Words by Aayushi
Growing up brown in Australia was interesting for many reasons.
The racist history and culture, erasure of First Nations people, and White Australian values taught me and my immigrant family that white people are Australia. Sure, multiculturalism exists, but only in our homes, not where it mattered or was visible.
Enter: my teenage self. The night before a school ball, someone sent photos to a group chat, crying because their fake tan made them look too orange. I was flabbergasted when I learnt spray tans existed. Full jaw to the floor, I was in genuine disbelief that such a thing existed. People paid to be brown?
When I first learnt that people voluntarily tan themselves, I had to recover from the absurdity of it first. I grew up with intergenerational trauma around colourist narratives from damaging colonial residue and my mum, especially, was particularly mindful of keeping us out of the sun. It made me endlessly angry, but I ended up internalising this idea of worthiness and beauty. To her credit, she knew our lives would be harder if our skin was darker than what we started with and wanted to protect us from further harm and vitriol. I was exhilarated, learning that people applied tans. I found it endlessly amusing and exciting. I wanted to share it with my mum, and tell her it was okay to be dark. People paid MONEY to have skin like mine. People invested their time into fake tans to look beautiful. What an affirmation of my worth and belonging in society!
White people said it’s okay mum, and even cool now. I can be me AND enjoy the sun!
Oh, if only I knew… Sure, people paid to be brown, but it was completely different. They could choose their shade like a shop, casual and without consequences. It’s disturbing to realise my melanin can be bought, adorned temporarily to feel beautiful, only to be washed away and readorned when it is convenient and celebrated. Primarily, white women can choose the best parts of our dark skin and sharp features for posterity and vanity. It isn’t a health practice, or even a survival mechanism. It cultivates racist beliefs which celebrate the fake skin of one while oppressing the other.
I grew up hating having darker skin. Taught to moan about my immediate absorption of the sun if I exposed myself to its rays. For years I had a permanent netball tan behind my neck, burnt knees and crosses on my back revealing the exact cut of my dress. My dark skin has been historical grounds for harassment, overt discrimination, and racism. It was always a point of comment that my parents were fairer than me, celebrated for not something they didn’t do. For white people, a tan before a wedding, a big social event or anything important is not seen as a particular problem. But for me, it is viewed as an attempt to ruin my complexion and little acceptable beauty. Oh, the irony.
Fake tans now make me livid. I despise knowing darker skin is easily purchasable and allowed to be applied with zero implications in society. Lighter skin was valued deeply throughout history, as a symbol of beauty and class, especially in colonial societies. The rise of social media, without traditional white supremacist barricades has allowed black and brown excellence to thrive, celebrated for artistic endeavours, creative brilliance, and general talent. Proportionality, the proximity to blackness, ethnic ambiguity and racist makeup trends have allowed white people to climb these ladders of success, fetishing the ethnic experience. Not only is it accepted for white people to wear the coloured hair and accessories historically adorned by black celebrities, but it’s also celebrated and put in Vogue. Meanwhile, emerging Black fashion personalities are called out for ‘unprofessionalism’ and struggle to receive the same traction for their work. The proximity to whiteness in global and social media has now become uncool, and enabled this inherent culture of fake tans, appropriation and performative allyship to flourish.
My experiences speak to anti-Blackness in the South Asian community most definitely, but these opinions do not exist in a vacuum, and perpetuate colonial dialogue historically embraced for survival. It demonstrates how pervasive and visible colonial standards are even today, and how valuable white supremacy is indicating cultural norms. Growing up as a brown immigrant in Australia, I was taught that my beauty, opportunity, and chances to succeed would be higher if I maintained the fairest skin possible.
The issue of fake tan sits at the peak of an iceberg of unnecessary and racist practices all too celebrated and accepted in Australia. My melanin is not for sale, and seeing it paraded as a white beauty standard is insulting to the deep history of racism and bigotry my ancestors faced. something that is okay.
Beauty standards stemming from violent and oppressive systems are damaging for everyone. This skewed appetite for desire overindulges the stomachs of the racists profiting from it. Self-esteem and preference do not have a place in this conversation.
The white supremacist, eurocentric standards of beauty have plagued the minds of all. It’s what celebrates colourism when white passing or adjacent women are celebrated in diversity campaigns. When makeup darker than an acceptable shop-bought tan is not available or sold. When pale girls are accepted with their tans and black and brown girls are ostracised for theirs. For them, our value stems not from our individual worth, but from cherry-picked features that can be twisted and appropriated to suit a white agenda.
My melanin hue and sun glow reflect the stories of my ancestors, my connection to the land and sun and seas. Yours reflects the cheap, chemical laden plastics bought from the pharmacist.
We are not the same.