The paradox of the light skin fetish

Image credit: Sharese Suriel

Last summer, whilst getting ready before a night out, I realised that I didn’t have time to straighten my hair. I had long hair at the time, naturally curly, and the humidity of the summer air always makes it take on new heights. As usual, my standard reaction was to scrape it back and fasten it into a French braid, but my friend walked into the room and begged me not to: “It looks so cool when you wear it down”. I reluctantly tore out the hair tie from my knotted locks and left her flat looking like a South Asian Diana Ross tribute act. This was rare for me. I’ve been wrestling with my hair since I could hold most of it in both my hands, and before that, my mother disciplined it for me. She’d always sigh when I left it loose, saying I looked “wild” and “untidy”. My elder sister inherited silky black hair, the standard hair type in the South Asian community, but my hair always stood out as a feature which didn’t ‘match’ my ethnicity. My parents still talk fondly about the ‘compliments’ family friends would pay me when I was a little girl: “They would always say you looked different. You were called Italian, Spanish, Brazilian…”. For my parents, this is nothing more than a form of pride and adoration. However, in my extended family, such ideals are manifested in a more sinister form. Internalised racism is rife. Girls whose skin is considered ‘too dark’ are whispered about and pitied at family gatherings. Women bleach their faces with skin-lightening products in the hope that a man in the South Asian community would want to marry them some day. Family members would look into my eyes when I was a child and say “Aren’t you a lucky girl to have such light brown eyes! Such European eyes!”. And yet, aged fifteen, I experienced the ugly reality of beauty norms when the woman threading my eyebrows turned to my mother and said: “Your daughter has a lot of excess hair on the side of her face. You should really get that lazered”. It appalled me that my mother couldn’t understand my tears on the car ride home that day, but it truly saddened me when she brought up the issue with me again, aged eighteen, saying that the baby hairs on my cheeks were “ruining my face”.

Back to the club night last summer and I remember wincing when I first heard the inevitable ice breaker: “Your hair is gorgeous. Where are you from?”. The question was asked by a black man. And it was asked again in various forms throughout the night, each time by men of colour. It’s a question which makes me feel more ashamed than almost anything else in the world. It’s invasive. It’s alienating. Most importantly, I’m uncomfortably aware of the fact that the question is, on some level, rhetorical. The man asking the question is enthralled by a sense of ‘mystique’. He has nothing to gain by finding out where you’re ‘from’. He is vocalising his appreciation of your ‘mixed’ features; that crucial hint of European beauty in your ‘exotic’ looks. The perceived desirability of the ‘light-skin girl’ is inevitably tied up with the Imperialist hyper-sexualisation of the woman of colour, whilst still maintaining the allure of mass marketed white beauty, which makes it surprising and upsetting to hear such comments from men of colour, whose prejudices are propagating the negative associations with dark skin which affect their own communities.

Undoubtedly, major responsibility for hyper-sexualisation today lies with the porn industry and the fetishised perceptions of women of colour which it propagates. However, internalised racism is hugely problematic and needs addressing urgently. It is preventing BAME communities from moving beyond internal prejudices, a necessary precursory step to tackling corporate exploitations of women of colour. There is a pervading sense in many South Asian families that men of colour from other BAME communities hyper-sexualise Asian girls and that ‘we should be wary’ of their advances. However, making men of colour the culprits means actively choosing to ignore that the roots of fetishisation lie in the white man’s colonial violation of women of colour for generations. Why do we ignore this? Why is it considered acceptable in my family for a Muslim girl to marry a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian boy, but a black man is still, shockingly and wrongfully, labelled as a violent, sex-crazed villain? Internalised racism between and within BAME communities is at the heart of this twisted hierarchy of beauty standards. Women of colour are constantly hypersexualised or shamed for their skin, their eyes, the plumpness of their lips and breasts, the texture of their hair. And the tragic fact of the matter is that such narrow and intolerant codes of beauty for women of colour have still not been disregarded or condemned by those communities whose women are under attack.

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