Home >Lounge >Features >Lovely & Dark: 7 women share stories of growing up in fairness-obsessed India

Seema Hari, a 33-year-old developer with Snapchat based in Los Angeles, is used to talking about her fight against colourism. She speaks out strongly against the issue on her Instagram handle and a Medium blog and her articles have appeared in Brown Girl Magazine. At the beginning of this chat, Seema is bright and energetic, especially considering it's almost bedtime for her in the US. Soon, the conversation veers to her parents and how they reacted to the kind of vindictive bullying she faced as a child. Calm and cheerful so far, Hari suddenly starts crying. “My mom did her best. She tried to tell me it was okay, to be strong. But I don’t think even she knew how to deal with it," she says. “I am sorry, I don’t know why I am crying. I have spoken about this so much."

We are speaking about it again because a series of announcements from companies about taking fairness products off the shelves or re-branding them (the most prominent being the rebranding of Fair & Lovely as 'Glow & Lovely'), provided a trigger for us to reach out to Indian women who are brilliant and successful but have had to fight against a system that stereotypes women according to the colour of their skin.

Teasing, bullying and pitying someone on the basis of their skin colour is so insidious in India, so strongly reinforced by popular culture, that it can be limiting in unexpected and often unnoticed ways.

“I realized there were certain roles that would never be offered to me because I don’t look ‘urban’ enough. I used to read the term ‘unconventional beauty’ and wonder what it meant.... (I look) like an average Indian woman," says actor Anjali Patil, whose work in movies like Newton and With You, Without You has been widely appreciated. This stereotype of the “urban" and “upmarket" girl being dazzlingly fair is a persistent one. Comedy writer and actor Khushbu Baid, who works with the comedy collective Girliyapa, says she has also come up against this stereotype. “But every now and then, on the actors’ casting groups, someone circulates a message saying, ‘Looking for a girl, age 20-25, with fair, upmarket look.’ We have trained ourselves to think fair is upmarket, dusky isn’t," says Baid.

“I avoided pink for years," says artist Mithu Sen, recalling an incident from her childhood when she was ridiculed for wearing a pink frock and told it didn’t “suit her". “All the colours in my box of crayons would wear out, except for the pink stick." Model Nidhi Sunil says mainstream fame and work eluded her even after she became a cover girl. “I would book a lot of work that was very high fashion...but it took me the longest time to convince a really big sari catalogue to let me model saris and not have Brazilian women instead," says Sunil.

The announcement from Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) about rebranding Fair & Lovely—the leading fairness cream in India with over 70% market share—to drop the word “fair" without actually changing the product is too little too late. After all, how many people in India are unaware of its purported benefits? Till a few years ago, the company ran ads that showed dark girls languishing in social, romantic and professional failure till they used the product. While it may seem that the brand has evolved in step with notions of social justice, it seems to have acted only under pressure: In 2014, the Advertising Standards Council of India issued guidelines warning against ads depicting “people with dark skin as somehow inferior to those who are fairer". It was only following this that HUL dropped before-after ads.

And even before the Black Lives Matter movement put the international spotlight on firms selling these products in Asian markets, in February the health and family welfare ministry proposed an amendment to the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954, making ads for “magic remedies", including those promising “fair skin", a punishable offence.

These were the ads that formed an everyday backdrop on TV for girls growing up across India; that told them they were the ungainly, unattractive, “before" picture if they were on the dark side of the shade cards helpfully provided with fairness cream tubes, clearly spelling out the hierarchy of acceptable skin tones. These ads have a lot to answer for, and this conversation is not over. —Shrabonti Bagchi

I HATE IT WHEN SOMEONE SAYS 'YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL TOO, JUST AS YOU ARE'

Mithu Sen, artist, 48

Mithu Sen. Credit: Lukasz Augusciak
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Mithu Sen. Credit: Lukasz Augusciak

When I was little, my mother bought matching pink dresses for me and my sister one Durga Puja. We lived in Siliguri at the time. The two of us went out, dressed identically, holding hands. My sister, a fair and pretty child, drew rapturous praise from our neighbours at the local pandal. But someone came up to me and said, “Pink doesn’t suit you at all." The comment stung badly and I avoided pink for years after that. Unlike other little girls, I became averse to the colour. All the colours in my box of crayons would wear out, except for the pink stick. In 2003, I even made a body of work called I Hate Pink. It subverts the usual connotations the colour has in our society.

In the intervening years, my relationship with my complexion went through moments of change. But the most memorable instance was when I was 17 or 18, a newly inducted student of the fine arts at Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, in Santiniketan.

It was conventional in those days (in the late 1980s) for the seniors of the department to subject the newcomers to benign “ragging" on the famous chatal, a raised platform that was a meeting point for students and faculty. It was mostly fun and games and I had very few inhibitions anyway. I would dance, sing, mime without any hesitation—whatever they asked me to do.

One day, after sportingly complying with all their demands, I was headed to the community kitchen for dinner when an exchange student called Natasha stopped me, held my hands, and said, “You are so beautiful, you have such a lovely complexion!" I was completely caught off-guard. For a moment, I thought she must be ribbing me like everyone else. But when she explained that her admiration was genuine, I burst into tears.

I have never thought of using fairness creams. No one in my family paid the least heed to such items. But that moment in Santiniketan was a turning point in my life. Until then, my parents were expecting me to get bored with art school and shift to a more conventional academic programme. But soon after I had that encounter with Natasha, I wrote home to say that I have finally found my world and will be an artist.

It’s tragic that in our country, where dark complexion is so common, prejudices against it are sown since childhood. I made the deconstruction of such “un-fairness" a standard trope in my work, where the prefix “un" appears in a range of contexts and meanings. We can step outside this mindset of judging people by their complexion only when our aesthetic values change, when we learn to look at the world differently. To this day, I feel irked when someone says, “You are beautiful too, just as you are." It feels as though my beauty is a compensation for my complexion—and that’s the only yardstick by which beauty must be measured. —As told to Somak Ghoshal

'I HAD ACCEPTED THAT I WAS NOT ENTITLED TO BEAUTY'

Rosalyn D'Mello, art writer and author, 34

Rosalyn D'Mello
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Rosalyn D'Mello

Picture this. You have had an incredible summer evening in Vienna. It’s your second visit to the Austrian capital. You are with your partner and his friends; white, native German speakers who are intuitively accommodating of your non-fluency with the language. English becomes the default, so you don’t feel excluded. Dinner at a Polish restaurant is followed by dancing to Afrobeat at the kind of bar that feels like a local secret. You wander together into the streets post midnight. You feel connected to this collective, bound by an unexpected bonhomie. You arrive at the crossing from where you will part ways. It has been one of those evenings that can never be replicated. So you decide on the most obvious gesture to record this ephemeral moment: a group selfie.

It was my idea, in fact. But while I was buzzing on life, my phone wasn’t. Someone volunteered theirs. We huddled to frame ourselves in relation to the screen. I sought my reflection amid the smiling white faces neighbouring mine but I was nowhere to be seen. It was stupefying. I simply didn’t register on the camera’s retina.

Since childhood I had been singled out because of the darkness of my complexion. Having been provided no armour in the form of healthy self-esteem, I had internalized the humiliation of ostracism. It happened daily and the jibes were not only from strangers but also from those known to me, who allegedly loved me. My skin colour seemed to give everyone (mostly men) a free pass to hurl whatever racist slur they felt was appropriate. I incorporated into my consciousness this gaze that rendered me obviously inferior. Cameras, mirrors and other reflecting surfaces unwittingly exercised more narrative control over my subjectivity than was necessary, repeatedly chipping at my potential for self-delight.

Like the crow that featured on a right-hand page of my third-grade Marathi textbook, I had ingrained these daily rejections of my personhood. The crow in this poem declares that he is undesirably black, unlike the white swan, whom everyone loves. To remedy this, and perhaps his own self-loathing, he buys an expensive bar of soap, goes to a river and starts to scrub himself vigorously, hoping to undo his aberrative blackness and uncover a fictional white core. Instead, he bleeds to death.

I was never sure what the “moral" was meant to be. Was the poem validating the trauma of discrimination or was it ridiculing the crow for its aspiration towards whiteness? Was the poem a critique of how false hierarchies are legitimized? Was it a critique of the swan’s complicity in the crow’s experience of discrimination? Was the poem a pithy illustration of the perils of caste? I empathized with the crow because, like it, I had accepted that I was not entitled to beauty. Though I was resilient enough not to alter my appearance, I still carried within me the shame that comes from being stigmatized wherever I go.

I learnt to seek allegiances with others who felt outcasted by patriarchy, white supremacy and Brahminical aesthetics. The awareness of systemic inequalities made me feel less alone. I found special solidarity with Black Pride as I delved deeper into African-American literature. In fact, it was a line from a Nina Simone rendition of a William Waring Cuney poem, No Images, that nourished my self-esteem with its grace. She does not know / her beauty, / she thinks her brown body / has no glory.

I am still unlearning the impulse to feel shame when I am the target of a racist gesture. A Berlin-based Cameroonian friend told me that in parts of Europe, the most political thing one can do is contest the whiteness of a space through asserting one’s presence. I am relearning how to inhabit space unapologetically. That night in Vienna, I exercised agency. I asked everyone if they didn’t mind repositioning themselves such that the street light illuminated us all. They gladly consented.

'WHEN MY FRIEND STOOD UP FOR ME, I FINALLY REALIZED I COULD FIGHT BACK '

Seema Hari, software developer and model, 33

Seema Hari
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Seema Hari

When I was in primary school, in Mumbai’s Dahisar, I developed mechanisms to protect myself from hurtful comments about my looks. I would avoid going to the washroom during recess because that’s when all the girls would be huddled in front of a tiny mirror and I would have to see myself through their eyes. “Teri mom bhi teri tarah kali hai kya (Is your mother also dark like you)?" someone asked me one day. I was used to comments on my complexion but hearing hurtful things about my mother—that really stung. I loved dancing but during a school function, a teacher physically shoved me to the back of the row and asked me, “Mummy ko powder lagana nahi ata kya (Doesn’t your mom know how to apply powder)?" Parents of other girls in my colony would tell them not to play with me. For the longest time, I didn’t know how to make friends. I am from a Malayali family, all of whom are dark, but I was the darkest person I knew. As I started growing older, I also grew taller than other girls my age, and I wished I could hide. I had suicidal thoughts. I wanted to become invisible.

In high school, I made some good friends who always stood up for me and who showed me how they saw me: smart, confident, good at sports, good at dancing and writing…. I started accepting myself. I was walking down the road one day with one of my friends near a field where some boys were playing cricket, and the ball rolled towards us. One of the boys shouted, “E kali, ball de na." It was so casual, so banal. I would have walked on—I was used to this—but my friend walked up to those boys and yelled at them. It caused a huge shift in perspective—I realized I could fight back. It was a moment of liberation.

I found my voice and my confidence as I did well academically and continued blossoming through engineering college and my first job in IT. I became the outgoing one, the funny one, the one who would get things done. I told myself that if I survived my childhood—where pity, ridicule, contempt were the only feedback I got from other people—I could survive anything. During a friend’s wedding in Ahmedabad, a make-up artist asked me if she could do a photoshoot with me. I said yes and that was my first time in front of the camera. I started seeing dark-skinned models in India and the penny dropped for me: In some ways, I had internalized the colourism I had faced and accepting that these people were beautiful made me accept myself as beautiful.

Coming to the US, where I live now in Los Angeles, was incredibly eye-opening too. I saw the way black women owned their looks and celebrated their skin. I continue to model these days and have thought about taking it up full time but I love technology too much to give it up—at heart, I am a nerd.

Four years ago, I met a woman on a train in Mumbai who came up to me and said she had painted a female figure who looked like me, although we had never met. She imagined me as Kali, the goddess. That was the first time I realized that the slur that had followed me through childhood was also the name of the most powerful goddess figure in Hinduism. And finally I felt like I was that goddess. —As told to Shrabonti Bagchi

In part 2 of this series, actors Anjali Patil and Khushbu Baid, model Nidhi Sunil and sportsperson Srishti Jupudi talk about growing up as a 'dark girl'

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