Growing Up Dark-Skinned in a Country Obsessed With Fairness

I was in eleventh grade when confession pages were the rage across schools and universities — not only in India, but across the world. Taking advantage of the anonymity the world wide web offers, they were sometimes a platform for people to profess their love, crack harmless jokes, or reveal juicy secrets; but more often a platform for people to make spiteful and degrading comments from behind a shielding computer screen.

As I was going to turn sixteen, I decided to get a nose piercing done, and it took a lot of convincing for my mother to agree to the idea. To that young girl, a nose pin was one of the most beautiful elements that her culture offered — a symbol of elegance and femininity. An excited adolescent who suddenly felt that she’d transformed into a woman, I came to school elated, showing off what was then an object of marvel on my otherwise bony nose. I came home to find myself tagged in a post on the school’s confession page with the caption, “*** Kali kaam wali bai lag rahi hai nose piercing ke sath.” This translates to, “She looks like a Black house help.” Only today I realise how it’s not only meant to be derogatory to anyone with a skin tone different from what is pleasing to colonial beauty standards, but also meant to equate a working (or rather hard-working) economic class with seemingly ‘unflattering’ facial features.

I remember wailing to my parents for hours that day. Till date, thinking about the exact moment when I read that post makes my heart sink. I knew the source of the hate, given that I had recently slapped a guy in school for making sexist remarks about me. I could have done a lot of things: report the page, lodge a formal complaint about cyberbullying, go to my teachers — but nothing could undo the damage that had been done to my self-esteem, or overcome the humiliation I felt at reading what was available for the world to see and laugh at my expense.

A few male friends of mine came to ‘restore my honour’ and wrote long messages on the page about how beautiful I was. My female friends, on the other hand, stayed mum. And I don’t blame them, because we knew that as impressionable young girls, our looks were an easy target and nobody would have been spared had we dared to take a stand for each other. Obviously, my male friends (who I love dearly for having seen me through the day) were invincible. They had no fear and knew that they could slide their way out in case they came to the receiving end of any hate, thanks to the bruisers these testosterone charged young men were. Nevertheless, none of it seemed to matter. I hated myself, and I hated my brown skin.

Imagine what I felt back then as a vulnerable and gullible kid, who had deep-rooted insecurities thanks to growing up dark-skinned in a predominantly ‘fair’ South Delhi. To all those who don’t know, South Delhi is that part of India’s capital city that has been made popular by local popular culture for being home to rich and snobby women who while away their lives spending their father or husband’s money. Historically, Northern India has been home to descendants of the Aryan race — those who came from Europe to India and are therefore lighter skinned people. I grew up with a lot of family members around me who were all lighter skinned, and who casually slid into ignorant comments about skin color and class. If this was not enough, all of my friends were also light-skinned. I had no one who looked like me, not even my own mother. I remember people’s reactions when seeing my mom for the first time, and remarking, “she doesn’t look like your mother!”, as though it was a compliment to how beautiful she was.

Even though I can’t quite put a pin on it, I remember the time it started — the long overdue, gradual acceptance, even though there are times I still struggle with it. It was every time I saw the likes of Freida Pinto, Mindy Kaling or even Latino women like Gina Rodriguez and Camila Mendes on screen. It became okay when people would walk up to me and remark upon the mild resemblance between me and some brown woman they saw on TV. It actually became okay when Hollywood said it was okay. When popular media painted faces of ordinary women who looked like us across billboards. When tanning salons became the rage and back home, and my dusky skin was ‘in.’

It’s no lie that Hollywood has started setting newer, more inclusive standards of beauty. The Kardashians make millions of dollars selling the ‘curvy’ woman dream to countless impressionable young women. They are also spending a lot of their money in tanning salons, getting the shade we have been naturally blessed with. I remember being appalled at a post promoting ‘appetite suppressing lollipops’ on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram and tweeting furiously to probably no one about how it was unbelievably disgusting. However, for every Kardashian, there is a Jameela Jamil and countless other women who are setting strides in what was previously an exclusive, all-white, misogynist industry. And most commoners like us may not realise this, but what we see in our films and shows really impacts how we define beauty. We have seen trends change right in front of our eyes through the years — from our moms desperately wanting thin eyebrows to us filling in our eyebrows so that they appear thicker — we are stuck in an endless loop of changing definitions of ‘beauty’ in the popular media. Needless to say, these have toxic repercussions on women who don’t fit the picture films paint for us, or match the criteria. At the same time though, Hollywood has never been so flexible and welcoming to different body sizes and skin colours.

However, nothing seems to have changed back home. When I see the gorgeous Priyanka Chopra in Hollywood, being brown and looking like a million bucks, oozing charm and elegance — I remember how she was doing commercials for fairness creams in India when I was younger. The idea that fair skin is superior is so deeply ingrained in our minds that in one of her old commercials, a woman like her actually played the role of a girl who was left by a man for a fairer girl because of her dark skin. She spent her days pining over him, heartbroken until she bought the fairness cream and became all ‘fair and lovely’ and her asshole boyfriend returned to her. I cannot believe a woman like her — so confident in her demeanor and so sure of her worth, agreed to do a commercial like this. Even if I ignore the ludicrous skin colour shaming, I can’t fathom how it all revolved around the ultimate idea that a woman’s life is only dependent on a guy’s validation.

She is not the only one — Deepika Padukone, Bipasha Basu, and many other brown-skinned women in the industry have done these commercials. You would think that times have changed, but that is far from the truth. Bollywood continues to launch its star kids — specifically, actresses who enter the industry young with their chiseled jawlines and perfect noses (which are evidently the result of surgeries — the internet does not forget) and honestly, it makes me sad. It makes me sad that all the money and privilege in the world does not make them immune from falling prey to ridiculous and unattainable beauty standards. How do they sleep at night knowing they are propagating unhealthy, pernicious notions of self-worth and beauty to so many women, most of who don’t have the means or easy access to the cosmetologist centres they frequent? One of our house helps got the worst skin allergy from the bleaching agents in a fairness cream she would plaster over her face multiple times in a day. When we upbraided her, she said that her husband would beat her because she was not fair. It seemed absurd and even funny at first, but eventually painful and heart-wrenching to learn what is the bitter reality for women like her around the world.

It is true that actors are not philanthropists — it’s not their job to be role models. Maybe it is foolish of me to expect the industry to pay heed to stories like these and introspect. Women will continue to suffer and bear the burden of revolting concepts of beauty, and there is nothing we can do about it. But every time I see someone like me on screen, it makes me embrace myself. I am sure that if there were enough women like me, in their natural state on our TV screens back when I was younger, I would not have battled all the anxiety about the way I looked that I did.

This is why representation is important, because the more we see women of all ages, colours, backgrounds and sizes on our screens — the more we realise that it is absolutely normal to look the way we do.

This is especially true for India, where most of us are brown-skinned with rounded bodies. However, belittling the film industry’s contributions in this field does not mean that no efforts have been made at all in this direction. A lot of outspoken women, some of them celebrities even, are using social media to talk about their experiences and normalising everything — from brown skin, acne and body fat, to disorders like PCOS or endometriosis. This is probably the beauty and film industry’s worst fear, because for years they have commercialised and made money off our complexes. I will not be surprised if tackling this by pushing their archaic ideas aggressively in our minds seems to be on their high priority agenda.

A friend of mine once said to me, “yeah, I love Mindy Kaling and all, but she would have never been able to become a successful actress in India. Thank God she was born in the USA.” At first, I was instantly offended. But the reality of it made me so downhearted that her observation actually got me thinking about how far we still have to go. No industry or country is perfect, and I am sure each of the wonderful women I mentioned had to fight many more prejudices in a foreign country than I ever will, but where they are doing what they do speaks a lot about the support system they have keeping them intact.

At the end of the day, younger girls who grow up hating themselves for their looks deserve better from their society. Women who are taunted by aunties and given unsolicited advice over their appearances deserve better from their families and friends. Girls who are kept from playing sports out in the sun for the fear of getting tanned deserve better. Those who are berated for not applying ‘ubtans’ (face masks) or joining slimming centres to become fairer and thinner so that they are eligible for arranged marriages deserve better. We would be lying to ourselves if we thought that popular media has no role to play in promoting these regressive prejudices. And to conclude I say; thank you Hollywood, there is still a long way to go, but you have done more to help my cause than my own country ever will.

(Featured Image Credit: Naema Emily Hossain)