Proud of the Brown Skin I’m In

In my culture, the lighter you are the better. But I think my brown skin is beautiful.

Joyful dark-skinned South Asian woman outside looking at the camera.
Photo: Jessica Lia/Getty Images

There are more than 650 different types of ethnicities in the world. So many colors define us and our opinions about these shades vary just as much as our skin color does.

As a girl in her early twenties in Bangladesh (a country in South Asia surrounded on three sides by India), I would call myself “Brown.” But brown itself has so many different shades! In our culture, the lighter brown you are, the better. Having a child with dark skin is a cause of despair for parents as they are not particularly considered beautiful.

I know what this mindset can do to a little girl.

I’m a little on the darker side of brown, and I grew up feeling lesser (even slightly embarrassed) among my fairer skinned relatives. My complexion is like my father’s while my mother and brother have a lighter tone. When I was little, my father always made me feel special. In his eyes, I was his “beautiful daughter.” I was like my father, and I was proud of it.

But as I grew older and my world started to expand beyond my father’s loving gaze, I began to think something probably wasn’t right with me. Friends, relatives, and complete strangers would see me with my fair-skinned mother and exclaim in shock and disappointment: “Oh! She must have taken after her father.” They didn’t see this as something to take pride in.

There are all kinds of people more beautiful than our lame beauty standards could understand.

I had a cousin who was the same shade of brown as me, and her mother would constantly comment on her dark skin, saying how she “should never have married that man and gotten her offspring in a pickle with his lesser genes.” My cousin, a girl, like me, would have to be married off, and “no boy wants to marry a girl with dark skin.” For them, finding my cousin a husband who was as fair-skinned as possible was top priority. The fairer, the better so that none of their future kids inherit the mother’s dark coloring.

Older women in the family would advise me to perform various skin care routines to get lighter skin. They told me not to stay out and play too long out in the sun, thinking that I’d get more tan. And children can be mean too. I noticed some “fairer” kids didn’t want to play with me in fear that they might “catch” my color like one might catch the flu.

My confidence waned and so too did my ability to make friends. I grew quiet and self-conscious. I began to lose my childish pride in the skin tone I inherited from my father. Any love I had for the skin I was in was starting to fade.

The way the world decides what’s beautiful is so mysterious, we are never happy with what we have.

Later, in my early teens, I met a woman. She was amazingly successful and as smart as she was confident. And her skin was like a rich chocolate ganache, smooth and glowing with happiness and health. Her dark kohl-lined eyes twinkled with amusement, and her wide smile was filled with warmth. She always wore dark red lipstick and a black bindi on her forehead. Her hair was always loose, framing her face as if to highlight her sharp cheekbones.

To me, she was the epitome of beauty. Every time I was close to her, I automatically felt respect and admiration. But she wasn’t married. And everyone used to blame her singleness on her dark color: “The poor woman! She would be perfect if she was just a bit lighter.”

But to me, she was already perfect with everything she’d achieved in life and the kind and caring person she was. She talked to me about life and love, about happiness and heartbreak. My 13-year-old self couldn’t fathom half of them, but I still listened. She also taught me that confidence must come from within, not without. It didn’t matter what other people had to say about her, her relationships, or her skin. As long as she believed she was beautiful, she was. She was in complete control of her life.

After about 10 years, we lost touch, but I’d heard that she’d gotten married and had a little girl. I believe she is still as happy, if not more. I carry the lessons in self-love I learned from her always. It was time to take control back of my own life.

I slowly regained confidence in myself again. I took pride in the fact that I was good at my studies. I abandoned any fear about finding a husband that I inherited from my auntie. I figured I would choose or reject men when the time comes for me to marry, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, I never really regained my outdoorsy nature. Instead, I like to stay inside and read a good book. But it was books written by different people all over the world about different identities that made me think. By the time I was 15, I was exposed to the world outside my own country. I learned there are all kinds of people more beautiful than our lame beauty standards could understand. The ones we might dismiss could go on to become Miss Universe, beating out people with milky white skin. And if you ask me, Lupita Nyong’o is one of the most stunning women out there.

There’s nothing wrong with having brown skin. White people think brown is “exotic.” It’s so strange to me that so many White women sit for hours in the sun to reduce a bit of their whiteness and to get just a little color while I was chastised for wanting to play outside as a child. The way the world decides what’s beautiful is so mysterious, we are never happy with what we have.

Whatever change the world may face, the people stay the same. Elderly women still advise me on how to get lighter skin color. Ads for dangerous skin-lightening creams are all over South Asia and parts of Africa (even in the U.S.). When a new baby is born, people still gather around to discuss whether their color will be light or dark. These days, I stand up for any younger cousins in my family facing the same problems — because however jokingly you say these things, it still leaves a mark. You never forget these things. But you can relearn how to love yourself.

I listen to my family’s comments and ignore them and go on with my life. I became content with who I am, and I started to love myself and how I look. I got comfortable living in my own skin. If a magic genie tells me to choose between lighter skin color and dark skin, I’d choose the latter without any hesitation. But I might try to bargain for something to clear up my acne.

A lover of books and drunk on dreams. An introvert writing about life, books, movies, and personal development. IG: https://www.instagram.com/thegrimreadr/

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