Yesterday I stumbled upon a video on Buzzfeed that resonated so much with me that it brought me to the verge of tears. The video entitled "What Dark-Skinned People Will Never Tell You" features people of Latin-American, African, and Asian backgrounds, sharing their frustrations about the negative way society views dark skin:
"There is something about having dark skin on a woman's body that shapes the way she moves through the world.
There is something about having dark skin on a man's body that shapes the way in which he moves through the world.
It has real life stakes."
One of the people featured in the video went on to talk about how her mother bought her a bleaching cream when she was in 3rd grade, and it reminded me of the skin whitening advertisements I’ve seen since I was around 10 years old. I remember seeing it on television in between my favorite cartoon shows and on billboards everywhere and with the same narrative told over and over again. Girl sees guy. Girl has crush on guy. Guy doesn’t notice girl. Girl realizes she has "blemishes" and her skin is kusam (dull). Girl starts using product to give her a glowing skin (industry term for whiter skin). Girl catches guy’s attention. Guy asks her out; she blushes. The end. Happy ever after.
You see, I didn't care much at first. But as I got older and understood how problematic that narrative is I gagged upon seeing it. The worst thing about it is that the same narrative prevails to this day, when I’m in my young adulthood.
Growing up, I was fortunate to be surrounded by supportive people who never pushed me to use such products. Kudos to my feminist mother for raising me to become an independent woman who doesn’t give in to anyone else's beauty standards but my own. Regardless, that didn’t make me invincible to pre-pubescent self-esteem and body image issues.
I've always been scrawny, and dark-skinned. I proudly don my sawo matang skin tone, but for whatever reason it offends some people? I had people tell me in disbelief that I couldn't have been my mother's daughter because she's so light-skinned and I'm not. I've had them tell me I shouldn't swim too much (I was an avid swimmer) because it would only get my skin darker, and God forbid I wanted to get darker than I already am.
I tend to brush off the bullies and not let words cut through my skin, but I can still the remember the rage inside me when a snooty boy pointed at a garbage can and told me that's where I belonged because of how dark and dirty I was. Well, I proceeded to pour tea on his head and throw its packaging to his face. Look whose the garbage can now, b*tch.
Despite my abhorrence of this type of bullies, there were times when I internalized their distorted notion of beauty. As a teenager whose life revolved around pop punk bands, Disney Channel heartthrobs and cheesy rom-coms, I wondered if no one would date me because I didn't fit the mould of beauty. I was too skinny, too dark skinned and I rarely wore makeup. I thought that, perhaps, despite what they said about my achievements, integrity and assertiveness, somehow people and society just couldn’t get past the superficiality.
Looking back, I would have told my younger teenage self to snap out of it, because my skin tone and complexion should not determine my worth. I would have told her to snap out of it, because my skin tone and complexion is genuinely Indonesian. There's nothing to be ashamed of about having chocolate coloured skin and no advertisements or skewed representations of beauty is going to change that.
So here’s my argument: representation of ideal beauty matters for young women and men alike. What is being shown in the media matters. When the youths today see images of only fair-skinned models in skincare ads, their perspective of ideal beauty will be skewed, even those who inherently believe it's pretty much bullshit. I have previously let these images into my psyche and allowed them to toy with my teenage self's fragile self-esteem and confidence.
The only way to fight this damaging representation is by not perpetuating it, because, whether we like it or not, words and image stick with us for a long time and it will be glued deep into our unconscious.
So, pay attention to what you say to young women about beauty. Don’t ask them why they’re so dark skinned, and if they’d like to try this new skincare regiment that would make their skin glow. Don’t tell them that they’re not beautiful enough to find a life partner, because they’re too dark.
Tell young women around you that they are beautiful in their own terms, and debunk the myths perpetuated by skin whitening products. Tell them that their skin color does not equate to their worth. Tell them that people are measured by multifaceted aspects other than their skin tone. Your words matter and it will affect the way we move through the world. And we will move through the world with our head held high, proud and confident in our chocolate-coloured skin.
Nandra Galang Anissa works at a digital marketing agency, but is a writer at heart. She is passionate about tech, travel, film, and is an impulse buyer of books. She also blogs about going places at eatwritetravel.co.