Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

"My Skin Is Darker Than Your Skin, Mumma"

How parents can have conversations about skin color with their daughters.

Key points

  • Colorism can influence confidence and self-esteem, particularly for dark-skinned girls.
  • It’s helpful for parents to have conversations about skin color with their children from an early age.
  • Parents should use different tactics depending on their child’s age.
Dr Meghna
Colorism in India
Source: Dr Meghna

“Mumma, look at my hand," my daughter said the other day. "My skin is darker than your skin!"

My daughter's comment stopped me in my tracks. Was she becoming aware of differences in skin color at the tender age of 6? Was she beginning to feel 'bad' about being 'darker'?

I sat with her and had a chat. Turns out, she was only comparing skin colors.

It was a source of fascination for her. It was an innocent comparison; she was simply describing what she saw, untainted by the prejudices that adults carry about skin color.

***
India is a country where fair skin is revered, where fairness products dominate the markets, and where financial and romantic success is pinned on fair skin. Skin color plays an important role in mate selection in arranged Indian marriages (Nagar, 2018). People, and especially women, are discriminated against, simply due to the shade of their skin.

In India, colorism- prejudiced attitudes or discrimination based on the tone or shade of one’s skin- can trace its roots all the way back to British colonization as well as to the caste system. The idea that fair-skinned people are ‘superior’ and dark-skinned are ‘inferior’ is embedded in the Indian psyche.

Colorism continues to affect the lives of millions of Indians, but especially dark-skinned girls, who are socialized to believe that ‘dark is ugly.’ This impacts their confidence and self-esteem.

That’s why it's never too early to begin cultivating a healthy awareness of skin diversity in your child.

Talking to your daughter about skin color

It’s helpful for parents to have conversations about skin color with their girls from an early age. How you respond to your child's curiosity about skin color will lay the groundwork for more sophisticated conversations as she gets older.

Below I share a few age-wise strategies to have these conversations with your daughter (and son).

For 3 to 6-year-olds:

  • Buy dolls that are similar to your child’s skin color. Expose your child to books with characters of darker skin colors. ‘Skin Like Mine’ by Latashia Perry, ‘Brown like Dosas, Samosas and Sticky Chikki’ by Rebecca Manari and Heetal Dattani Joshi, ‘How Our Skin Sparkles’ by Aditi Wardhan Singh — these children’s books challenge the discriminatory idea that only ‘fair is beautiful.’
  • Reference your child’s skin color as being just like a revered family or community member ("Your skin is beautiful, just like your grandmother's!")
  • Your own biases and prejudices about physical appearances are easily passed on to your children. They observe your actions and words and pick up those negative attributes. So, address your own preconceptions and stereotypes to be an effective role model to your child.
  • If someone remarks on your child’s skin color, or suggests ways to make her look fair, make sure you have a firm reply ready, such as “no thanks, we’re proud of our skin color.” Or “the remedy to my daughter’s skin color doesn’t lie in a plastic bottle. The remedy lies in people like you changing your own deep-seated bias.” Embarrassment or silence gives your child the impression that the topic is off-limits or that a biased remark is accurate and acceptable to you. Children look to their parents for cues and they'll learn from your actions as well as your words.

For 7 to 12-year-olds:

  • Associate her dark skin with dark women achievers, dark-skinned models, scholars, and sportswomen. You can begin a dialogue about negative stereotypes by explaining the media's role in perpetuating them. A prime example is the Hindi film industry, aka Bollywood, which prides itself on promoting stereotypical standards of beauty.
  • Teach your daughter to go where she is celebrated, not simply tolerated. Encourage her to cut off toxic friendships and to seek out relationships with people who positively impact her life and make her feel like the best version of herself.
  • Use science to explain how dark-skinned people (such as those found near the equator) have more melanin in their skin to protect them from the harmful UV rays of the sun, as opposed to people in colder climates, who have a higher risk of developing skin cancer. Using this research you can reframe darker pigmentation as a ‘protective shield’ for your child.

For 13 to 18-year-olds:

  • While watching a movie or commercial together, ask your child to identify the negative images; ask how the negative stereotypes make her feel. Then ask which media figure she likes the most and which she dislikes, as well as: "What messages do you think are being projected?" "Does it matter?" "Why?"
  • Together, watch shows that place dark-skinned women in lead roles and position them as desirable, beautiful, smart, and valuable.
  • Discuss the different forms of beauty. Explain to your daughter (and son) that women come in all different colors, shapes and sizes; beauty is multi-dimensional and multi-faceted.
  • Tell your daughter that she defines who she is. Beauty comes from within; we are more than the skin we are in.

***

You know what ultimately helped my daughter make sense of our difference in skin color?

Yes, I explained how skin color is caused by the amount of melanin one's skin produces. Then we saw the countries on the map close to the equator which are populated with people with higher melanin.

But what really helped her understand the difference was when we reframed her skin color as resembling that of dosa and mine as bread!

References

Nagar, I. (2018). The Unfair Selection: A Study on Skin-Color Bias in Arranged Indian Marriages. SAGE Open, April-June, 1-8.

advertisement