I was born with dark skin. As a young girl, I didn’t think twice about my skin color, but as I grew older, that started to change. I began to develop negative feelings about how I looked because in Asia fair skin is highly desired and considered more attractive. This was confusing to me because I was being made to feel bad about something that was beyond my control.
As a child, I loved to play outside in the sun. My first piano teacher, who was often abusive, would always admonish me for this because she believed I was getting too dark. Nobody told the boys not to play outside. At school, friends would call me hitam manis, which means "sweet, dark-skinned,” and would hold up their arms next to mine and marvel at how much lighter their skin was; feeling increasingly insecure about my appearance, I got to the point where I would rub baby powder into my skin before leaving for school to appear lighter. I also had a brother who was quite fair-skinned, which sometimes prompted friends to ask if I wished I had gotten the lighter skin since darker skin on men was not perceived as a negative. Society didn’t judge men’s appearance like they did women’s, so the color of their skin didn’t matter. All these things made me feel confused, ugly, and ultimately, ashamed.
It’s not only in Malaysia where the Western beauty standard of fair skin rules supreme. One sees the influence of Western beauty ideals in many other countries in the East, including India, Japan, and Korea. These beauty standards are heavily promoted by the beauty, fashion, and entertainment industries, and we see their influence daily in television commercials, print ads, and social media. It’s no secret that the beauty industry makes billions of dollars by exploiting women’s insecurities and then selling us a solution for them.
In much of Asia, one also sees Western beauty ideals promoted in movies and television, where all the popular actresses (and actors) are fair-skinned. The beauty marketers in these countries mostly push women to lighten their skin, not men, since it’s women who are regularly judged on their looks and physical appearance. Although truth be told, men with lighter skin also are seen as more attractive and desirable than their dark-skinned brothers by much of the female public.
The turning point for me came when I saw Disney’s “Pocahontas.” It was then that my feelings about my appearance started to change because Pocahontas, a Native American, was anything but fair-skinned; to have such a beautiful, strong role model (even an animated one) up there on the screen was incredibly empowering for a girl like me, and because of it I started to feel better about what I looked like.
I can’t help but wonder how many more women and girls would benefit from movies that feature females with dark skin. Why must Malaysians find these role models in American films? There are so many beautiful and talented dark-skinned women, so why don’t we see more of them up on the screen in Malaysia, India, and other countries in the East? Embracing diversity and putting more dark-skinned women in films would go a long way toward changing antiquated views of what it means to be beautiful and desirable.
Later, when I went to the University of La Rochelle in France as an exchange student, people often complimented me on my dark skin and admired me for it. After all, they were spending hours under the sun or in tanning booths just to get what I already had. In the end, no one should be made to feel ashamed or less than because of the color of their skin, and none of us should be judged against one prevailing beauty standard or another. Beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and a world with only one beauty standard would be bland and uninteresting. It may have taken me a while, but today I’m proud of my dark skin, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.