'I never thought I was beautiful': Neelam Gill and the fight against...

'I never thought I was beautiful': Neelam Gill and the fight against the pressure to be pale

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Every Asian woman has a colourism story to tell. Maybe it was last week, when a relative remarked on how dark she had gone in the sun. Or perhaps it’s a story from girlhood: the first time someone said she shouldn’t play outdoors because she would “tan”. Either way, wherever we are on the colour spectrum, we have all had a moment when we realised that, among our own people, darker skin wasn’t valued, loved or admired.

“We grow up with a discourse,” says Roshni Goyate, co-founder of The Other Box, an organisation that celebrates and supports people of colour in the creative industries. “It’s never direct language like ‘dark is bad’, but it comes from little comments. Because of that there is a lot of unlearning to be done.”

The model Neelam Gill works with Burberry and is the first British Indian face of L’Oréal UK, but even she is not immune. “I’ve experienced it in every aspect of my life,” she says. “I never thought I was beautiful because I thought being fair was beauty. I remember coming back from holiday and everyone would say, ‘Oh my God, you look so dark’, as if it was a bad thing. I remember crying sometimes about it. It’s only since coming into the modelling industry that I was embraced for it.

Artist Jasmin Sehra: ‘We are speaking about topics we never spoke about before.’



Artist Jasmin Sehra: ‘We are speaking about topics we never spoke about before.’ Photograph: Jasmin Sehra

“Growing up, I was made to feel as if that wasn’t good enough – not by my immediate family, but other people in the community. Colourism is a huge part of our culture. I talk about it a lot, because I think if I feel this way, there must be so many other people who feel this way, but who are too ashamed to talk about it.” Some Asian women cry when they chat to her, because that’s how much it means to have someone in the mainstream banging this drum.

Young girls and women are already in a bad situation with self-esteem. We know that issues begin young and that they escalate when they hit their teens. Colourism then adds a whole different, complex set of insecurities – and the ubiquity of social media adds yet another. A recent study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at Essex University and University College London (UCL) found that social media lowers the confidence of girls more than it does boys. Social media can be an insidious enabler when it comes to colourism, because there are so many filters on Instagram and Snapchat that allow you to lighten your skin.

Sharan Dhaliwal, editor-in-chief of the brilliant magazine Burnt Roti, says she has noticed Asian people choosing lighter filters, but the tide is turning. The idea for Burnt Roti came to Dhaliwal after she started writing blog posts about being a hairy Indian and her relationship with her mother and noticed they got a huge response. “People were just thankful there was a space where this was being discussed,” she says. But she also knew that as a “very privileged, light-skinned Punjabi” it couldn’t just be about her experience, but a platform and magazine for all voices and shades.

She has found herself part of a growing number of people working to counteract received prejudices and provide a space that celebrates and champions the complexity of being Asian. Brwn Grl is an Instagram collective that has sprung up this year. Founder Vandana Thanki wanted to provide a platform on which women could share their stories. Each post is about an ordinary person who discusses their relationship with their identity; many of them hinge on colourism and racism. Posting on Brwn Grl, one poster called Naomi says: “Being labelled as a fat, dark-skin girl damaged my self-esteem when I was young. But when I discovered who I was and the power I had in this dark skin, my entire world changed.” Another woman who goes by the name NK Style wrote: “I’m the darkest one in my family and people always point their fingers at me as if I’m not part of my own family just because of my skin colour. I started losing self-confidence and felt ugly. People still point out my skin colour to this day, but it doesn’t affect me, because I know I’m beautiful regardless.”

Babbu The Painter: ‘People of colour have more representation within the social media space.’



Babbu the Painter: ‘People of colour have more representation within the social media space.’

London-based artist Jasmin Sehra, who models for Nike and has spoken about colourism, says that this movement is empowering to see. “Previously, because of the lack of conversation, it often felt like you were alone. We’re communicating with each other, opening up and speaking about topics which, as a collective, [we] never spoke about before.”

Artist and beauty blogger Babbu the Painter has a following of 50,000-plus on Instagram and believes social media, while it can feed the problem, enables groundbreaking conversations. “People of colour have more representation within the social media space and that’s created an amazing ripple affect,” she says.

Deepica Mutyala, a beauty blogger in the United States with more than 171,000 followers on Instagram, has recently begun a spin-off collective called Live Tinted that reflects and represents all shades. It already has 28,000 followers and counting. “Beauty is everything,” says Anita Bhagwandas, beauty director for Stylist – “what you see in the mirror, what you see when you look down and ultimately a canvas for self-expression. If society says that canvas isn’t right in some way, that can seriously affect self-esteem and self-worth by making you feel like you don’t belong or that you’re not ‘OK’.”

Mariette Valsan: ‘A dark-skinned model is a brave choice, not the norm.’



Mariette Valsan: ‘A dark-skinned model is a brave choice, not the norm.’ Photograph: Chelsea Cara

But for true change to take place, this grassroots movement has to move eventually into the mainstream. “For so many generations, south Asian women have heard that they would truly be flawless if they had a pale complexion,” says Sanjana Nagesh, the founder of another collective, Brown Girl Gang. “If they were thin but not too thin, if they had thick hair on their heads – but hair on their arms is not acceptable. It often creates a sense of discomfort and disrupts one’s ability to build a strong sense of self. But, if we were to challenge this notion by increasing the visibility of people of colour in mainstream media, it would highlight that beauty standards are malleable and we have the power to create our own stories and have our voices heard.”

Part of the problem, points out the Indian model Mariette Valsan, lies with the advertising industry, where, she says: “A dark-skinned model is a brave choice, not the norm. I think the relief comes when younger and broad-minded brand executives come on board, willing to experiment with the face of the brand – that is where the change is emerging from.”

Dhaliwal adds that, because the mainstream is all about branded companies, they aren’t able to be as bold and reactive as community-based movements. And women are often more engaged with and loyal to a grassroots project such as Burnt Roti than they are to Vogue or Elle. “Vogue has the imagery, but not the conversations – and you need the text to articulate what’s happening,” she says. “People are desperately looking for people to say: ‘It’s fine, you’re OK.’ [But] the mainstream is run by old, white men, or the finances are, anyway, so how is that going to change?”

It seems as if the mainstream is missing a huge trick. But for now, the task of changing the conversation and creating a more loving, nurturing place for young brown girls falls to the likes of Neelam Gill. “We have so much strength, power and resilience,” she says. “At times, it feels like the world doesn’t let you realise your own power, but you have to believe and have faith and know you can do whatever you want to do.”



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