real life

'Growing up, I hated my skin so much I tried to bleach it.'

The first time Emily Vernem felt like she didn’t really like her skin she was just three years old.

She was in the playground and a group of kids walked up and asked her where she was from.

“I said Australia because I was born here, and they told me I was lying,” Emily told The Quicky. 

“They told me I couldn’t be, because I was brown,” she said.

Listen to Emily on The Quicky’s chat about ‘blackfishing.’ Post continues after podcast. 

The now 23-year-old Mamamia social media assistant is one of the most confident, witty, and wickedly funny people you’ll have the pleasure to meet.

She loves the skin she’s in.


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In fact, it wasn’t until she read an SBS article by Aussie model Nadine Silva who spoke about the impact the trend of ‘blackfishing’ has on people of colour – did it take her back to her childhood and the hatred she felt towards her Indian heritage.

Nadine’s article finally put into words something Emily had been struggling to – that feeling she had growing up of internal racial hatred.

The term ‘blackfishing’ describes a social media phenomenon where caucasian women use excessive amounts of fake tan, make-up and filters to appear black online.


“As a child, I would frantically scrub my skin in the shower until it was sore, as if I needed to be cleansed of the dirt that was my own brown skin,” wrote Nadine.

“It saddens me to think that as a preschooler, I was already able to comprehend that having fair skin would have been a privilege,” she continued.

“It feels like a punch in the gut to see imitation brown women represented more than real ones when there are extremely limited and often tokenistic spaces for models and influencers of colour as it is.”


Growing up, Emily didn’t have any South-Asian women to look up to in mainstream media, and while she’s thrilled that’s changing and there are people like Nadine speaking her truth – the reality of growing up in the 90s sucked.

“Reading Nadine’s article I thought this is so shit. Why’s it only now that I am accepted, but when I was a child I was hated,” she asked The Quicky.

Similarly to Nadine, Emily had a desire to “lighten” her skin.

When she started primary school, she hated when the teacher made them do self portraits.

“If I asked a kid to pass me a skin colour pencil – which is the beige pencil – they would pass me the brown pencil and then laugh.

“I just looked so different to everyone else and I could only use the black and brown colours, everyone else was using yellow for blond hair and the blue for blue eyes and I was just stuck with brown and black,” Emily explained.

Growing up Emily just wanted to fit in, and hated that her skin wasn't white. Image: Supplied.

Looking back Emily realises that it didn't actually feel bad at the time, it just felt like she was different and that meant she had to change.

"It didn't feel like I was being bullied or anything, it just felt like it was my responsibility to change myself," she said.

Eight-year-old Emily took that one step further when she discovered the bleach in her parent's bathroom that her mum used to dye her hair.

"I remember sneaking into the bathroom and using her bleach but not the diluent which is supposed to protect your skin. I just used it straight.

"I first used it on my lips because I hate my lips. I have a brown upper lip and a pink bottom lip. Even to this day I still use a lip colour because it's something I am really insecure about.

"I remember bleaching my lips and them burning and stinging. The next day they were blistered and bleeding but they were pink, and I was so freaking proud of myself because I had pink lips," she said.

At school no one noticed, but that didn't matter because Emily says she felt so much more confident. From there, she started bleaching other parts of her body.

"I still have some scars on my upper arms and legs from the bleach, but I just felt like part of a community that I wasn't originally a part of. No one could tell - but for me it felt like I was fitting in, because I was making the effort to fit in," she told The Quicky host Claire Murphy.

Emily and her papa on her first day of Kindergarten. Aged five she hated art when they'd have to do self portraits. Image: Supplied.

By the time Emily was 18 the times were changing, and suddenly skin like hers was becoming a commodity.


Suddenly she was seen as "exotic".

"People were telling me I was beautiful, which never happened when I was younger," said Emily.

"At first I loved it, because I finally felt pretty and equal to white women."

But when the trend of blackfishing emerged, where white women were deliberately making themselves appear dark, it sat uncomfortably with Emily.

"It pisses me off," she told Mamamia.

"Having to go through my whole childhood and upbringing wanting to change my self and when I finally feel like I'm being accepted into society all the white women just come and place themselves on 'my level'.

"It's a much bigger thing than just fake tanning. It's the lip fillers, the faux baby hairs, the thick eyebrows. I hated the way I looked majority of my life and when I finally became 'trendy' I feel like I've had that ripped from me," Emily explained.

Growing up Em hated her thick eyebrows and her dark complexion. Just as she embraced it and accepted the skin she was in - it became "trendy".

Despite the blackfishing, Emily is thrilled that South-Asian women are finally being represented enough in mainstream media that people feel the need to emulate them (however annoying that is).  She just wishes it happened sooner.

"I think I really needed this when I was about three to ten years old," she said.

"But I am so glad South-Asian kids [now] are growing up being told by the mainstream media it's OK to look the way you look and that you're beautiful."