Brown Sugar Beauty: Renouncing Internalized Colorism
I think, for the majority of my childhood, I wanted to be white.
I was born and raised in a fairly conservative province in Canada, not only the first-born but also the daughter of Filipino immigrants. There was always an expectation from my parents that hovered above my head, encouraging me to pursue bigger and better opportunities than what they were afforded in their youth. Like many immigrants, my parents believed that the best way for their children to succeed in life in a foreign country was to assimilate and blend in with everyone else. So what did they do?
They decided to enroll me in a French immersion school for kindergarten until the end of high school.
As you can imagine, my classrooms growing up were predominantly white. Most of my close friends throughout my childhood were fair-skinned, some with striking blonde hair and blue eyes. Compared to my brown skin and unruly black hair, they looked nothing like me. However, I didn’t really think much of it in the early years of kindergarten and elementary. It wasn’t until the fifth grade when suddenly one’s physical appearance was paramount that I became aware of it. Suddenly everyone around me was talking about who they found the most attractive and their celebrity crushes. At the time, there was an abysmal amount of Asian representation in the media, especially Filipino representation. There weren’t many young girls and women who looked like me that I could look up to. Magazines, advertisements, TV shows, and movies were saturated with thin, white women that highlighted them as the ideal standard. As a result, I had an extremely rigid perception of beauty and how I saw myself.
There’s this belief in Filipino culture that being too tanned or having darker skin is considered ugly. I love the feeling of the sun kissing my skin and being outdoors on a summer’s day, especially when I was a child. But when I would return to my house, my mom would often take one look at me, frown, and say: “you’re too dark, anak. It doesn’t look nice.” When I was younger, I didn’t think twice when she would constantly chastise me; I just accepted it. My mom didn’t intend to be hurtful or prejudiced, but rather unconsciously recited the same beliefs that she was also taught as a child. Despite this, I couldn’t ignore the fact that these words followed me in my youth. Sometimes I’d walk past a mirror and stop to carefully examine my skin, considering these beliefs. Oh yeah, I guess I am too dark now, I’d think to myself.
When you’re a young Filipino girl in a school of mostly white people, it’s hard to avoid feelings of alienation. It’s bad enough being a teenager and having to navigate the awkwardness and uncertainty of puberty, but coupled with internalized colorism; you’ve got a smorgasbord of self-esteem issues. For so long, I came to understand and equate beauty with whiteness. And therefore began to resent my brown skin. Unintentionally, I would compare myself to my close friends, who would typically catch the eyes of the boys in our class. Why couldn’t I look like them? I used to wish that my skin was lighter or that my hair wasn’t deep dark brown so that I would look more like my friends, who reflected the dominant beauty ideals. I desperately wanted to fit in and be seen as gorgeous as I saw them. Maybe then the boys I secretly had crushes on might just like me back, as childish as that may seem. Was it true? Did having darker skin make me unattractive?
These insecurities greatly impacted my relationships with my friends, partners, and, most importantly, myself. How was I expected to radiate confidence in my own skin when I was taught to resent it? Even now, as a 21-year-old woman, I still have some days when I need to remind myself to unlearn the internalized colorism that I have grown to tolerate instead of critiquing the violence that these beliefs perpetuate. Luckily, as I’ve matured and grown throughout university, I began to truly admire the skin I was born in and see the beauty in my Filipino heritage. Finally, I was surrounded by a diverse friend group who understood the same grievances that I experienced at a young age, who reassured me that I wasn’t alone. It gives me a lot of hope and pride to see more positive Asian representation in the media, proving that they can be beautiful in many ways. While I now refuse to accept Eurocentric beauty standards that tell me that my melanated skin isn’t beautiful, I recognize that this is an ongoing process of unlearning and challenging head-on.
In the meantime, I will bask in the radiant sunlight on hot summer days and marvel at the way that it makes my skin look like dark brown sugar, every moment thinking about how much better I am for it.
Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.
Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.
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