I recently had a sister ask me an unexpected dating question: “Why do all men want attractive women like Beyoncé or Alicia Keys look-a-likes? The men just don’t seem to want to marry and be serious with regular women like me.”
In my haste to deal with some of the self-esteem issues this sister had, I skipped over her real question. In hindsight, I realize that she was asking me, “Why are light-skinned women like Beyoncé or Alicia Keys considered more physically attractive and therefore, more marriageable, while ‘regular,’ dark-skinned sisters like me can’t seem to find a man who wants to date me for who I am on the inside?”
I tried to help this sister see that calling herself “regular” was a sign that she was comparing herself to other women. Therefore, she was keeping herself from seeing the men who actually did want to date her.
But after doing some research on the connection between a black woman’s marriageability and her skin color, I realized that this woman was giving voice to a dating problem many melanin-rich women have encountered: colorism
Colorism is defined as discrimination against darker-skinned people, especially among members of the same ethnic or racial group. In other words, the lighter you are, the more privileges you can receive. Colorism has its roots in slavery and colonization and as a result, is experienced by many people around the world, such as in the Caribbean, Africa, India and Asia. You’ve probably encountered colorism when you heard sayings like, “if you’re white, you’re right,” or “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.”
But did you know that research has shown that lighter skin can not only give individuals certain privileges in job opportunities, politics and the justice system, but that it also impacts one’s marriageability?
In a recent study, economists explored how dark skin has been associated with being poor, evil, ratchet or ugly and how this consequently has impacted whether or not someone is seen as attractive and therefore, valuable as a life partner.
To break it down, the study revealed that light-skinned women were viewed as more desirable and attractive than darker-skinned sisters. To take this dysfunction even further, whenever there appears to be a shortage of marriage-minded black men, these men are then seen as highly valuable and can “leverage” the fact that they are in demand by choosing the more desirable women in the dating scene. In other words, when the brothers know that women are competing for their attention, they feel that they can be more selective. And the study showed these men often separated women by skin tone first and foremost.
It gets real deep, ya’ll, when you look at research that shows, “light-skinned black women are more likely to marry spouses with higher levels of education, occupational prestige or income than their darker-skinned counterparts.” Can your skin tone really affect whether you marry a man with a college degree or a higher paying job or not?
Some women have turned to skin-bleaching products to try to level the playing field and compete with their lighter-skinned sisters. These products, once advertised in 1960s magazines with headlines, such as “give romance a chance” are still on the market today and are sold worldwide to the tune of 10 billion dollars!
I’ve seen some at Wal-Mart, cleverly renamed as blemish removers, but the purpose is to somehow lighten the skin, making the woman “more beautiful.”
After all her alleged skin-altering surgeries have almost turned her into a Kardashian look-a-like (which is ironic, considering that Kim and her sisters have also allegedly altered their lips, hips and booties, to look like Black women), rapper Lil’ Kim’s fans barely recognize her! Many believe Lil’ Kim’s admitted struggle with low-self esteem could be attributed to colorism and the ways in which men have devalued her because she was a “regular,” dark-skinned sister. She explained her struggle to accept herself in this June 2000 Newsweek interview:
“All my life men have told me I wasn’t pretty enough—even the men I was dating…It’s always been men putting me down just like my dad. To this day when someone says I’m cute, I can’t see it. I don’t see it no matter what anybody says. I have low self-esteem and I always have. Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.’”
There’s that word, “regular” again! Lil’ Kim, just like the woman who asked me the original dating question above, has been told by men that there’s nothing special about her simply because she has more melanin than other black women.
This prejudice for lighter skin encourages competition among women, and has been discussed by celebrities such as Viola Davis, Gabrielle Union and Lupita Nyong’o who have shared similar painful stories about being rejected (and later rejecting themselves) for their darker-hued complexions. They learned to love themselves, but their stories still point us to the fact that we have work to do to erase colorism in our community, so that we stop hurting one another.
As a matchmaker, I’ve encountered first-hand the bias against dark-skinned women from a man who refused to date one of my female clients because he “only dated light-skinned women.” This brother felt entitled to make such a trivial distinction even though the woman I was representing had every quality he was looking for in a wife. Because he was college-educated and had a good paying job, he felt he could get any woman he wanted. His choice wasn’t just a matter of personal preference. It reflected deeply-rooted ideas about beauty, desirability and marriageability that have been passed on from generation to generation and that needs to end!
Now, I’m not saying that NO ONE wants dark-skinned women. I’m a caramel-colored sister who married a sexy, chocolate brother, and we have two beautiful brown babies. And with women like Lupita Nyong’o now representing beauty brands and gracing the cover of magazines, combined with the work of the natural hair movement, we’ve all been encouraged to embrace our Black Girl Magic—no matter which shade it comes in.
However, as long as there’s a man out there telling a woman that “she’s pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” and that he’d date her, but never marry her because of that, we’ve got more work to do.
BMWK: Have you ever dealt with skin color issues in dating and relationships? Tell me your story.