Growing up on the Indonesian island of Java, Happy Natalisa remembers being mocked for her dark complexion. Her classmates called her si hitam (black) and orang Papua because her father was Papuan, an ethnic group hailing from Indonesia’s easternmost province in Western New Guinea.

Her appearance affected how she served in the church. She preferred to be behind the scenes, choosing to join the prayer ministry rather than becoming a worship leader. Later, she realized this was caused by “seeds of insecurity.”

“I felt sad and even questioned God why I was born in Java, which caused trauma in my teenage life,” said Natalisa. She yearned for lighter skin.
It was only through the help of her college discipleship group years later that she was finally able to accept her skin color and find her self-worth in God’s view of her. Still, the 28-year-old’s daily skincare routine includes a tiny pink bottle of face serum that promises a brighter, lighter complexion by protecting her skin from the harsh exposure to Indonesia’s tropical sun. Her friends now compliment her on her “radiant” skin, Natalisa says with a beam.

Like in many countries globally, skin-lightening products are wildly popular among Indonesian women, as most consider “bright and glowing skin” to be the epitome of beauty. Skincare regimens that include creams, lotions, treatments, or pills—some of which have been found harmful and ineffective—have blossomed into a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide. In Indonesia, the skincare market is projected to reach nearly $19 million by 2030.

With a population made up of more than 1,000 ethnic groups, Indonesia is built on the idea of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, meaning Unity in Diversity. Yet the preference for lighter skin, which has its roots in colonialism, remains pervasive in Indonesian society and is perpetuated by advertising and media.

In the midst of this, some Indonesian Christians are working to challenge the narrative. Through women’s ministries and promoting ethnic diversity in churches, they’re redefining beauty based on biblical values.

Indonesia’s history of colorism

Today’s Indonesian beauty standards began during the Dutch colonial era of the 1600s, which established a social hierarchy that placed those with white skin as the most superior, those of Chinese descent next, and indigenous Indonesians at the bottom.

“The intelligent, the virtuous, and those to be emulated [were] the ones with fair skin,” said Esther Kuntjara, professor of linguistics and culture at Petra Christian University in Surabaya. “That was the policy employed by the Dutch at that time. It has become deeply ingrained here.”

Article continues below

Even after Indonesia gained independence in 1945, discrimination and inequality based on skin color persisted through colorism, the favoring of lighter skin tones over darker ones. People with lighter skin typically received advantages in their workplace and relationships, while those with darker skin faced systemic disadvantages and prejudice.

The use of light-skinned models in beauty and cosmetic advertisements—first imported from the US or Europe, then from East Asian countries—have also influenced how Indonesians view beauty, says Agung Kurniawan, a psychologist in Surabaya.

The underrepresentation of diverse skin tones on TV, film, and social media also contributes to a mere-exposure effect, where individuals develop a preference for what they are familiar with. “The impression that beauty is associated with fair skin has greatly influenced Indonesian women, resulting in the proliferation of skin-whitening products in Indonesia,” Kurniawan said.

Today, research shows that Indonesian women don’t like the whiteness of Americans or Europeans “since [the skin] appears reddish-white, like shrimp.” Chinese skin color is also not preferred because of a long history of discrimination against Chinese Indonesians. Instead, Japan’s colonization of Indonesia (1942–1945) has led to the pervasive notion of fair-skinned Japanese beauty.

For 32-year-old Helen Marlina, a Christian who works at a multinational public relations firm, using skin whitening products is an investment for her career. “If I don’t have bright-looking skin, I feel like I’m not credible enough to do my job,” Marlina said. “I also feel that society generally finds women with lighter skin more attractive in everyday social interactions.”

Meanwhile, Retno Lopis, a 53-year-old housewife who lives in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, said that when she started to apply a local skin whitening ointment, she found her once oily and dull skin rapidly became lighter and brighter. Yet she stopped using it because she felt uneasy and was unsure about the safety of its ingredients after seeing the rapid changes. Although she no longer uses any skin whitening products, Lopis said she still believes women with fairer skin look cleaner and well-groomed. “I want to eliminate such a mindset, but I observe that women with darker skin tend to look dull and older.”

Article continues below
Educating the future generation about inner beauty

The preference for fair skin is so entrenched in Indonesia society that even today, parents discourage their children from marrying someone from a different ethnicity with darker skin. Chinese Indonesians don’t want their children to find spouses of another race unless they are light-skinned Westerners, Kuntjara found.

For instance, when actress Nana Mirdad posted a photo on Instagram of her and her lighter-skinned husband, she received comments questioning their match, with one netizen commenting that she should be “grateful” that someone with such dark skin could find a light-skinned husband. Under a screenshot of the comment, Mirdad wrote: “Never feel inferior about our skin color, whatever it may be. Being fair-skinned doesn’t mean it’s better than having a tanned complexion. Let's stop making distinctions.”

To overcome the negative effects of media and advertisements to younger generations, Kuntjara believes it is vital for parents to educate their children at home. She said that parents should teach children not to judge people based on their skin color or physical appearance, but instead value others based on their heart, mindset, and attitude. While this may seem like commonplace advice in the West, it’s novel in Indonesia.

“There’s a reciprocal relationship between media influence and people’s perception,” she noted. “If society becomes aware that the concept of light skin is merely a product of people's perceptions for certain interests, the narrative may start to change.”

Natalisa’s mother, Erina Saraswati, noted that in raising her children, she has taught them that even when others mock them, they should not respond unkindly. “I told them, ‘Let them say negative things about your appearance or dark skin, but remember that everyone has strengths and weaknesses,’” Saraswati said. “So I encourage [Natalisa] to focus on her excelling in school. As they grow and mature, I also teach them to bring these experiences to prayer and to forgive those who make fun of them.”

A Christian theology of beauty

Susanna I. Setiawan is working to combat these unattainable beauty standards among Christian women through her ministry, Wanita Bijak Indonesia (Wise Women Indonesia). Since 2001, Wanita Bijak has provided guidance and mentorship for women, ranging from teenagers to adults, to experience gender restoration as God’s creation. Through biblically based lessons on a woman’s uniqueness, her roles, and how she can become a role model, the ministry aims to help women apply God’s Word to their everyday lives.

Article continues below

The organization initially started with mentoring women in a local church and has now grown into a nationwide organization with small groups in 91 cities across the country as well as online Bible studies that have reached Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, China, and the Netherlands.

“It began with the fundamental awareness that being created as a woman is a precious beauty bestowed by God the Creator,” Setiawan said. “As a woman understands and recognizes her own value, she will find peace within herself and embrace her entire existence.”

Wanita Bijak started with camps and mentorship classes for single and married women. It then expanded to serve teens, and now includes specific groups for women in different life stages or circumstances: widows, young mothers, teachers, women in ministry, and pastors’ wives. In these classes, Wise Women brings speakers to teach the Bible and facilitates group discussions.

In its mentoring programs about holistic beauty, Setiawan said most participants share that they are unhappy with their physical appearance. Many hold tightly to society’s beauty standards of a slim body, a slender face, double eyelids, and smooth, fair skin. So Setiawan points to Song of Solomon 1:5, “I am dark, yet lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem,” to show that God’s idea of beauty isn’t based on the shade of a person’s skin.

In Wanita Bijak classes, Setiawan often notes that the Bible never emphasizes physical appearance as the sole measure of a woman’s beauty. Rather, women in the Bible like Rebekah, Abigail, and Esther are described as beautiful because of their faith, attitude, character, and good deeds. She also stresses that it’s fundamental for women to have a true understanding of themselves based on the unchanging standards of God’s Word so they feel secure and are not easily shaken by the teachings of the world (Col. 2:7–10).

A 2016 study by Biola University supported that point: Of the 243 Christians surveyed, those who believed that their bodies are holy and intentionally created by God were more likely to feel good about their bodies. Setiawan noted that when Christians accept Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwells within them, and their bodies are no longer their own but belong to God. Therefore, “we pay attention to our physical appearance, not because it determines our worth, but because we know that we are already valuable,” she said.

Article continues below

She also noted that beauty standards vary by country and change over time, creating an ever-moving target. Rather than chasing the latest trends, Christian women should take care of their body and “showcase clean and healthy skin while highlighting its beauty, regardless of our skin color.”

One of the Wanita Bijak participants is Setiawan’s own daughter, Stephani Chara. Now 23, Chara recalled struggling as a young teen with insecurity over her tanned skin and feeling envious of women who were “more naturally beautiful.” After joining the ministry’s teen-focused Girls’ Talk program, she gradually learned her inherent value in God’s eyes trumped external opinions on what is beautiful.

“I eventually learned how to take better care of myself and my skin,” Chara said. “But even so, the outside will never change what’s truly already on the inside, my perfect value and worth given by God himself, who had woven me perfectly in my mother’s womb.”

Diversity and inclusion within God’s people

Churches can also help end discrimination over skin color by becoming more inclusive, says Jefry Lie, youth pastor GKBJ Kelapa Gading, a Baptist church in Jakarta. Many churches in Indonesia self-segregate by ethnicity, such as Batak churches (where the majority are from the Sumatran tribe Batak) or Chinese churches. Lie’s church is about 90 percent ethnically Chinese, while the remaining 10 percent are either Javanese or from East Indonesian cities like Ambon and Manado.

Lie himself is half Chinese and half Torajan (an indigenous people group in South Sulawesi), and encourages churches to be safe spaces where people from all ethnicities and cultures can feel welcomed, accepted, and valued. “When the church is not limited by specific skin color or culture, the congregation becomes accustomed to diversity, thus fostering a broad perspective within the community about the meaning of beauty,” he said.

Despite being predominantly Chinese, non-Chinese believers make up some of the core leaders and ministers of the church, “so, even though they are a minority [at church], they feel welcome,” Lie said. Still, they face challenges as some in his church remain suspicious of people from different ethnicities, viewing those with dark skin as “less than.”

Article continues below

In leading the church’s youth group, Lie sees these ideas filtering into young people, as the Chinese youth don’t want to socialize with or date non-Chinese.

“I teach teens and young adults that such stigma does not come from God,” Lie said. “I encourage them to interact with people of all ethnicities and who have different skin color, both in church ministry and in social settings, so they can broaden their perspectives, realizing that individuals from different ethnicities are not as they might have thought.”

For Natalisa, the despair over her dark skin only dissipated through a closer relationship with God and a supportive Christian community. “I didn’t dare to develop myself until I realized the value of self-worth in the eyes of God during college discipleship,” she recalled. She joined a small group where friends not only affirmed and accepted her, but also helped her embrace herself as God created her to be.

By viewing herself through a biblical perspective, she was finally able to brush off the culture’s beauty standard. With this understanding, her perspective on herself changed.

She points to Genesis 1:26—“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’”—as the lynchpin that helped her accept her appearance.

“From this verse, I understood that I am already created in the image and likeness of God, so why should I change it?” Natalisa said. “If the Almighty says I am already perfect when he created me, what more needs to be changed?”

Maria Fennita and Ivan K. Santoso contributed to this report.

[ This article is also available in 한국어 and Indonesian. ]