Health

Mental and Emotional Effects of Colorism Are Often Hidden


As children, we equate self-worth with the messages we receive. Seen as less favorable, darker skin tones often contrast with biased beauty standards. (Second of a four-part series on colorism by WebMD)

Nov. 17, 2022 “Get out of the sun girl, you’re already dark!” 

It’s like a razor-sharp blade pierces your heart, but the pain is still as stunning and overwhelming as the first time. You suddenly wish you were alone, so you can drop in a fetal position, bury your face in your hands, and cry. 

But you can’t do that. People are watching. An eye roll, fake chuckle, and a half-hearted “shut up!” will have to do.

This might sound extremely melodramatic, but countless people of color know exactly what this feels like and might even be re-traumatized just reading this all-too-common example of colorism, or skin-tone discrimination, from those within your same racial group.

Colorism is usually expressed through microaggressions and indirect messages about which skin tones are deemed “beautiful,” says Josephine Almanzar, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and owner of Oasis Psychological Services. These types of comparisons are often a means to get closer to a “white [European] reference point,” she says.

In WebMD’s new docu-series “Color by WebMD,” we will be looking more into the mental health implications of experiencing colorism, often from those closest to you, as well as how to deal with the trauma that can come with these encounters. 

Your Core Belief

One of the biggest psychological impacts of colorism is the damage to one’s “core belief,” says Almanzar. Core belief is built during early childhood and is largely based on interactions and messages about our self-worth. She uses the example of wearing sunglasses to illustrate her point.  

“If we have a certain tint to our sunglasses, we view the world through that color,” she says. “For children of lighter skin, they receive certain messages about who they are. So, if my skin color is praised, that means ‘I am inherently good. I am worthy. I am lovable. I belong.’”

Children with darker skin can receive a separate type of messaging about their skin color. 

“This informs their self-concept or core belief in a different way, where they might feel worthless, unlovable, that they don’t belong and that impacts their lens and how they view the world,” Almanzar explains.

Due to this wounded core belief, emotional distress and symptoms like depression, hopelessness, loss of motivation, and lack of  interest in activities may occur. 

Colorism’s Ugly Relatives

One of colorism’s counterparts, featurism, can also play a huge role in how people of color are treated within their own communities, according to Radhika Parameswaran, PhD, associate dean of The Media School at Indiana University in Bloomington. 

“If your facial features depart from a ‘European ideal,’ then you can be viewed as less attractive,she says. “Hence, you have eye-altering surgeries in Japan. All these cosmetic surgeries help you achieve features that are approximate to the ‘European ideal.’”

This damaging ideology has continually been spread within many Latino communities, according to Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. 

“A person may have lighter skin, but if they have thick lips or a wide nose, or if they have curly or coarse hair, then there will be that stereotype, with comments like, ‘Your skin color is beautiful, but look at your nose,’” she says.

Have a Strategy  

While you might not be able to stop someone from treating you differently based on your skin tone or facial features, you can have a plan in place to help offset some of the emotional effects of these encounters. 

Finding a community who can offer you support, journaling, and talking through your story with people you trust are all ways of building up your sense of self, says Almanzar.

“What is your current core belief about who you are and what do we want it to look like?” she says. “On an individual level, that’s how we can work on building people up and facing these beauty standards.”

Next, we’ll dive into texturism or discrimination based on hair texture which is a huge phenomenon within Latino and Black communities. Look for that episode, the third in our four-part series, on Dec. 1. 

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