Asian ActivismThe Beauty Treatment Issue

Outgrowing Internalized Colorism

By December 18, 2018 January 16th, 2019 96 Comments

By: Anusha Asim

A few years ago, If you had asked me to define beauty, I’d probably picture a petite white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes.

That’s how beauty was presented to me from the very beginning. That’s how all of my Barbie dolls, my favorite characters from all of my favorite cartoons looked. Ironically, the Urdu storybooks my grandmother would read to me were filled with illustrations of fairies and princesses that looked nothing like us. They were light-skinned, with flowing blonde hair and blue twinkling eyes. I always wished to look more like them. They were described as kind, brave, elegant, beautiful and magical. I began to associate these traits with light skin, with whiteness.

Ironically, the Urdu storybooks my grandmother would read to me were filled with illustrations of fairies and princesses that looked nothing like us.  


In kindergarten, I remember seeing my white-passing friends as so similar to the princesses in my story books. This led me to ending up with a lot of toxic friendships. I idealized those kids, I saw them as pretty and so, so, much more than me. I even considered it lucky that they wanted to play with me.  I dismissed all of their racist remarks towards me.  Maybe, because deep down, I thought they were true. As a child, I never really liked my appearance and was blind to the beauty of so many people around me. I thought we were all just okay-looking, not anything remarkable, not beautiful.  In my childhood drawings, I drew myself and my friends, even the ones that looked like me with blonde hair and light eyes. That’s how all of us wished we could look. That was what we considered pretty.

Then later, that’s how we edited our pictures for social media. We made our skins lighter, our eyes brighter. We didn’t look a lot like ourselves in those pictures and honestly, all the lovely comments we got on them didn’t even feel like they were aimed at us. Because that was not what we actually looked like. I often hear people talking about how nearly everyone edits or facetunes their pictures on social media, yet anyone rarely addresses the fact that this editing is mostly to adhere to beauty standards that are pretty Eurocentric. It’s mostly to look fairer and slimmer and a lot less like ourselves.

It’s ironic how brands that celebrate inclusivity and diversity will represent Asia with only light-skinned models. That’s how people assume the majority of us look like even when that’s not the case. I’ve never seen a dark-skinned lead actress in a Bollywood movie, I’ve never seen a dark skinned model on a magazine cover who’s complexion hasn’t been altered to look lighter. The underrepresentation of dark-skinned asians in media is very real.

I’ve never seen a dark-skinned lead actress in a Bollywood movie


“You look western” and “You look pale” are casual compliments that people still throw around and almost all of the time, the person on the receiving end gladly accepts them.

I didn’t like my South-Asian features for a very long time. My olive skin wasn’t light enough, my dark brown eyes were boring, my black hair was dull and my thick eyebrows and broad shoulders made me look masculine. I remember “dark-skinned” being thrown as a casual insult to my darker skinned friends. Our hyperglorification of eurocentric beauty often leads us to degrading ourselves and sticking to this unattainable idea of what “beautiful” should look like. And we’re not even close to it. Then come the fairness creams, the fair & lovely commercials, products profiting off our internalized colorism.

It’s really disturbing how so many of us refuse to see anything wrong with the words, “It’s not a cream, it’s a fairness treatment”. As if our darker skins are medical issues that needed to be “treated”. Even mainstream Asian celebrities endorse such products, despite not looking anything like their standard of beauty without being photoshopped. I’ve always wondered why colorism is so deeply embedded into Asian cultures, especially since how so many religions condemn it. Where did this belief that fairness equates superiority originate from?

The answer lies in our history.


Ever since colonialism began in Asia, we’ve associated fairness with power, superiority and desirability. Light-skin privilege is something that has existed for a very long time and it will continue to do so, until we acknowledge it and take action. Let’s stop accepting compliments for being too pale, let’s stop looking at white, blonde women as the epitome of beauty. Let’s do everything it takes to abolish the idea that fairness equals superiority.

We associate fairness with power


Thankfully, we’ve come a long way due to the body positivity movement and Asian social activism. The idea that beauty comes in all shapes, colors and sizes doesn’t seem so radical anymore.  So of us many of are finally waking up and reclaiming our culture, our beauty. It did take some time but fortunately, how I see beauty has changed greatly. When I think about the word “beautiful” now, I picture a lot of different women and most of them possess the traits that I was conditioned to see as unattractive.

When I think about the word “beautiful” now, I picture a lot of different women


I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to change anything when I look into the mirror now. However, I don’t see anything wrong with my South Asian features. I don’t wish my hair and eyes were a brighter color, I think they’re pretty cool as they are. I don’t wish my skin were lighter. I may not be completely free from all of my insecurities but it’s nice knowing that none of them stem from a desire to look whiter. I hope there comes a day when all Asians grow up without a desire to conform to these eurocentric beauty standards, a day when we all can see ourselves as nothing less than the gorgeous beings we are. This day comes closer every time another one of us embraces their genetic features and refuses to conform to these unrealistic beauty standards. It comes closer every time we see someone that looks like us on a TV screen. It comes closer every time one of us acknowledges our internal colorism, and lets go of it.

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