“I’m dark and ugly”: the part of my girlhood I can’t whitewash

Photo: A young Poorna Bell

For Poorna Bell, re-reading a teenage diary lead to a shocking realisation that from a very early age, she believed her dark skin to be unattractive

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By Poorna Bell on

I love reading my teenage diaries for the high-drama, unintentionally funny passages that detail the shifting sands of friendship circles and whoever happened to be Boy Of The Month.

The latter is the prevailing theme: poems, pros and cons lists, letters to the universe and deciphering my dreams for signs of reciprocity. I have loved and wanted to be loved, desired and wanted to be desired, for as long as I can remember – the biggest magic to me in the universe is still the act of falling in love.

But, alongside love, I was also obsessed with attractiveness. I equated them as the same. Was I attractive? Did they fancy me?

I was reading an entry written when I was 15, which charted the lead-up to me trying to woo the sweet, kind metalhead boy who would end up being my first boyfriend. Once a week, I’d try to get on his bus – despite it going in the opposite direction of my house – so I could try to talk to him.

Re-reading this moment gave me the warmest of feels, because I knew how this story turned out, and I knew it ended with a kiss on a full moon and a bundle of love letters. But then, I came across a passage that made me feel like the bottom had dropped out of the room. In it, I was describing how I wasn’t sure if he liked me, because I’d invited him to a gig and he ended up cancelling.

I had written the usual melodramatic stuff about feeling devastated, but then, lines I don’t remember ever writing: “I have dark skin and I’m ugly – what the hell would he want with me?”

It shook me to my core.

I went to a predominantly white school, and I vaguely remember feeling paranoid – when we hung out with other boys – that no one would fancy me, because of my skin colour. No one said it to me directly, I didn’t experience racism shouted at my face, but I knew, in my bones, that my brown skin was not deemed to be as attractive as my white friends. I remember feeling very aware that, in a hierarchy of attractiveness, white and blonde was at the top, and I was at the bottom.

That diary entry shocked me, with the certainty and violence of those words, because I hadn’t realised just how much of that sense of inferiority I had internalised.

When you grow up in a Western country, your entire sense of beauty is then suspended between a world that, like a vampire’s mirror, doesn’t hold your reflection, and another in which your attributes are reduced to a Pantone swatch

My earliest memory of this was aged seven, and we were all playing kiss-chase in the schoolyard. I fancied a boy named Adam, and man, did I want him to catch me. But I also remember the thought – however unformed – that he might not want to kiss me, because I was different and had brown skin.

In trying to unpick why I felt like this at such a young age, it is hard to quell the rising tide of anger. I don’t think it was acceptable that, as a child, I thought my skin was unloved.

But what is even less acceptable, is that for some people of colour, you run a double gauntlet, because you are often offered no comfort or protection from your own community, either. I’m South Asian, and colourism – the prejudice against darker skin tones within the same race – is something I have felt from the very start.

This didn’t come directly from my parents, who have always made me feel beautiful and loved. It’s from the wider community, from comments either said to you or about other people, that dark skin is unattractive and fair skin is beautiful.

When you grow up in a Western country, your entire sense of beauty is then suspended between a world that, like a vampire’s mirror, doesn’t hold your reflection, and another in which your attributes are reduced to a Pantone swatch.

When I asked other women of colour on social media about their experiences around this, almost all of them said they were under the age of 10 when they were first aware that dark skin was not considered attractive. It ranged from kids in the playground using their brown arm as a measuring stick for their holiday tans to family members saying they shouldn’t play outside in case they got darker, and countless mentions of Fair & Lovely, the heinous skin-bleaching cream.

It is hard not to feel primal, raw and angry about this, especially when you realise how much of your childhood affects who you are today. Though you are capable of change, the circuit board of your adult self is soldered in the formative fires of youth.

And it's also hard when you realise a lot of white feminists think you are all fighting the same battle for gender equality, but have no idea about what you've been through or why you keep banging on about why it's so important to have people who look like you on panels, or writing stories about their childhood experiences. It's hard, because these memories are so fused to a sense of shame that it's difficult to talk about. This isn't the stuff that brunch chat and pub banter is made of.

I can't change my childhood, but I can change whether I choose to talk about it. That involves helping to push for more diversity in every aspect of society, from advertising to storytelling. It’s also unpicking some unhelpful ideas – for instance, I thought that attractiveness was the reason why someone would love me, rather than what it actually is: a conduit.

The reasons why someone loves you are so much bigger, vaster and wonderfully incomprehensible than the mere colour of your skin. I know that, because I’ve experienced a hell of a lot of love. And, by that same token, surely the same is true of self love: the things I love about myself have nothing to do with my amount of melanin and everything to do with whether I am a good person, and how I treat other people.

It has taken a really long time to figure that out.


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Photo: A young Poorna Bell
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