skin color

Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva

The Pigment Paradox

Life is hard as a teenager, and it is even harder when society wants you to look like something that you would never naturally be.

Oct 1, 2016

If you go to any makeup store or supermarket in Southeast Asia, you will realize that pretty much every skin product boasts of its ability to give your skin a pearly white glow, regardless of the fact that most Southeast Asians’ natural complexions are far from pearly white – but they do glow, nevertheless. There are countless advertisements on the television or in glossy magazines that promise to change your skin tone to one that is more than three to four shades lighter in only 30 days. The advertisements are often completed with Photoshopped transformation pictures or clips of models initially looking grumpy with their dark skin, and gradually becoming happier as their skin turns fairer.
The fairer, the happier. The fairer, the prettier. The fairer, the better.
This indoctrination started at an early age. Growing up as the eldest child in a Balinese family, attending family events was an obligation that I could not avoid even at the age of seven. I was exposed to gossip among my aunts or even uncles who thought that I didn’t understand Balinese. I found it odd that whenever a wedding or an engagement party took place, the first remarks made by my gossipy aunts and uncles were not about the groom or bride’s education level or character, but their skin color.
“Is she fair-skinned?”
“Oh God, look at the groom, seems like he works on the field all the time.”
“What was he thinking when he started dating her? Their kids will have a bad skin complexion!”
The remarks and judgments bothered me at first, but eventually they got into the back of my head. I unconsciously fear and avoid the sun. I thought that there was no other definition of beautiful skin than its fairness. All these perceptions that I had were bothersome, considering that I grew up in the island of a thousand suns and again, as a Southeast Asian, my skin will never be pearly white.
This is the kind of mentality that was planted in my mind ever since I can remember, and it seems like it affects everyone on a nationwide scale, thanks to tremendous media influence. No Indonesian wants to buy darker skinned dolls, not even the beige ones. They always go for the lightest, the one that blinds your eyes with its striking complexion. People will mock your preference if you idolize someone who isn’t fair skinned. It was hard for me to deal with this mockery, especially because I have been a huge fan of Beyoncé since I was 14. I had to stay in the closet about my love towards Beyoncé — it was that ridiculous.
Girls stop playing outdoors as soon as they hit puberty, or even before. Instead of going to the beach — which is a five-minute walk away from my house — I spent hours with my grandmother making countless natural herb mixes to make our skin lighter. I got compliments whenever I looked a shade paler, but I got negative remarks for being a little bit tanned. Life is hard as a teenager, and it is even harder when society wants you to look like something that you would never naturally be.
When I first visited the United States in 2014, I was confused at first, and then enlightened. I went to a pharmacy to get some body lotion, and the majority of products were labeled as tanning products, or at least they promised to give you the healthy sun glow – whatever that means. I strolled down the aisles, trying to find my pearl white body lotion, but it was to no avail. I had to settle for a regular lotion. I walked out of the pharmacy slightly disappointed, but mostly filled with questions and thoughts.
Now all the dots make sense to me. The grass is always greener on the other side, and as humans we will never be happy and content with what we already have. While the locals are walking around with hoodies, hats and even gloves, most tourists are coming to Bali with their sarongs to lie on the beach for hours in their bikinis, or sometimes even topless. In movies I see people lying inside of a tanning bed or spraying themselves with fake tan to look, apparently, healthier. My grandmother used to joke that Kuta Beach often seems like a tray of grilled chicken, filled with tourists with either tanned skin or red sunburned backs. I never understood their fascination with the sun, I couldn’t understand why at times tourists made remarks that Balinese girls are beautiful and exotic, when all we wanted was to have blonde hair, light skin and light eyes.
Beauty is never absolute. It is the way we see it and it comes with variations and diversity. I also think that coming to NYU Abu Dhabi made me realize that beauty has such a wide definition in itself. Go to the dining hall during a busy time and you will see hair colors, skin complexions and eye colors of pretty much any kind you can imagine. After being exposed to such a diverse group for a while now, I am starting to be able to appreciate the wide array of beauty. I realize that there is no single definition of beauty and that fairer is not always better.
This is why I believe that representation in the media matters. This is why it is important for Disney princesses, models and even actors and actresses to represent the real diversity that our world has, simply because not every single person is lucky enough to be exposed to diversity on a daily basis. Making people get used to seeing different kinds of beauty, or simply letting them know that these skin complexions or body shapes are also Hollywood or magazine-cover-worthy is the first step to create an open-minded community that accepts difference. It’s a long shot, but I believe that it will eventually lead to a decrease in pressure on both men and women when it comes to trying to achieve a single definition of beauty.
Being exposed to such different judgments nurtured a sense of comfort deep inside me — I now know that definitions of beauty are fluid and that most of the time what society or other people think doesn’t matter as much as what I think about myself. The different feelings that come with this changing judgment make me learn not only to appreciate the diverse spectrum of beauty, but also to love myself and to be okay with what I have on my plate. I might not be a pearl-white-skinned, size two beauty, but what I have is enough and it makes me complete — it makes me who I am. I used to complain that people never write songs or poems about black hair and brown eyes, but now I know that with the amount of love and acceptance that I have for myself, I have no worries — I can write my own.
Carrisa Tehputri is a contributing writer. Email her at
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