Sofia Joy on combating colorism and loving your natural shade
June 14, 2020
By Seoyeon Kim & Priyanka Ganjoo
Sofia Joy (@honest.skin on Instagram) is a London-based content creator from Kerala. She sat down with our founder Priyanka to chat about her struggles as a darker-skinned South Asian woman, from the ways she’s felt excluded in both Indian and Western beauty spaces, to her infuriating encounters with colorism in her community. I watched their recorded Zoom interview and was instantly drawn to Sofia’s glowy, fresh-faced look and warm, gorgeous smile. As she spoke earnestly about the need to fight against the narrative that darker skin is less desirable, she simply radiated confidence; watching her speak was like having a powerful older sister give me advice on how to love and take care of my skin. Fittingly, Sofia uses her online platform as a way to share raw and vulnerable moments with her followers while also promoting self-love and strength. She shared with us her process of finally feeling comfortable in her own skin, which for her, also meant finding a consistent and thorough skincare routine (SPF every day!). Read on to find out Sofia’s full routine for hyperpigmented skin, go-to makeup products for South Asians, thoughts on Fair & Lovely and skin-bleaching, and what it means to be a strong, self-assured, independent woman.
Q1. In what ways have you felt excluded from the beauty industry as a South Asian woman?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve struggled with having hyperpigmented skin. My face tends to be a lot darker than my chest, but my arms are dark because they get tanned, and when I get matched for foundation, either it’s too orange or too yellow. You end up mixing all these shades, and you're just like, ‘Okay, what the hell is going on?’
I feel for younger girls who are going through this same thing right now. I remember when I was 16 or 17 years old going into a drugstore to get foundation, it was so hard to find my shade. Back in the day, they put all brown girls in one or two shades. How does that make sense? There are so many girls out there who have such different shades. So when an inclusive brand like Fenty Beauty came along, I was very impressed. And I get it. It's very tough for small brands to be inclusive. It's impossible because of money, research, and development constraints — I completely get that. But at the end of the day, I just felt like brown girls or girls with darker skin tones were always outcasts. Just because we’re brown, doesn't mean we're all orange. You know, we're yellow. We're olive. We have different skin tones. It's the biggest challenge. In India especially, I grew up in Chennai, in Kerala, and even when you go to the shops there, it's all white shades. None of us are white! But because these girls still wanted to look lighter, they would wear the shades anyway and just look ashy.
From a young age, everyone says that you need to be light, because otherwise you're not beautiful. It got to me when I was a kid.
Most of my family members are very light because we're from Kerala, but my father, grandmother, and grandfather were all quite dark, so I ended up having a darker shade as well. My mom never said anything — she was like, ‘Do whatever you want, you look beautiful as it is, ignore what everyone else says, and look after your skin.' My dad was also super supportive, telling me that I was stunning and didn’t need to do anything to my skin. But my grandmother — who, again, she is an amazing woman who always supported me in other ways — she would tell me to try Fair & Lovely. This was because she grew up in a society where everyone would say lighter skin is more beautiful. My aunt would also say things like, ‘Oh, bleach your skin.’ So I did.
What I didn’t know is that when you’re bleaching your skin but you're not wearing SPF, especially in a hot country, the sun completely damages your skin. So when I came to the UK at 12 years old, I completely broke out. I was bleaching my skin and using all these products, and I didn't have any education about SPF or how to take care of my skin. And the scary thing is that whitening and lightening products are so damaging — they damage your skin and you can get cancer. There's so many side effects. I went on steroid creams to help my hyperpigmentation and it made everything even worse. It took such a long time to get back confidence in myself and be comfortable in my skin. Till this day, in the Indian community, they see darker skin as ‘You're not pretty.’ It doesn't help that in the cinema industry and the beauty industry, you only see light-skinned girls even though the majority of women in India are very tan because of the sun.
It has been a struggle, but as I grew up I definitely began to have more confidence. Now I don't care. It's great to be brown. The U.K. changed my perception of beauty completely because all of my friends from here, they're like, ‘I love your skin. I wish I was as tan as you.’ Whereas if I'm back home, they're like, ‘Why are you so dark?’
But I also feel like the Western beauty industry here, that's a different problem because their products aren’t catered to us. So where do we fit in?
It’s a shame that there are probably still many girls out there, just 16 or 17 years old, who look at themselves and call themselves ugly because of how dark they are. That's why I started my Instagram page, hoping that maybe a teenage girl might come across my content and be like, ‘Wow, she's confident and happy with her skin.’ Hopefully my page would give that girl a bit of confidence.
photo credit: Sofia Joy
Q2. Thank you for sharing that and being so candid — representation is truly so important. How have you seen colorism play out in the South Asian community?
One time, my mom was showing me some of her wedding albums. My mom is a very light-skinned woman. But when we were looking through the album, I noticed that she looked even whiter than she naturally was. I asked her, ‘What the hell is this? Why do you look like a ghost?’ She just told me, ‘That’s how people do makeup.’ And then out of curiosity, I started going through Instagram, and, of course, there were some makeup artists who really champion keeping foundation shades as close as possible to their client’s natural skin tone, but there were other makeup artists who just completely whitewashed these brides. Granted, it could have been a request from the bride herself because she felt insecure. But at the same time, the makeup artists could have talked to them, giving them that confidence to say, ‘Your skin is fine, your skin is beautiful.’
I'm 27 years old and obviously, in our culture, you have to be married by now or have proposals. That's not going to be me. I'm still figuring out my life — I will deal with that part of my life when it comes but even then, there are some things I wouldn’t participate in. For example, I saw some of these matrimonial websites that put shades of skin as a criteria. It freaked me out.
My education should be a criteria. My personality should be a criteria. But shade of skin? That definitely should not be a criteria.
How can my shade of skin reflect on my ability as a woman or my confidence or my compatibility? Like, I have two degrees, I worked my ass off in a job at a massive company, and the thing you're asking me about is my skin shade.
Before this lockdown, I went out clubbing with one of my friends where a few Indian guys passed by us. One of the guys said hi to me, so I said hi back, and then his friends were like ‘Oh, don't talk to her. She's too dark, talk to someone else.’ I was so angry. This is the 21st century. It's 2020, and that happened. My temper actually flared. But you know what? I felt kind of sorry for the guy and how pathetic he and his friends were. He could have gotten to know a girl, but what stopped him was her shade of skin; that was just sad.
It’s a big societal issue. Fair & Lovely caused some of it like 20, 30 years ago, but colorism has really been an issue since colonization. Even in the caste system, it says people in lower castes are darker skinned. There are all of these factors going into why people still think darker shade equals less valued and ugly, while lighter shade equals more valued, pretty, and higher up in society. I get the chain of thinking. In my opinion, it’s a marketing ploy where brands are taking advantage of insecurities. Girls need to lighten their skin because that's not seen as pretty, so okay, let's shove out this product. The funny thing with Fair & Lovely is that the brand is now changing its way of marketing from saying get fair, to get even-toned — but they're still in the same market. I hate the ads. They have this beautiful, stunning girl. Then she magically appears four shades lighter and she looks like a ghost. She looks ashy and dead. And apparently, that's what everyone wants to be. It’s why I stopped watching Indian movies as well. All the girls are so fair, but if there's a villain in the movie, she's always darker. What are they trying to say? I feel like movies have such a big influence in our country, like everyone goes crazy when a Rajinikanth movie comes out, lining up for hours. I remember doing the same thing when I was a kid; people would go crazy. You see these women who are absolutely amazing actresses, but they're all light-skinned. It does not represent India whatsoever.
And it's not just India. Colorism exists in Thailand, Philippines, everywhere. Everyone wants to lighten their skin, and it’s such a weird phenomenon because when you come to this side of the world, everyone wants to be darker. Everyone wants to be the Kim K's, everyone wants to have a tan, and tanning products are selling out. Seeing this just makes me think, ‘Oh my god, why are we like this? One side versus the other?’ I work in marketing and consumer insights, so it’s obvious to me that insecurities are played up for these purposes but this strategy is also having such a negative effect. I'm worried about the next generation of girls. I've seen a few Tik Tok videos which I was not impressed by — there was this “transformation one” of olive skin toned, Indian girls who basically Blackfaced themselves, then put their hand on the camera, then took their hand off and they were lighter skin toned and “prettier.” It blew my mind. There's so many videos like this out there. If I was 15 or 16 years old again and I saw that, I'd be like, ‘Crap, I'm ugly. I don't fit in.’ You're already so insecure when you're that age — you're worried about boys, your skin's breaking out, you’re figuring out life. It’s the start of your womanhood. It’s crazy that skin tone is yet another thing that these teenage girls are forced to care about.
Q3. It’s definitely sad that colorism is continuing everywhere, and that it’s driven by so many profit-concerned marketing strategies. So how can we bring about change? What would a transformed narrative look like?
Obviously, there is a massive Indian community in the U.K. I feel like we need to do workshops or something public like that to show these girls that they’re beautiful the way they are. Focus on your education, focus on your life, focus on traveling, do whatever you want, but do not undermine yourself because of your skin color. So having these kind of workshops with brown girls in the U.K, maybe with boys too — it's not just a girl thing because I have spoken to a lot of guys who also feel this way — I think that would be a great way, because they can then go back to India or other South Asian communities and maintain their confidence. Because we come from very sun-exposed countries, we need to talk to them about using SPF and things like that. Our community does not take skincare seriously whatsoever. I had to hassle my mother for like two or three years before she wore sunscreen. She used to be like, ‘I'll just do my natural stuff.’ And I was like, ‘No, you need to wear SPF, because natural stuff is not going to prevent cancer from coming into your body!’ This kind of education is important.
Another thing is having more marketing campaigns with darker skinned girls in India and here, just to show that it's beautiful to have darker skin. I also feel like YouTube is a great way to talk about problems specific to brown skin, for instance maybe we could have influencers talk about how to find the right shade of foundation when you have Indian skin. When I came to the U.K., I was just 12 years old. I lived in a small city and back then, there weren’t many Indian people around. I was the only brown kid for about five years at my school.
I went from being too brown in India to coming to England and being surrounded by white kids, feeling like an alien. I never felt pretty. I didn't get into girly stuff until I was much older, because I never felt confident enough to do those kinds of things. It was alienating.
So, I can imagine what young girls are going through right now, and how much these workshops and campaigns would help.Yesterday on my Instagram page, I was talking to many girls who were DM-ing me saying, ‘I'm so glad there's another Indian girl who's open about talking about brown skin, I love that you show it off and you do makeup tutorials and you don't lighten your skin.’ I'm blown away by this. I'm hoping that I can make my Instagram a bit more open. I want to speak to more girls and show them how you can do makeup with darker skin tones and embrace your color. I think workshops, YouTube videos, influencer outreach — those would all be steps toward change.
India’s a different story. Getting some actresses onboard would be extremely helpful there because they have such a big influence. Marketing campaigns in India need to be more inclusive. Not every Indian girl is skinny, not every girl is tall. Not every Indian girl has lashes, long black hair — they have short hair, they have alopecia, there are so many things that are missing. And I think the “perfect girl” image needs to be wiped out completely. It's getting better in the U.K. and U.S., where you have brands like Dove and Aerie and Bare Minerals. I've never seen a campaign like that in India, of real women. It's always been the perfect, you know, Deepika Padukone-type, who is a stunning girl. Not everyone looks like her, and she's very fair. If she recommends me a foundation shade and I go and use it, I'm going to look so ashy. I wish actresses stood up for girls like us a bit more. I think that's lacking. I feel like maybe that might change. Take Priyanka Chopra for instance. It's quite funny, because when I was younger, I used to watch her movies. She seemed very fair in those movies. But when she came to Hollywood and started doing our stuff, I'm like, ‘Wait a minute, she's actually quite tanned.’ She's obviously lighter than me, but she's not too far off from me. I'm glad she's keeping herself real now, that she hasn't whitewashed her face and stuff like that. We need more of that, you know?
I remember back in the day, I used to be so self-conscious that I always put makeup on my face because I just felt like without it, my confidence wouldn't exist. If makeup gives you confidence, that’s absolutely fine, but it just took me a long time to be like, ‘Actually, I can just go out barefaced, and I'll be okay.’ Another thing I know about our Indian community is that we are not very educated on skincare. Going back to the SPF struggle with my mom, after I lectured her she went and bought body SPF and started putting it on her face. I was like, ‘No, face SPF is completely different!’
Q4. That’s definitely true! In fact, I heavily influenced (aka literally dragged to Sephora and forced) Pritika from our team to buy her first SPF in years. She had past negative experiences with sunscreens that gave her a white cast, so she stopped using them altogether. I would love to know more about your own beauty routine, and what you would recommend to someone who’s just getting started in skincare.
I totally get that. I use Paula's Choice Skin Restoring SPF 50 Sunscreen. No white cast, and it helps with acne. I have oily skin so I'm prone to getting my pores clogged, like whiteheads. What has helped with that tremendously is Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. I don't like exfoliating with powder because that can result in ripping tiny tears onto your skin if you're rubbing roughly. And when you tear your skin, oils start coming up because your skin thinks everything’s getting dry and starts pushing out even more oil from underneath. That’s why I prefer to use a chemical exfoliant two to three times a week.
photo credit: Sofia Joy
The next step would be toner. I’ve currently been testing out Qandaskin’s Niacinamide Daily Toner. I use toner, because once you wash your face and you strip away everything, your pH level is all mixed up because you've just taken off all the oils, all the dirt, everything like that. It's very normal. For cleansers, you should get something gentle. I try to go for pH balanced cleansers, and there's loads of affordable ones out there. If you have drier skin, go for a creamier cleanser. If you have oilier skin, go for a cleanser that has salicylic acid to help balance out your pH levels and clean out everything.
After toner, I do an essence. This is not a necessary step — it's something I picked up from K beauty, which I’m a massive fan of. Essence is a more liquidy substance that goes deep into your skin because the molecule structure is tiny, so they can penetrate further. I use MUJI’s Sensitive Skin All in One Essence, which is quite cheap, too. Whenever people ask me what products to try out, I always recommend cheaper products or samples first, because I feel like hyperpigmentation is such a big issue in the community, but it's all expensive products. The actual necessities are a cleanser and toner. Then serums.
There are so many different serums for hyperpigmentation. It's an insane world out there, so you need to find what works for you. For example, my mom has sensitive skin so when I gave her Estee Lauder, she reacted very badly. You could go organic, there's like loads of amazing brands who do like probiotic organic range for hyperpigmentation. Organic pigmentation products will take longer for you to see results straight away, so you need to be consistently using them for at least two to three months. Right now, I'm testing serums from Good Molecules, an American brand that’s very affordable. I also like the Glossier Super Pure, which has 5% Niacinamide to improve skin texture.
SPF is the next essential product. The thing with SPF is that you need to top it up during the day. So, I normally do a cream, and I think it lasts for like two to four hours, and then I have a spray which I use on top. It's definitely very hard as a brown girl to find an SPF that doesn't give you a white cast. I’ve already mentioned that Paula's Choice is a good one. I’ve also heard good things about Evy Technology. I break out from brands like Garnier or Nivea so I personally don't use them. Make sure to get an SPF separately because when brands say, “Oh, we created a moisturizer with SPF,” it won’t be strong enough. SPF should be the final step.
For me I’ll have like 20-30 steps to my skincare routines depending on my mood. I'm currently focusing on delaying aging by protecting my skin from pollution and hyperpigmentation. Nowadays, if I get a dark spot it doesn't fade as quickly. After you turn 26 years old, your cell turnover becomes slower so maintenance is key. Maintain your skin! Just because it's good right now doesn't mean it's gonna stay that way.
Q5. And what are some of your top recommended makeup products for brown girls?
I recommend NARS foundations for brown girls. I'm between shades so I do have to mix it or tan / wait around until I change in shade, but the NARS All Day Luminous Weightless Foundation is great. It goes on your skin very well, and it's very easy to blend. Bobbi Brown also does an amazing shade range, and the undertones are pretty on point, but the problem for me is the formulation. It's tackier and doesn't sit well on my skin. It just breaks me out. I love Fenty, too — especially their blushes and bronzers. It’s so hard for us darker-skinned girls to find a blush that suits our skin tones. Definitely try Fenty. They have the Freestyle Cream Bronzer, and I use the shade “Teddy,” because it's a neutral color. For their cream blushes, I love the shade “Petal Poppin.” It's a very nice peach color on brown skin or Asian skin tones. The shade “Rosé Latte” is also really nice. It's a darker shade that reminds me of when a rose dries out. Another perfect shade for brown girls.
Q6. Amazing. I wanted to ask you about something you mentioned before, on feeling like you weren’t Indian enough, stepping back a bit from the Indian community, and being jokingly called a “coconut” by friends and family. Can you say more about that?
I do love my community. I'm just not a big part of it, because I didn't feel like I fit in. I'm just a bit too opinionated. I used to get into so much trouble because backchatting is a big thing in our community. Like, ‘Don't backchat to elders,’ but you know, I don't hold my tongue when someone says something. I didn't feel like I could be myself around the kids I grew up with. So, I kind of took a step back. My parents were fine with it. I do have a few friends here and there, but I'm just not fully in the community anymore. My friends do call me coconut and it really baffles me sometimes. I think the reason is I will do what I want. I'm an environmentalist. I'm a feminist. I'm 27 years old and I'm so tired of impressing people. I'll do what I like. So my friends are sometimes like, ‘What is wrong with you? Like, why are you ...?’ And I get it. That's probably why they call me a coconut sometimes.
But you know, just because my interests are not the same as yours doesn't mean I'm a coconut. I get it from all directions — in some places too Indian, in other places too coconut.
I think at the age of 25, after my dad passed away, I realized how short life is. Like, literally one day you wake up and someone you love is just gone, and here I was still worrying about what people thought of me. I realized that half of the things I did, I wasn’t doing them for myself. I was just doing them to impress people and fit in. From a young age, I was working — on my career, on my education. That was important for me because I wanted to be independent and make my own money. I wanted to stand up on my own two feet. For that reason, I worked tirelessly, not getting to really live my life. Then after my dad went, I realized I do need to slow down a bit. I need to travel, I need to explore things. I need to do some things at least once, so I know what I like and don’t like. So I just started living my life the way I wanted to. That really lifted a weight off my shoulders.
I think striving for perfection was an issue with me.
Many Asian girls strive for perfection. They want to hit that checklist of being the perfect daughter or the perfect friend or the perfect girlfriend and wife. I had that checklist too. As soon as I stopped caring about that list and started trying to figure out who I was, the happier I became.
And now in 20-30 years time, I can look back and be like, ‘I did that. I traveled there. I went to this place. I have all these memories.’ I think to have that confidence, it takes a long time because everyone tries to fit into boundaries that society puts on them. But I was just like, ‘No, screw this, I'm gonna literally jump out of the boundary and do my own thing.’ That was big. For girls in general. It's just not me. I'm sure there's loads of other girls out there who felt the exact same way like I did and acted to find their true selves.
photo credit: Sofia Joy
Q7. What has it been like to establish your own online platform and reach out to your followers?
I’m actually not a very open person, in the sense that I'm very open to my friends, but I don't like showing my face on my Instagram. Even when you asked me to do this interview, I was like, ‘This is pushing my boundaries.’
I was adamant when I started my page that I wouldn’t ever show my face. But then I started thinking that I wanted other people to relate to me, to see that there's a girl behind all this, and that there's a reason she’s doing what she’s doing.
So I'm trying to open up more on my page. It's scary. They can see the real you, and I'm trying to write stuff about myself that I was never open about to anyone. So, it is definitely scary. But it’s worth it when I get messages from people like, ‘I have anxiety as well. I'm so glad you shared that with me.’ I tell them to talk to me if they want to. There were also a couple of people who were telling me that they lost their parents, too. I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing, trying to figure out my purpose and my mental health and things like that. So I really wanted to address these kinds of issues because yes, there’s pretty pictures on my feed. Yes, I’m talking about products. But I also want my followers to know that I'm not 100% put together. Behind the scenes, it's like you're winging it in life, and you're still trying to figure it all out. I want people to see my account and think, ‘Wow, actually, this girl is just like me. I can relate to her.’ I want to continue pushing myself a little bit every single day, to post things that will give me butterflies in my stomach. It’s definitely baby steps.
Cover photo credits: Sofia Joy