by Georgia Chambers and Itunu Abolarinwa
In the 2011 documentary Dark Girls, colourism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination based on the relative lightness or darkness of skin; generally a phenomenon occurring within one’s own ethnic group.” Whilst colourism itself may be straightforward to define, the issue transcends the baseness of skin colour and impacts the social, economic and political structures for the lives of BAMEs. It’s the last taboo when it comes to racial issues, yet is more visible than ever before in modern society. “Colourism” is born from the idea that the closer to white you are, the better you are, both in terms of attractiveness and intellectual ability. This prejudice has its roots in slavery, where lighter skinned slaves worked in the house whereas darker skinned slaves worked out in the field. This created a social structure of racial privilege, which has continued to create rifts within singular ethnic communities.
In the second of this four-part series, SpiceUK writers Itunu Abolarinwa and Georgia Chambers discuss how colourism impacts how we think about, and represent black beauty.
Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about so-called light-skinned beauty?
Georgia: A misconception about light skinned people is that they have “good hair.” This is a difficult statement because for it to have any substantial truth, we’d have to define what “good hair” actually means. That “Pantene Pro-v waves on the top. Easy to style, comb, rock,” as spoken word poet Zora Howard points out, is completely false. I have tight afro curls that require a lot of upkeep, and because I didn’t fit that “good hair” image, I hated the hair I was born with and started relaxing it when I was very young.
“the conception that light-skinned people have ‘good hair’ is a myth”
Despite the natural hair movement, we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding “natural hair. The “good hair” of light-skinned people have come to define its meaning; a look that many women, light and dark-skinned cannot possibly achieve. I’ve noticed an increasing number of dark-skinned women using weaves to achieve this “natural” look, which is fine but I feel it doesn’t allow the so-called “natural movement” to reflect natural hair in all its textures.
Q: How do beauty standards differ between light and dark-skinned women?
Itunu: Beauty standards for dark-skinned women seem to be more rigid. Typical images of dark skin ladies see them doused in baby oil, with long hair, super curvy with hardly any clothes on. It’s nice to see dark-skinned women getting recognition but the overly sexualised images of them that saturate the media can do more harm than good. I don’t think that beauty standards for light-skinned women are as concrete, but I can see how the fetishisation of light-skinned women in the media and beauty industries puts a lot of pressure on both them and dark skinned women to fit that ideal.
Q: Do you ever feel pressure to look a certain way as a light-skinned woman?
G: I think women always feel the pressure to look a certain way, but the burden intensifies when you are a woman of colour. It’s clear to see that light-skinned women are favoured over darker skinned women in everything from beauty advertisements to the catwalk- I actually think the fashion industry is worse than the media when it comes to the issue of colourism. If you look at the ‘models of the moment’ such as Cara Delevigne, GigGi and Bella Hadid, Jourdan Dunn etc., none of them is dark-skinned. Light-skinned models like Jourdan Dunn tick a box, the box of “diversity,” that is, close enough to white but “ethnic” enough to make sure these agencies don’t get accused of racism. So no, I don’t feel the pressure to look a certain way as a light-skinned woman; I feel pressure to look as close to “white” as possible. Coloured women everywhere are all trying to fight against the white hegemonic beauty standard, and we can’t do that by calling each other out all the time.
Q: What are your opinions on drastic forms of achieving Eurocentric beauty standards, such as skin bleaching?
I: Ahhh skin bleaching. First of all, it’s not my place to judge anyone or tell anyone what to do. I think the primary thing is to love yourself- and not get caught up in Eurocentric standards of beauty. Standards of beauty change all the time, once upon a time having a big butt was considered unattractive, now women of all colours are going to extreme measure to achieve it. It’s interesting because Eurocentricism plagues all facets of life, but alongside it- the attractiveness of cultural appropriation is equally destructive.
“Society forgets that they are the ones who forced us towards such drastic measures in the first place”
While some women of colour are trying to look more European, white young women are trying to look more ‘exotic’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and it’s something that leaves a lot of ill-feeling. It’s so important to embrace your beauty, whatever race and shade you are and you should not do things because you’re trying to match any standard of beauty. It’s easier said than done of course, but it’s all a process.
G: I have very controversial views on skin bleaching. I think it’s fundamentally wrong, and it’s tragic to think that this is how cruel society can be, and this is what society can do to a person. But it irritates me when white people who have used sunbeds, for example, to achieve a darker skin tone are shocked that skin bleaching is a thing that exists and a thing that some people of colour do. I remember when the Afro-Caribbean hair salon I went to made the local news because they were selling skin lightening products. My friend sat me down and she made me swear never to use it. Looking back now, she used sunbeds and tanning products and hated being pale. Society is quick to tell women of colour that how their means of achieving a more Eurocentric image is wrong, whilst forgetting that they are the ones who forced them towards such means in the first place.
Q: How do you think women of colour can empower themselves? What would you say to a dark/light skinned girl that is struggling with her identity and appearance?
I: Women of colour need to remember that loving themselves in a world that is intent on bringing them down is a revolutionary act. If you’re struggling with your identity I think it’s important to remember that you’re allowed to be a complex individual. If you’re struggling to embrace your appearance, take it one step at a time. Find something about your appearance that you like and just revel in that until you embrace yourself as a whole. For me, I like the way I look when I smile, so I smile a lot. Loving yourself is so important because you’re with yourself ALL THE TIME and to be honest there is nothing more beautiful than a woman who is confident in who she is, flaws and all.
G: Preach! When I didn’t feel beautiful, I held on to the things that I knew were true- that I was intelligent, that I was loved, and that I was a good person. Take these things as a foundation and your outer beauty will flourish naturally. Facing the world is never going to be easy, but as Itunu says, take it one step at a time.
“Women of colour need to remember that loving themselves in a world that is intent on bringing them down is a revolutionary act”
I guess I can only speak from a light skinned perspective in terms of what advice I can give, but to other light skinned girls out there who are struggling with their identity, don’t feel you have to be one or the other. Revel in your uniqueness because that is your superpower. We need to have more light skinned and dark skinned girls celebrating each other’s beauty rather than focusing on the line that divides us, that wasn’t even drawn by us in the first place.
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