Curly Hair, Very Fair, Eyes are Blue, Lovely Too

The name of this blog post is part of a rhyme I recently heard over 90 Indian children reciting from heart. At first I couldn’t make out the words to the rhyme because of so many children singing the words at different times, but when I did, I was shocked. What was hardest for me to hear was, “Teacher’s pet, is that you?” which symbolizes the fairer you are, the more favoritism you will get from your teachers. This is a rhyme that is found in their textbooks and is common for Indian children to learn.

This white standard of beauty is entrenched around the world, and it upsets me.  I’ve seen it everywhere from the U.S., to Nicaragua, to Jordan, to India. In Nicaragua, you can’t see a single advertisement without a white person featured. In Jordan and the broader Middle East, women will use so much foundation that their face is a different shade of white than their hands and neck are. In India, you can find rows and rows of skin bleaching creams which promise to make you “Fair and Lovely.”  During my most recent trip to a rural area, an Indian woman recently came up to me, knowing very little English, and pointed to my skin, and smiling. Her friend said she liked my skin and thought it was beautiful.

In America, one of the memories which stands out to me the most is my first weekat Quality of Life. Within days of starting, two pre-teen girls told me they wished they were as light-skinned as me. My response was that “Everyone wishes they’re something they aren’t. White girls like to tan and be darker.”  But I knew there was a profound difference. The fact that they felt so comfortable telling me this, without even knowing me, tells me that their body insecurity went beyond simple self-esteem. Their desire to be light-skinned had been ingrained in them at a very young age.

I tell these personal stories of “compliments” because of the racial implications behind it and what it means for women of color. For those who think that it’s the same as white women tanning, it is most certainly not. White women who tan are of course trying to attain a certain standard of beauty, but they are not trying to change their race and become an entirely different ethnicity. It does not have it’s roots based in colonialism, where hierarchies of power were established based on color of skin. Where white men dominated society, stripping bare cultural and societal norms and used terms like quadroon, octaroon, and quintaroon to determine blood status and rights and restrictions as such. White women can never know the history of “passing” or what it meant to be relegated to second-class citizen status based on the color of skin.

More white men and women need to be talking about this false standard of beauty and what this means for women across the world. Women are beautiful whatever shade of skin they happen to be, and we need to stop perpetuating images of light-skinned women in media as the “ideal.” One of my favorite actresses is Lupita Nyong’o, a woman who has spoken openly about her self-esteem issues as a child being dark-skinned. Now she graces the cover of People Magazine and represents Lancome Cosmetics. However, there’s quite a long way to go, and Lupita is the exception and not the rule. Dark is beautiful, brown is beautiful, pale is beautiful, tan is beautiful.  Campaigns like the video above that promote different shades of beauty, and girl empowerment groups like Pretty Brown Girls offer an alternative narrative to the white standard of beauty for women. They can’t change centuries of racism, but they can begin to change the conversation surrounding beauty and inspire young girls to be confident in their own skin.