5min readCulture 21 November 2019
Growing up, I hated how I looked. My mother is Irish, Polish, German, and Dutch, while my Dad emigrated from Nigeria. I was a biracial girl living in a majority Caucasian town. Not only was I surrounded by people who looked different than me, but I also rarely felt represented in the media. This lack of community during my adolescence gave me little to no self-esteem, self-worth, or self-confidence, which led me to want to change everything about myself: my hair, the accent I picked up from my African family, and even my skin color.
I remember a particular dream I had when I was younger. It started with me at the hair salon getting my hair relaxed straight. Now, in real life, whenever I would get this treatment, my scalp would feel a burning sensation. It felt like firecrackers were exploding on my head. Sometimes, I wouldn't be able to hold in my cries and would tell the hairstylist to wash the chemicals out immediately. Other times, I would wait it out because I wanted straight hair, and as the saying goes: "beauty is pain."
Going back to my dream, the latter would occur, and I would look in the mirror and see that the chemicals in my hair seeped into my pores and turned my skin white. I thought I looked beautiful. I finally looked like all my classmates, and the celebrities in magazines. I was finally the girl I wanted to be. Then I woke up and saw that my skin didn't magically change overnight. I was disappointed...It was a dream too good to become true.
All these years, I thought I was alone in my struggle, but unbeknownst to me, there are millions of people who feel the same way I did about their skin color, primarily in Southeast Asia. Nina Davuluri, an advocate, public speaker, and Miss America 2014, also has been faced with the pressure to have lighter skin.
Growing up as a first-generation Indian in the United States, the issue of diversity and colorism was not foreign to Nina. Like many of us, she wanted to fit in, and being Miss America meant being the "Girl Next Door," which primarily consisted of being blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Knowing she didn't fit that mold, she wanted to use her voice as an activist to change that narrative. So as the winner of the the 2014 Miss America competition, it was important for her to choose a platform that spotlighted an issue that is typically ignored by the media; one that focused on "Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency."
I had the honor to sit down with Nina and talk about the effects colorism had on her upbringing, her platform as Miss America, and her upcoming documentary that explores the intersection of colorism, skin color, and self-acceptance.
Colorism is defined by Merriam-Webster as prejudice or discrimination, especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin. In most groups, the lighter the skin, the higher you are looked at.
"I definitely remember comments from family members relating to my skin color," Nina said. "I grew up with a lot of stereotypes, especially being in a south Asian family where the lighter your skin is, the more beautiful you are considered.
I had relatives say to me, "Don't go out in the sun - you're going to get too dark."
However, it wasn't just comments from her family she had to endure. It surfaced on a national level in 2014 when she was the first contestant of Indian descent to win the Miss America competition. The morning after she won, she remembered reading various newspaper headlines in India that read along the lines of, "Is Miss America too dark to be Miss India?"
Screenshot of Buzzfeed Headline following Nina's Crowning
A study conducted by the World Health Organization found that 61% of women in India regularly use skin lightening creams. In India and many other Southeast Asian countries, a lighter skin tone represents a higher social class. This stems from their history of colonization by Europeans, when fair-skinned people were the rulers and in a higher class. In other words, people who did not have to work all day in the sun and in result, would never get darker skin from the sun. This ideology doesn't only affects India, as according to the same survey, 77% of women in Nigeria use skin lightening products. Nonetheless, in many developing countries, lighter skin is considered the standard of beauty.
"Winning Miss America was really the first time I had a platform to speak out about the skin lightening industry," said Nina. "I think it certainly affects women more than our male counterparts. Not only for our careers, jobs, and opportunities but also for our socioeconomic status. Especially for women living in those countries."
Now, people can only take so much without reaching a breaking point and realizing something needs to change. For me, it was after my hair started to break off. I would wake up at 5 a.m. every day so that I could straighten my kinky curls to fit in with my classmate's long, full, straight hair. It also had to do with the fact that I had gotten my hair chemically straightened since I was nine years old. My once healthy hair was now almost damaged beyond repair and would take nearly ten years to grow back to the same length.
For Nina, she realized something needed to change when she saw a real-life example of colorism affecting someone else's life - a young girl.
"Three years ago, I was in India on behalf of the State Department. I did a lot of work as part of the Obama administration. I was there speaking about empowerment, diversity, education, all the things I advocated for. When I was back in my family's hometown, I remember I saw this woman who clearly came from working in the fields, and she had a daughter who was seven or eight. She stopped at a side street stand and bought a pack of Fair & Lovely for five rupees, one of the most popular skin lightening products that sell on the market. She bought it for her daughter and said to her, 'So you don't have to have the life I have.'"
"I am sure this mother loved her daughter very much, but I think she truly believed that success or opportunities would be better for her if she were lighter-skinned. And this is such a problem, especially in those rural areas and villages," said Nina.
This was the moment that Nina knew this story, and many others had to be shared.
For this reason, Nina and a team from Aurora Vision Films developed the documentary COMPLEXion, a film that explores colorism, diversity, and the skin lightening industry.
"We really wanted this to be a global conversation. To be able to include all groups, colors, all shades, all people, was really important to us as we started really uncovering and unpacking skin and colorism in general. So, what started as several specific instances has involved into something so much bigger and really human acceptance is at the core of it," said Nina.
Colorism doesn't just affect darker skin females, although that is the majority. In a released clip from the upcoming documentary, Nina talks to a fair-skinned Italian man named Matteo, who wishes his skin was darker. Matteo is just one of many stories to be featured that unpack a conversation about the relationship between the environment you grow up and acceptance.
"Depending on what you hear, what you grow up with, what you're constantly seeing in your surroundings, you find a way to either accept that or push back against that ideology" said Nina.
While production for the documentary is still underway, Nina hopes that this documentary brings maximum change not only in the United States but worldwide. We already see this change in the beauty industry. Lines such as Fenty Beauty and Milk Makeup are inclusive to many skin tones and are showing models of all sizes, looks, and colors in their ads.
From my personal experience, more conversations and positive examples are needed, and I believe that this documentary will be a perfect way to achieve both. Growing up, I wish there was a conversation about the relationship between skin color and self-worth and to have known that I wasn't alone in this struggle. And I still wish there were MORE conversations about it. With advocates like Nina Davuluri, films like COMPLEXion, and inclusive beauty lines, I genuinely believe we are about to enter an age of seeing the true beauty of diversity and a society that shows that beauty isn't dependent on skin tone.
To stay up to date on the release date for the documentary, you can follow the documentary's Instagram page.
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For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.
As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.
Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.
What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein
This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.
Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.
While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.
Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.
In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.
"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."