Practical Ways to Change Your Language About Dark Skin

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This picture that showcases some of my lovely melanin was taken by my friends over at Mallari Productions.

tldr: If we can be mindful of our passing comments regarding light and dark skin, we can then choose to be a part of the narrative to change what it means to have dark skin.

I was just a kid at the time and I was binge watching The Twilight Zone amid summer break. Back then summer vacation meant lounging in my ice cold basement and clicking through television stations with my brother. To stumble upon a marathon of The Twilight Zone was always a treat. Though I’ve watched countless shows over the years, The Twilight Zone remains a favorite of mine because the deeper messages it has taught me about life. But of all of the episodes I’ve watched over the years, one stood out to me the most- ‘The Eye of the Beholder’.

*SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD* You’ve been warned… 

The episode details the horrid tale of a woman who was plagued by her “ugliness”. Little children would cry when they saw her. It felt as though it was impossible for her to exist in society because of how ugly she was. Despite countless surgeries, she remained hideous. However, though she was plagued with ugliness from birth, this episode began with a sliver of  hope- she was getting another surgery.

The entire episode is intentionally filmed to avoid the faces of actors, including the woman receiving surgery. It is only at the end of the episode that the viewer sees the faces of people in her world; the people considered beautiful. The creators of the episode intentionally showed people who’s facial features distinctly differed from our society. I remember being horrified at what looked like pig snouts in place of noses and facial deformities that defined the “norm” of beauty. And the woman classified as ugly, who made children cry, would instead be considered gorgeous by our culture’s standards. The episode ends with screams of people crying over another failed surgery for this woman and my realization that this stunningly beautiful woman believed the lie that she was ugly because of how society defined beauty. Sound familiar?

Most people get it- the ways in which our society speak about having dark skin is not okay. The lack of representation of people of darker skin tones within Bollywood and media in general is frankly disturbing. Instead of seeing women of medium to darker skin tones being portrayed negatively, as touched on in “Why black people discriminate among ourselves: the toxic legacy of colorism“, we are absent in Bollywood. The void of women who look like me in the media communicates that people like me are not even worthy to be portrayed negatively. Darker Indian women are not to be seen as representative of what it means to be Indian, even a negative portrayal.

It sinks into our subconscious mind and teaches us what is beautiful. I think most rational people can all agree that this presentation of women of dark skin is insane. In fact, countless people expressed outrage over the appearance of the finalists for Miss India, confused as to how a country as diverse as India could somehow only have light skin women as finalists for a pageant queen.

In the same way that there are microaggressions across race, there are small ways in which we speak that perpetuate certain stereotypes and ideas surrounding what it means to have medium to dark skin tones. Ladies and gentlemen, we are counteracting years of Euro-centric culture and media. I don’t think that we’ll always be politically correct. But I’m writing this post because our language is important. It matters because the way we speak to each other has power; especially the comments we make in passing.

I’m creating this blog post for the people who want to “do better” but might not know how to do so. Because as much as I’d like to say that it’s only immoral people who say hurtful things, I’ve heard the statements below from an array of people. Some people who I respect and trust, others who I look up too. Colorism runs deep but I know we can do better. Below are some practical ways to change your language about dark skin and why it’s important. 

“I thought she was beautiful, not just because of her color.” 

“I thought she was beautiful” 

The problem with the above statement is in its construction. The use of the word “just” implies that by virtue of this person being a lighter skin tone, she might be pretty. And the issue with saying this is what it insinuates of people of a different skin tone. I get it, our brains have been fed images over and over again of women with ivory skin being described as beautiful. Maybe you feel deep down that this person may be pretty just because they have light skin but please be mindful of how saying this can be perceived by someone who doesn’t fit that ideal.

This brings into question- is it wrong to innately find light or dark skin attractive? I don’t think so. But when we speak we must be cognizant of the privilege of having light skin and accept that the norm is not that people love and appreciate both light and dark skin. The norm is instead glorifying light skin while shaming those who don’t fit that ideal. For that reason a passing comment of admiration of someone just because they are light skinned can come across as hurtful.

I can recall countless instances in which I would be confused and ask my mom why a certain person was also described as beautiful when they weren’t to me. The response was always something along the lines of how they actually really weren’t but they had light skin so naturally some people would find them beautiful just for that reason. This taught me that you might be pretty just for having light skin and maybe ugly just because you don’t. That’s an issue. Why can’t we find the beauty in both? Why can’t we praise both? Why can’t we see beyond the color of a person’s skin?

“Don’t stay out too much, you’ll get dark!”

“Put some sunscreen on before you go out into the sun so your skin is protected!” 

In all the years I’ve been told to not stay out in the sun or to avoid the sun, it has never been because my skin needed sunscreen or because of skin health. It was all because of the vanity of how I might look worse with dark skin. Hello, people- are you kidding me? Skin health is super important and totally disregarded. In fact, some people risk the health of their skin in attempts to bleach their skin to become when society deems beautiful. By telling our our daughters and nieces to stay inside to avoid tanning, we are communicating that how we look is more important than actually living our lives! I’ve seen people petrified of their skin tanning. People who would go to lengths to avoid the sun touching their face while sitting in a car or they would steer clear of standing outside for prolonged periods of time. It’s not just medium/dark women, I’ve seen women with light skin chained down by the expectations of having light skin and doing whatever it takes to maintain it. When we engage in this behavior we remained bound to fit this narrow ideal of what beautiful looks like and this is a reality for light and dark skin women alike.

“She would be so pretty, but she’s so dark”

“She is so pretty, all that melanin glows” 

You don’t need to qualify someone’s beauty. They’re not pretty for a dark girl, they’re just pretty. I would often hear my grandmother described as a dark beauty. But growing up I never felt the need to add “dark” to that compliment. Her almond eyes, defined nose and gentle smile were not beautiful despite her darkness. She was just beautiful. Period.

Someone recently commented on one of my videos in excitement about how my melanin was starting to show more because the sun was out. I never heard someone refer to my skin color that way. Why do we think that by being dark this somehow negates someone’s beauty? What if instead we saw it as something that’s actually beautiful about a person?

“We couldn’t understand why that gorgeous girl married such a dark-skinned guy.”

“We couldn’t understand what a gorgeous girl married a guy who didn’t think was so cute!” 

When you choose to use the word dark as synonymous with ugly or “less than”, that’s a problem. Why is that language normalized? What if I were to say- she’d be so pretty if she were not so toned and in shape? He’d look so much better if he wasn’t so confident and comfortable in his body. The way we chose to place the word “dark” in sentences teaches the meaning of that word to our future generations. Dark does not mean ugly and needs to stopped being used as a synonym for unattractive.

Closing Thoughts

The reality is that dark, medium and light skin are all beautiful. People were created by God with different skin tones for a reason. Instead of perpetuating the message that light skin is beautiful while dark skin is not, let’s empower fellow men and women to love themselves more. The alternative is chasing this one beauty ideal that leaves so many women feeling insecure.

I remember hearing as a kid how my father had the lightest skin out of all of his light skin siblings. This was a point of pride. But he was also described as foolish because he didn’t care for it and his ivory skinned darkened over the years to a now tan color. When I asked my dad about skin color, about why he married someone darker than him, like my mom, he explained that he thought brown skin was beautiful.

There are people willing to risk the health of their skin in order to fit into the mold of what society calls beautiful. Being honest, I’m not normally a fighter. I often grow tired of fighting the current of what society desires and part of me wants to just accept things as they are, conform and change my skin. But the reality is that I can’t change my skin to fit this mold. I refuse to bleach my skin to be just a shade lighter, to attempt to conform to the idea that being “fair” is lovely while still not even reaching that goal. I also don’t want to because I’m growing to love my skin- even when it tans in the sun.

My father’s attitude was confusing to me because he in many ways held power by naturally having light skin. He had something that other people desperately tried to get through bleaching and staying out of the sun. He threw away this status because he didn’t care for it. My hope is that all of us can be more mindful of the influence that our culture has on our perception of beauty. The woman from The Twilight Zone episode haunted me. It’s a radical choice to believe you’re beautiful in a society that tells you that you’re not. But you might just be right.