn’t be a deciding factor in professional interviews, that other people will automatically know my worth when they look at me. In that attempt, however, they still contributed to the collective “Fair and Lovely” mindset: that in order to be successful and happy, you must have light skin. Unfortunately, this issue isn’t skin deep. This is generations of conditioning that unfair skin isn’t a marker of our geographical heritage, but a marker of low social status and worth.

This is generations of conditioning that unfair skin isn’t a marker of our geographical heritage, but a marker of low social status and worth.

Recently, the issue of colorism in India was given its 15 seconds of fame when the newspaper Times of India ran an article featuring headshots of the women competing in the Miss India pageant. All 30 contestants showcased are fair-skinned, and the line-up doesn’t fully depict the shade diversity that is present in India. Products like Fair and Lovely only further the racial divide under the guise of being a social and economic tool for dark-skinned individuals. Thus, the cycle continues – fair skin is an advantage in society, prejudiced actions and thoughts supplement that concept; “tools” are created to allow people to reap the rewards of this societal structure, which reinforces that fair skin is an advantage in society.

To this day I’m unsure of how I feel about my skin, but I’ve come a long way in embracing my skin tone. I don’t think twice about buying foundation that’s three shades too light. I love sitting outside on a sunny day in a park. I still run outside (when I can) and take in the beauty of my surroundings. I remind myself that my genes are from South Asia, geographically located in tropical areas that are home to the sweetest fruits and spiciest curries. And that maybe if I could accept and love my skin, others will finally see that unfair is lovely too.

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