Why blackfishing infuriates me as a South Asian woman

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As a child, I would frantically scrub my skin in the shower until it was sore, as if I needed to be cleansed of the dirt that was my own brown skin.

ABOVE VIDEO: The push for Indigenous representation in the modelling world.

It saddens me to think that as a preschooler, I was already able to comprehend that having fair skin would have been a privilege. 

Unfortunately, this experience of skin dysmorphia is not unique amongst South Asian women. Many of the brown women I know have their own demoralised childhood story of trying to wash their colour off in the shower. 

The term 'blackfishing' emerged to describe the social media phenomenon where caucasian women use excessive amounts of fake tan, make-up and filters to appear black online. 

Danish model Vanessa Moe in two different photographs.

It feels like a punch in the gut to see imitation brown women represented more than real ones when there are extremely limited and often tokenistic spaces for models and influencers of colour as it is.

To me, this phenomenon is about much more than the black-white binary. Its unsettling success reaffirms a deep-rooted favouritism of fair skinned people, regardless of ‘race’.

It tells women like me that even in the meagre spaces reserved for us, society would rather let fair skin women capitalise on pretending to look like us instead of embracing real brown people.

Growing up dark

I grew up in South East Asia, where fairness is put on a pedestal even within ethnic groups. At family gatherings, my Indian relatives would praise one another for looking ‘fair’ as if the word is synonymous to beautiful. 

Any attempts I had made to be accepted by my fair-skinned peers had always left me disheartened.

I remember one time, I asked a boy if I could borrow his colour pencils. He said no. When I asked him why, he said my skin was dirty.

After we moved to Australia, I was rarely ever made to feel inferior because of the colour of my skin. But by then, the sentiment of feeling less worthy had already been ingrained in my consciousness.

On one of our annual visits back to Singapore, I found a magical cosmetic product in an Indian grocer; a cream called 'Fair & Lovely' that promised to lighten my skin.

A Malaysian study found that 60.6 per cent of female students around my ripe age of 24 use products just like 'Fair & Lovely'.

Now, you might be thinking, how could I be so offended by white women browning their skin when brown women are going to similar lengths to whiten theirs? 

The simple answer is: for us, lighter skin means a higher social value, a better chance at finding love, more job opportunities. It’s not just an aesthetic dream, it equates to us being treated more equally. 

In Asia, dark skinned women run a higher risk of domestic violence and suicides.

Last year, after being bullied at school for having darker skin and shamed by her principal for reaching out for help, a 14-year-old girl in India tragically died when she set herself on fire

Being darker also comes with financial burdens to Indian families that have darker children. As Australian-Indian model, Zinnia Kumar told Inprint Magazine, Indian parents of dark-skinned women are obliged to pay more expensive dowries when they marry off their daughters because they are perceived as socially undesirable. 

Zinnia is now at Oxford University exploring the negative impact that ‘colourism’ (or skin tone discrimination) has on Indian and South East Asian people. In many ways, her experience of the modelling industry aligns with my own.

Brown is beautiful

When I was 16, I was knocked back by all the major modelling agencies who would often tease me with a contract by inviting me to come in two or three times a year before always coming to the same conclusion: ‘you’re too short’.

It took me a long time to realise that what they really meant was ‘you’re not white enough’, as exceptions were often made for white women who didn’t make the industry’s height requirements.

While I managed to crack the industry eventually, I know I’ve predominantly filled the role of the token ethnic for brands that are actively trying to prove their inclusiveness. How often do you see a South Asian woman at the front and centre of a campaign? 

The author as a part of GHD's Infinite Style Campaign

Even in Asia, fair-skinned women dominate billboards, television screens and social media campaigns. When you look at the highest paid models of 2018 worldwide, eight out of ten are white, and of course, none of them are South Asian.

Just when I accepted the industry’s limited space for brown women, I began to see fair-skinned models 'blackfishing' their way through social media.

When life is constantly bombarding you with messages that the colour of your skin is a disadvantage, it is deeply affecting to watch fair-skinned people profit socially and financially from stealing your skin. 

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