From among many stories that my mother often shares with me, the most recently shared and without a doubt the most disturbing one was when my grandmother, my father’s mum, looked at the newborn me and remarked: “God! She is so dark. Would have been better not to have one than having such a dark child, and that too, a daughter.” I am not sure how uncomfortable that had made my mother at the time but it had been making me increasingly irate since hearing it until I heard Lupita Nyong’o, a Mexican-Kenyan actress of the 12 Years a Slave fame, deliver a heart-warming speech about ‘black beauty’ at the 7th annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon in February, where she was honoured with the Best Breakthrough Performance Award for the film.
She shared a letter written to her by an anonymous young girl who was “just about to buy whitening cream” when she saw Nyong’o and changed her mind. Nyong’o’s experience as a self-hating teen, taunted for her “night-shaded” skin and feeling unbeautiful, who would obey her mother only in pursuit of God’s reward in the form of an overnight shedding of her dark skin to morph into a white beauty. “But God never listened,” she said.
Her words were so powerful they echoed in my mind for days. Her desperation to liberate from the social discrimination so well put into words that somehow soothed my helpless agony caused by my grandmother’s comment and so many others, whether they were from educated and literate or from where I came from – an economically backward area of Pakistan, with low literacy rate and high cultural conservatism.
The obsessive discrimination attached to dark skin was an unwanted gift brought to the Asian sub-continent first by the Huns and Mongols from East Asia and later by the Aryans from Central Asia, who – like the early Americans – treated dark-skinned people as slaves. But it surprises me to discover that the Asian obsession with white skin is actually deep rooted in Chinese and Japanese history. A read into old Chinese literature will give you an idea how fair skin tone was associated with a woman’s class or character and a reference to where she might have come from, with dark-skinned women mostly seen as peasants.
While there have been several attempts at breaking stereotypes associated to colourism, the dilemma of dark, dusky women in South Asia is still far from over. Humiliatingly stereotypical television advertisements promoting skin whitening creams and treatments continue to reinforce typecasts that fair-skinned women are more likely to find “eligible” partners. Amidst this, a recent Indian jewellery advertisement that made a bold attempt at breaking this stereotype by showing a dusky bride with an adolescent daughter was not less than a breath of fresh air. It gave ways of positive change that at least India’s youth in the region was changing its perception about colourism.
Maybe it’s because of women like Indian actress and director Nandita Das and British sitcom director and actor Mindy Kaling, who defy the concept of white beauty – not because of their own skin colour but their aim to change the idea that women, and especially Indian women, are only beautiful if they have fair skin.
The world needs more women like Nyong’o and Sudanese supermodel Alex Wek (who not only served as a role model for Nyong’o but has taken the modelling industry by storm); and Das, who intrepidly advocated the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign in India that called for ending discrimination against dark skin; and Kaling, who in a recent interview with The Guardian admitted to standing strong despite enduring a humiliating experience when a network rejected her because she “was not considered attractive… enough” and when US Elle preferred taking a black-and-white close-up of her when having her on the cover.
As a Pakistani woman who has always defied the orthodox sub-continental mindset against women and faced criticism for it, I know that it takes more than just confidence to confront deep-rooted typecasts against women. I can relate to these women when they react to social disparagement for their race, colour, size or choices they make in life. To these 1,000 problems facing these women, there is only one solution: positive activism to neologise the concept of beauty and stimulate the youth to realise that beauty is only skin deep.
By Ayesha Hasan