It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Love Island USA's Zeta Morrison is no stranger to the ebbs and flows of desirability politics. During her season on the breakout reality dating show, the UK native's personality and looks were at center stage.
But her first encounters with skin tone-based discrimination, or colorism, happened way before she set foot in the Villa, during her initial move to the United States.
"I did not experience colorism in the U.K. Racism? Yes. But no, I did not experience colorism in the U.K.," Morrison tells Yahoo Life.
Morrison first came to the U.S. when she was 18 and cites it as the location for her first real run-in with microaggressions regarding her complexion.
"That was the first time I heard, like, 'Oh, you're pretty for a dark-skinned girl,' and it was just something that would happen all the time," she recalls.
After she moved to California, the intercommunal colorism continued.
"When I moved to Los Angeles, I was more celebrated for my dark skin. But then within the Black community, colorism was a major thing," she says.
And the difference in treatment was palpable.
"I would be around white men or white women and they're like, 'Oh my gosh!' They can look at me and objectively say that they find me 'pretty.' But then with people in my community, it's almost like if the skin is lighter, then they reign over your beauty. Despite the features or anything like that, the beauty, in their eyes, is in the skin tone," she says.
Morrison was the season four winner of Love Island USA, making her the second Black woman to win the coveted title. And while her self-confidence had long since been developed, she says that being able to look to another Black woman who had won the series helped immensely.
"Representation is just so, so important. I went in with this sort of confidence, not just because I'm confident in myself, but because I saw a dark-skinned, Black woman who's also one of my really good friends now, Justine, who won season two of Love Island. And being able to see that gave me this level of confidence that, you know what? I've seen someone who looks just like me do it in America," she says.
Zeta, who has had a robust career as a model, influencer and reality star, says it’s her own shift in perspective that’s helped her deal with people’s attitudes towards dark-skinned women.
"I've been blessed enough to go to a lot of events where there are celebrities, or just, like, people of high influence. [But] one of the experiences that was actually really difficult was walking into that event, feeling like my confident self and then just not getting that recognition from the men there, and seeing the types of women that were getting that recognition," Morrison recalls. This moment was an all too familiar reminder that no matter how much self-love she has, certain internalizations, such as colorism, will always be present.
"I think a lot of my confidence has come from my internal self, which I'm so proud of. I was like 'I've got really good chat. I'm funny.' Like, that's when I think I started to see the beauty in my external, as well. But I do remember going into that party and feeling so much confidence about who I was, and then just not getting that recognition. It just felt like it was just snatched from me," she says.
The feeling, she clarifies, goes beyond the surface of wanting to be desired by men, says Zeta, who used moments like that to check in with her self-worth.
"I remember … being like, I really do have a choice right now to say, ‘No. These men at this specific party are not the ones for me.' But that doesn't mean that all that confidence and that beauty that I now believe myself to have isn't real," she says.
She also explains that the reductive mindset that fuels colorism represents a larger issue — something she was forced to reckon with after her time on the show.
"The guy that I'm seeing and won the show with,” she says, referring to her Love Island beau and current partner, Timmy Pandolfi, “his head was turned by a girl who has fairer skin than me.”
Ultimately, the two wound up together, but some people couldn't believe she could come out on top on a dating show.
"When I got off [the show], for some people, it was like, 'Well, how could you possibly be interested in the darker-skinned girl?' And that's when it all just started coming back in my mind," she says. “I was like, 'Oh, my goodness. This still exists.'"
And Morrison says she was not spared from its harsh effects, despite any external praise she may receive for her looks.
"This is still a thing where no matter how beautiful I may consider myself or feel on the inside, there's still a lot of people looking and being like, 'Yeah, but she's dark. How pretty could she be?'" she shares.
Thankfully, Zeta says she has built up quite the self-esteem and is prioritizing candid conversations about self-love in the influencer and entertainment industry.
"I've looked up to women and been like 'Well, of course, everyone finds them beautiful. They're not having that issue at all.' But maybe that's because these conversations aren't happening," she says, explaining that she herself still has moments where she has to remind herself who she is.
"I still look at myself and though I've grown through it, and I'm forever growing through it. It's not just like: It's over now, I'm just happy with myself," she says.
And even as she continues to pave her own lane in the industry, Morrison is careful to never forget her inner child.
"I'm not like … 'Oh, yeah, I won Love Island, I booked these makeup campaigns, people find me beautiful. So now I'm like, smug.' It's not like that at all. That six-year-old girl is always still in you. And you're just navigating all these new things that come at you," she says.
Now she is focused on ensuring other young girls can find the same sense of self she has curated over the years.
"I'm just so happy with who I am. And so confident in my beauty inside that it radiates outside. And I feel like I felt that on the Island. Therefore, like, whatever the thoughts and opinions and things that are still happening outside, don't affect me, per se. I would rather build up the younger generation of dark-skin women, because I know how it felt to be there, but I'm not there anymore," she says.
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