By Missy J
I don’t think there was ever a time when I wasn’t made to feel aware of how dark my skin was. For a girl growing up in the 80s and 90s Singapore, it wasn’t enough to know I was dark. I was constantly reminded that it was a highly unattractive state of being.
At school and in the playground, my skin colour was an acceptable target for jokes and insults by my peers and adults, including teachers. One of the most backhanded compliments I received was from a good friend who earnestly told me, “You have such beautiful features. If only your skin weren’t so dark.” Perversely, that made 12-year-old me smile all afternoon.
Things were no better in my teenage years. I was already grappling with the usual challenges facing awkward teens. I have been saddled with the knowledge that my deeper skin tone made me an undesirable candidate for crushes. Nothing could pulverise your self-worth faster than overhearing your crush poke fun at you by comparing you unfavourably to the night sky. What a doofus. Had he not noticed how stunning the night sky can be?!
Remarkably, none of these experiences made me feel ashamed of my skin tone. I’m sad to say, though, that I wasn’t proud of it either. My mum, who had suffered a similar fate to mine, confided that she often wished she could change the colour she had been given.
I harboured no such desire. I wanted people to stop coming at me for something I had no control over. I wanted zero discussion about my colour and saw no reason to celebrate it. I wished it wasn’t noticed at all.
I also wished in vain for salespeople to stop haranguing me with skin-whitening products every time I entered a drugstore. It seemed there were countless creams and formulas to lighten your skin. The same couldn’t be said for cosmetics.
I’ve always loved makeup, but it was difficult to find colours that suited me because, at that time in Singapore, we didn’t matter. The dark-skinned population just wasn’t large enough a market to cater to. If I had the money, I could have found something suitable at a high-end boutique for a very expensive price tag. At 16 years old, however, my options were limited to what I could find at Watson’s. Often, this resulted in using foundations that were a couple of shades too light for me. I often felt like I was acting in my pantomime.
As a socially anxious person who hated standing out, it meant I was often too afraid to experiment with some colours for fear it’d highlight my brownness and set me apart from the crowd. White especially brought out the colour of my skin, so I avoided wearing white for decades.
As we moved into the early ages of social media, I continued to draw attention away from my skin. I’d turn my photos black and white before posting them. It was easier to seem pretty if you were grey rather than brown.
Recounting the relationship I’ve shared with my skin is bittersweet. I’m glad I didn’t hate it, but sadly, I could not love it. These days, I’m unabashed about how gloriously brown I am.
What changed? Age mostly. I became more confident in my identity as I grew older and wiser. That made it easier to see that I was never the problem. Society was. At best, people who found my dark skin gross were ignorant and obtuse. At worst, they were racist, hopelessly misguided and unworthy of my time anyway.
Being a mum was the other big factor. I couldn’t imagine my children not loving the gorgeous skin they were born in. I don’t want them ever to need to hide as I did. I want them to feel confident that their particular shades were lending depth to the palette of life.
Consequently, I’ve switched from a wardrobe of blacks and greys and am experimenting with colours that complement and bring out my skin tone. I’ve stopped avoiding white. Hell, I now wear white to feel sexy because I know it’s highlighting my beautiful brown skin.
Since turning 40, I’ve toyed with the idea of celebrating myself with a boudoir photo shoot. When I tick that off my bucket list, I know I want my photos to be in colour. I’ve spent a long time being grey. It’s time to revel in the chocolatey goodness on my skin.
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