I step out of the air-conditioned van into the hot and humid Sri Lankan streets. Even after a morning of letting the cold water from the well wash away the sweat and stench of the night, my skin still felt sticky to the touch. I loved Sri Lanka, every part of it made me smile. From the crazy humidity to the friendly faces on the streets.
It reminded me of the summer I fell in love with myself by rediscovering my roots and left part of me hoping that I would be able to experience that again. But as soon as stepped out, I felt myself looking at the other girls walking the streets, jealous of how light their skin was and how thick their hair was. I was jealous of how beautiful they all appeared to me, and how I could never measure up to them.
I looked at the billboards that stood above me with ads for Fair & Lovely, and Ponds White. And then back down at my skin, and then my reflection in the store window. And I closed my eyes, wishing, “If only I was just a little lighter if only I had just longer hair… If only I were just a little prettier.”
Despite being born and raised in the US, I always felt more at home here, than I did there. I was born with porcelain white skin, big brown Bambi like eyes, and long luscious lashes. My mother used to tell stories about how captivated everyone would be when she took me out for walks or to visit my family. Growing up, I spent hours outside playing with other kids or messing around on the tennis courts with my racket. I found myself falling in love with tennis, despite the long hours of practice and time spent in the hot sun.
My porcelain-like skin turned darker and darker each summer and every time I went back to Sri Lanka I always heard the whispers. “She’s too dark to be American.” Or “ She’s from America? No way, she’s too dark.” My cousins were all so fair, and each time a stranger would ask my father if my cousin was his daughter, my gaze would fall to the floor. Embarrassed that my cousins looked more American than I did.
Embarrassed that despite being the one born and raised in America, I didn’t “look” anything like it. Relatives would hand me tubes of Fair and Lovely, the skin bleaching cream that is popular in South Asia, and each time I left what I saw as my home, feeling less than, hating the color of my skin.
But even in the US, I’d get comments like, “You’re actually very pretty for a brown girl.” As if brown skin automatically made you anything less than that. And I’d find myself torn between wanting to slap them in the face and walking away silently. I may be brown, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be beautiful. I know that I don’t have to be white or lighter to be beautiful, but when all that negative energy suffocates you, it becomes hard to believe in yourself and your own beauty. But I know now that my skin color is beautiful, along with every other color out there. We are all beautiful, despite what we are conditioned to believe.
My skin is no longer the color of porcelain. It’s not fair and blemish free. Instead, it is the color of raw honey that darkens into a color of coconut shells. My hair isn’t black, but rather a warm, darker brown that has been lightened by hours in the sun. And my eyes, that I wish were anything but the color brown, resemble the nutmegs my mother use to use that were flecked with a deep brown.
I am a Sri Lankan American, and my skin is brown. And I don’t use Fair & Lovely, because I know now that I don’t have to be fair to be lovely. I don’t have to be lighter or whiter to be accepted into society, nor is it a requisite for beauty. I am and will always be intelligent, compassionate, and beautiful despite what color my skin is. And if anyone in my life can’t see that, then they don’t deserve to be in my life. Because life is too short to live in the shadows of others and their opinions. A South Asian woman’s beauty has nothing to do with the color of their skin, and everything to do with their confidence and love they have for themselves.
The bottles and tubes of bleaching products I’ve been given sit at the bottom of one of my draws. As a reminder that I am better of without them, and that I can define beauty for myself. I don’t have to live up to the beauty standards of Sri Lanka, or the US. Because my beauty lies in my uniqueness, in more than what meets the eye. My skin radiates of honey, cocoa, and gold shades. And along with it, the strength and brilliance of a thousand suns. I am unfair, but I am still very much lovely.