When My 4yo Told Me ‘She Said I’m Not Beautiful Because My Skin Is Brown’!

It is heartbreaking when our children face discrimination. But it is quite possible to help them embrace themselves as they are.

My 4-month-old son Hari had just started sleeping. I snuggled in along with my daughter Rudra, for our usual story and chat every night before bed. Rudra is 4 years old and goes to Nursery.

Although she started her schooling a year back, I can usually never get her to open up about her time at school during the day. Once she’s home, she loves to play with her brother and doesn’t have time for talking about how her day was. It is just before bedtime that she feels closest to me and tells me little things about her life at school.

I was telling her a story about a storm princess who lived in the sky, when she suddenly told me, “Amma, Alice told me that I’m not beautiful because my skin is brown color.”

I froze.

As a minority, I did anticipate some form of discrimination

It was not like I hadn’t given a thought about this happening. We live in an Asian country where there is considerable diversity, but most of the population is of Chinese origin. Her school has only a handful of Indians as they follow a Mandarin-based curriculum. I have wondered numerous times about how her peers will treat her, as she stands out quite a bit due to her looks. But I didn’t expect this at 4!

“What do you mean, baby? Can you tell me again?” I tried to ask her without letting my voice betray the mixture of anger, heartbreak, and anxiety that I was experiencing. She repeated it without any changes, no matter how I asked her.

I did talk to her affirming that she was beautiful just the way she was, but this was a 4-year-old! When even grown Indian women still struggle with the idea of feeling comfortable in their skin, I was very worried about the impact these words would have on her self-esteem.

I approached the school, but not to complain

I requested to talk to the principal, mentioning that the topic was something sensitive and that I needed privacy while I spoke to her. She asked me to come down in the afternoon when the kids napped. At 2 PM, I walked to her school with my infant towing along.

“Let me clarify my intentions first. I am not here to complain in any capacity,” I said as Julie, the principal anxiously waited for me to talk.

I narrated the incident to her without mentioning Alice’s name and saw her get embarrassed and uncomfortable. She immediately apologized for my daughter having to go through such an experience under her care. She asked me the child’s name and after much reluctance, I told her it was Alice. I didn’t want the child to get punished at any cost.

“A 4-year-old is obviously not saying such a thing on her own. It is something she is repeating. Please do not punish her for this. That’s not what I want,” I said.

Identifying the teachable opportunity from this incident

“We could keep your child’s identity a secret and talk to the parents about it,” she offered.

I thought about it and while I felt this issue needs addressing, I felt this wasn’t enough.

One of the reasons I chose this school was that they teach through play and exploration. Lesson formats are unconventional.

“I would like the school to have a lesson about diversity. Also, not just for my daughter’s class but across the school, with the contents being age appropriate,” I requested. She pondered for a minute before agreeing. She requested time to plan the lesson and I agreed. This was a topic that needed some preparation and could not be done in a hurry.

As I walked back home, I wondered what I could do to help my child in the meantime. Just pep talk was unlikely to be effective enough, given her age. Before I spoke to her, I first wondered what message I wanted to send across. After a lot of thought, I defined my objectives.

Making her comfortable with not just her skin color, but her whole self

I remember when she was barely 5 months old, I was asked to apply besan and turmeric on her body to remove excess hair. The idea didn’t sit well with me. So, this is something I have been thinking about since she was an infant.

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Isn’t that sad? We don’t do this to our baby boys. But why do we obsess about how our girls will fit into society’s arbitrary beauty standards when we should be enjoying their pure innocence?

With a tinge of sadness, I realized how she might be made to feel how she’s not “good enough” in a lot of ways – too bony (as we are constantly reminded by people around), wild-haired, too hairy, not “fair enough” – you get the gist.

So, I decided that I am not just going to talk about skin color, but about all the ways in which humans differ from each other. This will help reinforce the idea that she is not meant to fit into a template to be beautiful.

Teach her that her worth is beyond how she looks

This is especially difficult given how princess culture has penetrated everywhere, starting from schools to toy shelves. Sure, Disney has made some progress considering the problematic fairy tales I grew up with.

I have never told her stories about Cinderella, Snow White, or Rapunzel as I realized some of the horrific things it taught me only after I grew up. She loves Elsa, who is a much better role model than any of these princesses. But we still don’t have enough diversity and representation on screen. So, my second goal was to introduce role models known for more than their looks.

The more I pondered about it, the more I realized that these messages were less likely to reach her if I was preachy. Instead, I slowly went about it, making small changes in the content she consumed and through her playtime.

Here are 5 things that I tried, that helped immensely in this process

1. Through drawing and colouring

This is the first way that children of her age learn to connect to the world around them. She loved doodling. So, I sat with her every day as she colored.

For the longest time, she used to name the peach crayon – “skin color”. Every single time, I told her how there is no one skin color, and how skin has many colors. Second, when I drew people, I incorporated diversity in as many ways as I could. She got very interested in dreadlocks after one such drawing session and started drawing her princesses with dreadlocks.

Recognizing that diversity extends beyond looks, I used this opportunity to subtly introduce a few more things. When I drew families, I didn’t draw only ones like ours. I drew single parents, same-gender parents, single children, big families, couples who chose to be child-free, and of course, single people!

We constantly throw out messaging of this ideal family – a cishet, married couple with a boy and a girl. And fitting into this definition as a family made me more conscious of how she might take this as the only “normal”. This led to a lot of questions from her. It opened the conversation to many aspects like the choice to have children, marriage, love, clothes, and more.

2. Using role play to help her practice asserting her voice

Like most 4-year-olds, she loved to role play and often asked me to participate. Once, when she was the teacher, I, the student spoke to a doll of hers with the same words as Alice did. She stopped and looked up. I also played the doll’s part and responded to it saying how this was unkind and not true. She got curious and asked more questions.

The next time I was the teacher. She used her own words to stand up for what we learned was called “bullying”. It was a difficult conversation to have, especially because I didn’t want to vilify Alice. But I still wanted to teach Rudra to stand up for herself. I did keep reiterating that she had to let the teacher and me know, if any bullying happened around her, and not just to her.

While I did want to impart the value of standing up for herself, the onus does lie on us adults to be more aware of the way our children engage with each other. Some other little changes I made were to include a Moana doll on our shelf, and buy her toys like cars and trucks that were usually unnecessarily gendered as “boys’ toys”.

3. Books to introduce better role models

Rudra has loved books since she was a baby. We had a monthly library ritual and usually came home with more than a dozen books of her choice. I decided to involve myself more in this process.

I told her she could choose 5 books for herself, and I would choose 3 based on a topic she wanted to learn about. 4 more will be of my choice. She agreed.

Her topics initially were ponies, castles, and fairies. I didn’t say no because I wanted her interest to diversify naturally. The 4 books of my choice were my key to doing this.

I spent time on Goodreads and looked up books that would teach life lessons of women achievers like Frieda Kahlo, Michelle Obama, and Kalpana Chawla.

You’d be surprised to know how many such books exist if you did a little bit of digging. It’s a shame that they aren’t found on more bookshelves.

Slowly, her topics of interest widened. She started asking for books on planets after we learned about Kalpana Chawla. After a year of doing this, and her trying out different books on different topics, the human body is her current favorite topic.

It was a beautiful lesson to me on how learning cannot be thrust on a child but can only be gently led.

4. Screen Time

Let’s face it – screens are everywhere. They often double up as first teachers for our kids whether we like it or not. We should give deep thought to what we teach our kids through them. I remember this cringe-worthy rhyme that I heard umpteen times as a child –

“Chubby cheeks, dimple chin
Rosy lips, teeth within
Curly hair, very fair
Eyes are blue, lovely too…”

I researched progressive nursery rhymes and was pleasantly surprised to find a few. There was one about being confident and brave, one that went “I love my body the way it is, and one that sang about how we are all unique by our differences. I wanted to normalize these songs.

When I found problematic content in her already favorite songs, say Dosai Amma Dosai, we didn’t censor it but spoke about it. I slowly prompted her asking her why she thinks only the mom cooks, while the dad was in the living room. And why the father and the brother ate more than the mother and the sister. Again, this opened up our avenues to talk about stereotyping in a way that was easy for her to grasp.

5. Modelling the belief and behaviour I wanted in her

While all these did help immensely, the last but the most powerful change I made was with myself. I stopped standing in front of a mirror, critiquing myself for all the flaws I could see.

Going through postpartum twice was hard, but I forgot that when I was looking unhappy with my flabby arms and bulging tummy the second time around, this little girl was quietly watching me.

I didn’t want to pass my insecurities on to my 4-year-old unintentionally. This has also helped me introspect on my own insecurities with my looks and why I feel so. I started talking more about the wonderful things my body has done in the past year. I called my stretch marks the first doodles that she and her brother did, to her great amusement.

This was also the first time I wore shorts around her. She said “Eww Amma, hair” while pointing to my legs. I hadn’t shaved in a long time, because that was the last thing I had time for, with 2 kids to tend to, and a million things to juggle. To say I was shocked is an understatement.

A 4-year-old has somehow learned that body hair is disgusting on a woman. I let it be and continued to tell her each time that it was my choice to wear the clothes I’m comfortable with, and that hair on my legs was normal.

I asked her if Appa wearing shorts and having hair on his legs looks “eww”, and she said no. This took some time and repetition but now she doesn’t flinch when I wear shorts or don’t shave.

Finally, I could see that it was working!

A few weeks later, Rudra came home from school and told me how she learned about different skin colors. They had kept their promise and I could see she was excited to hear these words from her teacher. This is the doodle she made a few days after that. I felt like this was a small win, and all the efforts were bearing fruit.

Image provided by the author

Building self-esteem and confidence in our children is an ongoing process that we need to give careful consideration to. This needs us to be thoughtful and kind with our words and actions. To be respectful to people around us even if they aren’t the same as us.

Let us remember that we are raising the next generation of people and that we have the choice to make this world a better place through our powerful role in shaping their thoughts.

Image source: digitalskillet from Getty Images Signature Free for Canva Pro

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About the Author

Jayashree Ravi

An engineer turned SAHM of two who wants to be known beyond that. Passionate about words, parenting, making eco-friendly choices, feminism and lifelong learning. read more...

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