Chinthiya Rajah, 26, is happy with her skin tone and would never, ever consider lightening it. “I simply think it’s a deplorable cosmetic procedure and that’s my opinion. Shadeism is an ongoing issue in the South-Asian community and it really needs to stop,” says Rajah, a model since the age of 14.
So imagine her surprise when she found out that one of her photos was being used to sell skin-lightening services at a Toronto clinic. “I was like, ‘How did this picture get here?’ because I knew 100 percent that I didn’t work for these guys, I wouldn’t ever support anything like that.”
Rajah talks to FLARE about the politics of skin bleaching, what her friends and family think about the ad, and why the pressure to lighten skin in the South Asian community is “bullshit.”
When did you first see the ad? My girlfriend actually saw it and she’s the one who contacted me because I didn’t know about it until then.
When was that? It was in December, just a few weeks before the holidays. My girlfriend had contacted me to congratulate me on a gig and at first I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ I was actually very confused. She had sent me the picture and I had convinced her that it wasn’t me. Once I took a look at the image again my curiosity kicked in and I wanted to see who this “lookalike” was. I then decided to check out the website stated in the ad. After I looked at the website, that’s when I knew that it was me all along. I was very shocked and wondered how my image got there.
The clinic has reportedly claimed that they got it from a stock photo agency so I’m assuming it’s from a past photo shoot. Do you remember it? No, I am totally baffled. But I do know that the photo was taken between 2011 and 2013.
How? I know it because I was wearing braces in the pictures. I know that for sure. So I wanted to see the model release forms.
Have you been able to do that? No. I’ve been talking to Toronto Star back and forth and they’re going to keep me in the loop when they do find out. Initially, I wanted to do everything myself—I wanted to go to the clinic myself. But I was told it’s safer to do everything through a lawyer.
Do you think you could have accidentally signed a release that made the images available for stock use, or do you believe that you didn’t sign one? I may have signed a release, which is why I need to see my signature. But even then they could still get into trouble for misusing my image…to alter my image and misuse it and to use it for something I don’t support whatsoever.
How did you family and friends react to your image being used in an ad like that? My mom and my brother were the first to know so they were upset and they were shocked…Friends of friends were talking a lot of smack. They were saying things like ‘Oh my gosh, no one is ever going to want to work with her now. Why would she even work for a company like this? I can’t believe she’s bleaching her face.’
They said a lot of silly things, but at the end of the day I know my close friends and true friends know me and know I wouldn’t do that so at the end of the day it didn’t hurt.
Some people think you did it willingly? Yes. But then everyone that knows me well enough would know because I was neither of those shades. I was never that dark in my life; I was never that light. Everyone obviously knows that they have been altered it’s just I think a part of them also believes that I was supporting bleaching.
Is there pressure to lighten your skin? There used to be pressure. Even as a kid I was always brown skinned. Even during a couple of modeling gigs when I would work for South Asian people, they would be like, ‘Oh my gosh we can’t use you, you’re dark.’
It would shock me because beauty is not about your skin tone it’s about your features. Don’t define my beauty by my skin tone. That’s just complete bullshit. It angered me but like I said there are girls that do it out there nowadays and if that’s you’re thing, go for it. I’m not judging you, but I don’t believe in it. I don’t feel like I need to be lighter to be beautiful.
It’s like that in the South Asian community. It’s so bad and it still is to this day and I don’t believe in it at all.
Would you say the majority of the South Asian community wrestles with this issue or is it a small minority? It’s pretty big. I mean even in Bollywood, in India, you don’t see a girl that is darker skin toned. You don’t see a darker actress; it’s very very rare. Everyone is so pale. So, it’s very very common.
Do you have trouble as a model because of your skin tone? I have trouble with the South Asian community, yes.
What about outside of it? No, they embrace me. They love my skin. It made me learn to appreciate it more because in the beginning I was so let down.
I used to be very angry but as I get older I love me for who I am. Whether people think I’m dark or not, I don’t really give a shit!
So what are you doing about the ad? You want to get a lawyer and have the ad taken down? I want the ad taken down and I also want to get compensated for the damage that’s been done.
What would you say to a young woman with a darker skin tone who is feeling the pressure to be lighter? I would tell them, honest to god, not to listen to anyone else because beauty is not defined by colour. You’re beautiful no matter what and if you’re passionate about something go for it because only you can make it happen and nobody can do it for you.