A Conversation on Colorism and Beauty Perception with Anya Zen

As an Indonesian, it is inevitable how post colonialism and globalization has shaped our perception of beauty and aesthetics. Without question, teachers, parents, friends of parents, and our very own friends help solidify certain meanings on beauty and it unconsciously became a definitive truth for us. Typically, what is most looked down on for Indonesian women, is having a darker brown skin color that automatically creates a (too) simple hierarchy of who gets to be crowned ‘pretty.’ This is a common issue stemmed from a larger racism issue called Colorism. As someone who personally experience it herself and has been questioning the rationality behind the issue, Clara teamed up with Krisan to express her frustration towards the (too) common and overlooked problem that brown skin Indonesian women has to always politely smile through the inappropriate comments.

In the Summer of 2020, they carried out a photoshoot with professional model, Anya Zen, and asked a few questions to see how she defined her own color, her physical appearances as a model and how people in and outside of the modeling environment around her helped create a definition for her.


Q: We saw on your Instagram that you talked about people pointing out your skin color as a flaw.
How do you feel about that and what is the relationship between your confidence and the color of your skin?

A: My skin was a big part of my insecurities growing up because I was darker. My sisters inherited the lighter and fair skin from my mom, and my dad has a darker skintone in which I inherited. From a young age, the skin color difference between my siblings and I would initiate comments from my parents’ adult friends like:

“waaah she’s the black one” “are you really sisters?? but she’s black” or anything around that topic. For context, Indonesians use the literal word ‘Black’ to express darker skintone.

I was pretty bothered by it and so was my mom. It got to a point where she taught me if someone says something like that again, I should say “I don’t care that my skin is darker, my heart is as white as theirs.” Long before I understood the concepts of racism, colonialism, and colorism I understood that my darker skin was not perceived well and even ridiculed by others, even at the young age of 5. Middle school was no better, because back then I started hearing comments from mean boys.

I think years of subtle (or even frontal) nitpicking about my skin color unconsciously really got to me. The tipping point was during junior high school: I had a guy bestfriend and I had a crush on one of his friends. I told my bestfriend to introduce me to this friend, but he refused by saying something along the lines of “I don’t want to introduce you because I know he won’t like you” I was surprised why he would say that so I asked the reason, to which he replied “if you want boys to like you you should fix your appearance“.

At the moment he was not just referring to my skin but also the fact that I was super skinny and had scoliosis that f*cked up my posture. Being a young girl going through puberty and having never had a boyfriend while all my friends were already in relationships or going on dates, the insecurity of whatever was wrong in me peaked. I then asked my mom to help me ‘correct’ all the physical flaws I had, so we went to several doctors including a dermatologist.

She put me on bleaching creams and it worked, I was so pale and I loved it, I even put on blue contacts to look more attractive’, or at least what I thought would be. This went on for almost 2 years. In high school my environment was really focused on studying so I didn’t see the point of continuing with the cream anymore. After I graduated high school I started modeling and I joined my current agency in Jakarta who really values individuality and unique looks. So during my development period with this agency I was told that my skin is one of my biggest assets because “it’s natural and so Indonesia

This development period was not easy because I had to change my perception on a lot of things that I used to deny from myself, but after years of practice and being supported by the right people I have come to believe how beautiful my natural skin is. After that I stopped using subtle bleaching lotions altogether (“brightening” lotions are so common in Indonesia) and started to take care of my skin the way it should be, I even started tanning to maintain the color.

Q: Being a professional model, how was the industry reacting to brown skin color models?

A: As I mentioned earlier, my agency said that my darker skin can be one of my biggest assets and that’s exactly how the modeling industry responded to it. I worked with a lot of designers who chose me because of my skin and even more cosmetic companies because they need a model that has natural Indonesian skin.

I think the trend of the beauty industry back home is also going in that direction because people are starting to realize that using European looking models does not make sense because no one who’s 100% Indonesian looks like that. So yeah, it has really worked in my advantage.

In Europe it’s even better I think for the industry as a whole, because also the market is smarter and the independent companies are all about inclusivity. I just know that when someone DMs me to ask for a shoot because they “love my look” they’re also talking about the color of my skin.

Although, I have to say, outside of modeling there’s still a long way to go. In Groningen, I worked as a recruiter where my main job was talking to people in the street, and I have to say that racist and offensive remarks especially from Dutch do come out. From the light casual “oh haha do u speak dutch? We were there for 300 years during the golden age” to more serious offenses, I have heard multiple discriminations for just being… Indonesian.

Q: How do you feel about going back to Indonesia, after being here in the Netherlands for around two years and getting to know yourself more?

A: I’m very excited actually. My time in the Netherlands (even though not all of them are good) made me realize that everyone is unique and beautiful in their own way. In a weird sense, I feel like I’m gonna be more confident in modeling in Jakarta even though I haven’t done it in more than a year.

I think it’s also because the people that I’ve worked with in the Netherlands have all been so relaxed and more creative (as opposed to being in Jakarta where it’s more in the direction of what the client really wants). I was always reminded that I have a unique look and I would always making feel like my opinions matter, so it gave me more confidence to go back and model again. Also, as I’ve said, being surrounded with different people from different races and origins made me realize how beautiful my natural skin, hair, and body are.

Throughout my life in Indonesia, I was convinced that my hair is so damaged because it’s a bit frizzy and curly, because my idea of healthy hair is thick and silky black hair like those often portrayed in shampoo adverts – which is why I always gave it treatment. Despite taking the time to use creambaths, masks, blow dry, etc. it was to no avail because it was just my natural hair.

Bottom line, my time in the Netherlands was also the time when I was most exposed to global diversity, and this really helped me understand and appreciate myself and my body better.

Published by Clara Benecia

Who really is the I?

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