“Baire Jeo-na, Nahole Kaalo Hoye Jabe.”

“Baire jeo-na, nahole kaalo hoye jabe.”

“Don’t go outside, or else you’ll turn darker than you already are.”

Dear Maa,

I am tired. I am tired of hearing this phrase. I am tired of women in my life carelessly throwing this around and brushing it aside as a joke.

I am angry. I am angry that I have been taught to police my body. I am angry that I have spent 20 years of my life obsessing over my skin, wishing that I was fair and lovely.

I am sad. I am sad that my beauty is defined by the colour of my skin. I am sad that I have been made to feel ashamed of something I cannot change.

But most importantly, I am proud. I am proud that I am beginning to appreciate my dark skin. I am proud that despite the rhetoric, I have found the courage to tell you:

“Hai, ami baire jabo. Hai, ami kaalo hoye jabo. But I do not care. I will throw my arms out; catch those sunrays because my dark skin is not the source of my lojja (shame) but the source of my shakti (strength)!”

From a young age my idea of beauty was warped. It was normal that in a country of one billion, every woman to appear in a Bollywood movie had fair skin despite the fact that a large portion of the population that existed around her did not look like her. This normalcy continued when cousins were having their marriage arranged, and family members placed advertisements asking for a “phorsha” (fair) girl to marry their sons. It was not uncommon for the most beautiful girl in our community to also be the fairest of us all. What had been painted as the benchmark had now insidiously crept into how I measured my worth.

It became all-consuming. I would find myself in the shower ferociously scrubbing my knees and elbows with sugar and lemons, hoping to ‘naturally’ bleach my dark areas. Foundation that was lighter than my skin tone was welcomed and photos that were too dark were silently pushed away. Summer, a time everyone loved, became my most-hated season because I would have to cover myself from head to toe, checking my body for tan lines.

But things began to get better. After finishing high school and moving out of home I began experimenting with my look and becoming more comfortable in my own skin. I chopped off my hair, died it blonde, chucked on some ripped jeans, donned my traditional jewellery and strutted the streets in my black leather boots.  Once I placed myself outside of our community, connected with other women of colour, and began receiving compliments from people who noticed the confidence I carried myself with, I started to realise how far I had come. There are still times when I am self-conscious about my skin, but unlike before I now no longer wish to be fair.

I know when you and other women in my life make these comments you have the best intentions in mind. I try not to take it personally as I know these words are a product of growing up in a society that has idealised white skin and are not aimed at tearing me down. Fair-skin privilege is very real and problematic, but I refuse to let it define who I am.

Just as I have grown to love the colour of my skin, I hope one day you do too.