Fair enough?

Oct 20, 2020 by

Seetha Nambiar Dodd

A strange phenomenon was prevalent in my childhood. Women walking under umbrellas when there was not a raincloud in sight. Women in the glorious Malaysian sunshine, finding shade wherever possible — on the beach, in parks, at school sports days. As a young child, I thought it was odd. By the age of 10, I understood, for the conditioning had already taken effect.

Crayons in different skin colours (Jeff Siepman/Unsplash)

Stay out of the sun was the solution. The problem? Getting too dark. This had nothing to do with protecting your skin from the damaging effects of UVA/UVB rays, nothing to do with skin cancer, nothing to do with not wanting your skin to burn, blister or peel. It had everything to do with the undesirable darkening of your skin.

The story of colourism has roots that go back many generations; it has trickled relentlessly through time and is still evident in many ways today. In many countries with a colonial history, light skin was perceived, for a long time, as belonging to the upper classes, constituting power and wealth.

I believe my story began in kindergarten, when we had to pick a crayon to colour in our self-portraits. Everyone picked the beige crayon. It was called flesh, after all, and was often referred to as skin colour. No one noticed that beige wasn’t everyone’s skin colour. No one asked to use the light brown or the dark brown crayon. A classroom full of five-year-olds, ranging in skin tone from ivory to ebony, blissfully coloured in representations of ourselves with the same beige crayon. Including me. It was only years later that I realised I was subconsciously reaching for a colour that did not match my reflection.

Having Indian skin and growing up in a country with tropical weather meant just 20 minutes under the afternoon sun would turn my skin a darker shade of brown. But everywhere I looked, the message was clear — light-skinned was the ideal. Television commercials and billboards advertising everything from sanitary pads to local tourism rarely featured dark-skinned models, despite the make-up of the population. Skin lightening creams were all the rage. Every cosmetic brand had a whitening range. Only a few had lipsticks, blush and foundation that were suitable for brown skin. Rather than helping me flatter my skin tone with the right shades of make-up, the beauty industry was telling me to fix a problem I didn’t know I had.

When I moved to England for college, I was amused to see my white classmates sunbathing at the slightest hint of sunshine. If there wasn’t enough sun, they turned to tanning lotions. They told me I was lucky that I didn’t have to work on my tan, but I joined them in the sun anyway. After years of being warned to stay out of the sun, there was a kind of freedom in soaking up its rays with such wild abandon.

‘My family and I spend a lot of time outdoors — playing or cheering on soccer pitches, swimming in the ocean and going on bushwalks. You will probably find me wearing a hat and sunglasses to protect my skin from damage, but certainly not from gaining colour.’

However, when I returned to Malaysia in the holidays, it wasn’t unusual for random acquaintances to shake their heads and declare that I’d lost my colour, meaning I had lost my ‘fairness’. Many of these comments were from critics within my own culture, who had no doubt been given the same ‘don’t get too dark’ warnings as children. It didn’t matter that I had done well at college or that I had joyfully embraced everything my new surroundings had offered. The main concern was how I had allowed my complexion to go from milky tea to builder’s brew.

Here we are in 2020. I can now (usually) find cosmetics to suit my skin tone, but the issue has never been just skin deep. Around the world, skin colour still influences treatment. It is so inherent that it has become part of the fabric of our lives.

Still, I was excited to learn that the Pantone skin tone guide now has 110 shades of skin colour. Better yet, in July this year Crayola launched its Colors of the World crayons, partnering with cosmetics expert Victor Casale and his experience in creating global shade palettes for companies like MAC Cosmetics. The new Crayola 24 colour palette has been formulated to better represent all complexions and to cultivate diversity and inclusion.

So, no one needs to reach for the beige crayon and assume it is the only choice for skin colour, in kindergartens and everywhere else. We all need to see ourselves reflected in the world around us — in a crayon, in a shade of foundation, in the heroine of a story, on the sports field, on television, in a job opportunity — to believe that our stories and our voices matter. But we have a long way to go.

I now live in Australia which has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Sunscreen is essential. My family and I spend a lot of time outdoors — playing or cheering on soccer pitches, swimming in the ocean and going on bushwalks. You will probably find me wearing a hat and sunglasses to protect my skin from damage, but certainly not from gaining colour.

When my children started school, they came home with self-portraits in their Kindy years. I was proud to see they had chosen the brown crayon to represent their skin tone. I hope they will always be happy in their own skin and always acknowledge and celebrate the full spectrum of colours around us.

As Crayola’s marketing video states, ‘Every child should have the power to colour themselves into the world.’

Seetha Nambiar DoddSeetha Nambiar Dodd is a Malaysian-born, Sydney-based freelance writer.

Main image: Crayons in different skin colours (Jeff Siepman/Unsplash)

Source: Fair enough?

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