8 More Women Get Real About What It’s Like To Be Dark-Skinned In India - Homegrown

8 More Women Get Real About What It’s Like To Be Dark-Skinned In India

Every time I go to Delhi, one of the only active things that are a part of my ‘I’m-home-now-let-me-slumber’ routine is accompanying my housekeeper/life-long nanny to the banya downstairs as she purchases a face cream. It’s always a tube of Fair & Lovely. Her set response of her skin being “kharaab (bad)sees little respite or reason in my explanations. Even after all these years, it leaves me exasperated. At the age of nearly 60 (she doesn’t know her birthday, so we estimate) she continues to hold onto the belief that there is something deeply wrong with her dark complexion, and that it will miraculously be fixed by the ever-growing stream of so-called fairness products that bombard TV air space. It angers me that the woman who took care of me from the day I was born still believes that something I find so ‘trivial’ makes her not good enough.

But it isn’t trivial, is it? It’s a deep-rooted prejudice, ingrained into the minds of young girls and boys as it is old men and women, across our country. Some might consider it to be yet another long, slender tentacle that emerges from unrealistic beauty standards, but the truth is, colourism runs deeper than the superficial. Being told that having fair skin determines the very quality of your life and the availability of opportunities right from jobs to marriage prospects is now a ‘normal’ part of so many people’s lives in this country. The mindset has even led to recent cases of outright discrimination against Africans in the country, earning us a label as one of the most racist countries in the world. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that almost every Indian’s sense of self is informed by it in someway.

Despite being a lived reality for so many people, especially women, the narrative is slowly changing though. A tiny revolution against it is building up as more and more young people speak up about its absurdity through various mediums - be it spoken word poetry, art, illustrations or simply opening up via social media about the injustice of it all. Hearing each other’s stories are important, and nothing provides more perspective than the experiences of people who have been at the receiving ends of it their whole lives. Young Indians from all over the country wrote in to share their personal journeys of shame, acceptance and breaking of stigmas that have surrounded their dark skin in a truly overwhelming show of strength and self-love. In fact, we couldn’t fit all the responses in a single piece. From biting comebacks to nosey aunties to continuing struggles with their complexion - their stories are varied even as they share striking similarities.

Scroll on to know what it’s truly like to be dark-skinned in India. [You can read the first volume of this series here].

I. Anoushka Agrawal | 17 | Student

“I never really realised that my dark skin was ever a problem until one of my peers crudely pointed it out in the 2nd grade or so. From then on up until the 9th grade, I was both conscious as well as embarrassed about my complexion, and was constantly teased about it in school.

Since I am an Indian classical dancer, make-up has been the constant remedy that people (especially my make-up artist) would politely advise me to use. I’ve heard a lot of ‘You’ve gotten so tanned! You should use sunscreen’ too. When it comes to dance performances, I am never really given a choice - I am forced to go through the very long process of getting my face lightened using layers and layers of make-up.

I’ve definitely been treated differently because of my complexion - I’ve been mistaken for the help multiple times, when in my salwar-kameez after a dance rehearsal. It’s interesting to see how differently you’re treated if you’re perceived as being from a lower-income background, and to see how your complexion implies your socio-economic condition. I have grown to be comfortable in my skin, and a lot of that is because I began understanding colorism and Indian society’s relationship with it. Writing about it really helped, as well as hearing stories about other young girls who have had the same experiences as I have, and the conversations that I had with people around me about complexion began to change. It really is a strength for me now, rather than a weakness. The teasing and the comments people made about my complexion did really put me down for a while, to a point at which I was convinced my complexion would always be the reason I would never be good enough. The comments don’t bother me anymore, though, mostly because my complexion doesn’t bother me anymore.”

Anoushka Agrawal
Anoushka Agrawal

One piece of advice for other brown girls being teased or criticised

“Don’t think of it as a weakness, because it isn’t. Laugh the ridiculous comments off, because your olive, tan, chocolate or even pale skin doesn’t determine your success. Find what you love doing and keep doing it, and show people that your complexion wasn’t the slightest barrier to the incredible woman you will become.”

Read about Anoushka’s incredible collaborative art and poetry project with artist Tara Anand ‘Shade Card’ here.

II. Meghna Kar | 27 | Teacher

“As kids we cannot escape from the nicknames given to us by our comrades in school. Often such appellations are based on our physical appearances; ‘Fatty’ or ‘Shorty’ bring the common ones. Mind you, ‘Shorty’ doesn’t mean girlfriend in Indian context. However, the nickname bestowed on me was ‘Kali,’ which in India means black or dark-skinned. As a matter of fact I remember my utter displeasure at being addressed ‘Black Beauty’. After all have you ever heard anybody say, ‘She is a White Beauty’! Then why stress on ‘black’!

I have always been baffled by the notion of beauty associated with skin colour because as a child I was always taught by my parents that an individual’s true beauty lies in their behaviour and had nothing to do with their outward look. However, the time spent at school and private coaching classes started contradicting this valuable principle. Soon I realised that for the world fair skin was all that mattered. In fact the term ‘fair-skin’ has almost become a synonym of beauty. And if you are born with a dark complexion, you are practically doomed for life. People would literally go to lengths to demean your skin colour. In the land of Kali and Krishna, having a skin tone few shades darker is treated as an offence, thanks to the irrational obsession about ‘fair and lovely’ skin. Being a dusky girl, I have faced numerous unpleasant situations in life when I was made to feel like a culprit for being born with dark complexion.

My first tryst with the bitter reality was at the tender age of 4 when I was to play the role of Sleeping Beauty for our annual day celebrations at school. A week before the show as I took up my usual place on the stage suddenly my teacher announced that I was to be one of the background dancers as they needed someone fair skinned and rosy-cheeked girl to don the character of Princess Aurora. Ashamed and disgraced I wanted to run back home and fling myself into Ma’s protective hug. Nevertheless, I had to endure few more hours of humiliation before I could vent out my emotions. So with teary eyes I continued my rehearsals. On returning home I narrated my ordeal to Ma. The following day my mother decided to confront my teacher who by then having already anticipated such a situation had fabricated a convenient justification. She cited the reason that I was a good dancer and since the character of Princess Aurora had to lie down most of the time on stage she thought it would have been absolute waste of my talent. ‘Liar!’ I screamed inside, but what could a kindergarten kid do but to obey her teacher. From this incident I learnt that unless we openly confront our inhibitions towards dark skin no amount of westernisation or modernisation can change our opinion vis-à-vis superficial beauty revolving around fair skin tone. Since then I started my baby steps towards my unending fight against the conventional beauty rules set forth by the society.

After years of submitting to such criticism and mockery I realised snapping was not the solution but changing my attitude towards the problem was. Idiotic comments are now met with poker face. As a matter of fact I was pleasantly surprised during my visit to France last summer where my dusky complex was an aspect of admiration. I realised that as everybody scurried outdoors to get a piece of the sun for that lovely tan, I on the other hand was generously complimented for being born with a naturally bronzed skin.”

Meghna Kar
Meghna Kar

One piece of advice for other brown girls being teased or criticised

“Sometimes in life ignorance is bliss. Be proud of your dusky skin and don’t pay heed to the conventional beauty standards established by the society.”

III. Seema Hari | Developer Relations Manager

“I’m really dark skinned and I’ve been ridiculed ever since I can remember. Even when I was in first grade I remember getting really angry at a classmate who asked me if me mom doesn’t make me take showers and if my mom was also dark and ugly like me. Some moms would tell their girls that if they play in the sun they would end up like me. So some girls actually were afraid of me and would never play with me and advise other kids to do the same. Every single lady who met my mom had something to say about my skin and had a remedy to prescribe. Everything from applying yogurt to my face everyday, to scrubbing my face with salt and sugar, drinking milk with saffron every night. The scariest one was to get a chemical procedure to peel layers of my skin. I know it is a very common place procedure now to get chemical peels but to me it sounded absolutely horrifying, and does even now!

I tried my best to be inconspicuous and invisible so people wouldn’t notice me, but I was tall and skinny so it was really easy to spot me in a crowd and pick on me. You get used to insults and being ridiculed very soon and at a very young age I learned to tune it out and hang my head low and not respond. What got me was how everyone kept repeating to my parents that I would never find anyone because I was dark-skinned. I didn’t want to believe them but slowly life started showing me proof that they were right. To me the point of life was to love. And to realize that most boys also just subscribed to fair and lovely’s beauty standards and didn’t even ‘want to be seen’ with me was devastating. I fell into this deep depression in my teenage years and was suicidal because I saw no point in a life without love. I was sorry for being visible, for existing. Every night I went to bed praying to never have to live another day. I hope no one ever has to feel that way because of something that they can never change like their skin color.

I think it was love that pulled me out of my suicidal ways. Falling in love changed my life. For the first time someone didn’t notice my dark skin, wanted to spend time with me and was happy to be ‘seen with me’. For the first time I was given the permission to love, and I felt okay to be me. It doesn’t even have to be romantic love. We have so many different kinds of love that we don’t give importance to. I think a deep connection/friendship that helps you express even negative, depressive thoughts without judgement, and lets you know that it’s okay to be you and not be perfect can be so powerful. We should all allow people to talk to about their fears and failures and make that normal, especially when we live in a world where everyone is obsessed with having perfect lives and having the most followers and likes.”

(L) Photographed by Vish Pijwala; (R) Vinay Singh Tomar
(L) Photographed by Vish Pijwala; (R) Vinay Singh Tomar

One piece of advice for other brown girls being teased or criticised

“Be the girl you love. Beauty is everywhere. Physical beauty standards are a trap. Create your own beauty standard and own it. Your beauty standard could be women who do cook wonderfully, own businesses, climb mountains, raise good children, have the kindest hearts, do social service, anything. Create it. And be it. There will always be women who are sexier, younger, hotter, with better bodies than you. But that’s not your beauty standard so none of that will ever matter. You will own your own new standard of beauty and become the best version of yourself and everything else will fade in importance. Talk about your issues and go out of your way support other women. We need each other.”

[Click here to read her powerful poem about all the things she’s had to hear growing up about dark skin]

IV. Shreanca Bhattacharjee | 24 | Creative Writer & Singer

“’Arey babi tui toh aage bohut kalo chilish, akhon toh Bangalore ey giye forsha hoye gechish (Arey babi you used to be so dark before, but you got so fair after going to Bangalore),’ said the Bengali aunty who had seen me grow up from a fat ‘shamborno’ kid to a skinny tanned teenager. My reply to that was a awkward ‘Hain haha aunty.’ No, I hadn’t run out of comebacks. Infact, I had atleast three comebacks ready. But when you are mocked for being dark skinned all your life, you get immuned to certain stupid remarks from people who are mostly ignorant.

I started noticing my relatives emphasize on the word ‘Kalo (dark)’ like it was a bad thing. I mean, specially when you are coming from a Bengali Family. According to them women are supposed to be doe eyed and fair with glowing skin and a round face. So, there was always a social set up where I knew I’d get called darker than my other cousins or how I should use milk malai on my face every night before going to bed. I found the malai and the turmeric really ridiculous because, firstly, so much effort and secondly, what a odd thing to be concerned about. I mean, its a skin tone, something I was gifted with. I didn’t understand how MY skin color was making it so difficult for them that they HAD to put in that effort of recommending odd remedies.

Ever since I was a baby I was treated a little different from the other kids in the household. Bengalis tend to use the word ‘shamborno’ which is a nice way to call someone dark-skinned, but you can always sense the pity that follows with that word. I remember the first time when a friend cracked a joke that were along the lines of how I shouldn’t be worried about getting tanned because I am already dark skinned. And nobody really questioned it but laughed along. As I grew up and moved to Bangalore I realised how irrelevant it was. Like, fuck you aunty next door, dark skin is sexy.

And I couldn’t give enough of a shit about being a suitable Bengali bride. I have embraced the melanin and I think it makes me beautiful.”

Shreanca Bhattacharjee photographed by Kirti Nair
Shreanca Bhattacharjee photographed by Kirti Nair

One piece of advice for other brown girls being teased or criticised

“Please save the fucks. Don’t feed the bullies, embrace the way that you are. When you do that, you win. Because no bully in the world can make fun of something that you’re proud of. You just gotta go out there and do your thang.

#savethefucks2017 ”

V. Shruthi Mohan | 24 | Journalist

“My earliest memory of being made aware of my complexion was during my adolescent days when I was participating in a co-curricular activity in school. It meant standing behind all the so-labelled ‘pretty and fair’ girls, applying more foundation than you should because the make-up man insists. I’m a trained classical dancer but I don’t think my skills mattered at that point of time, because an artificial layer of a fair skin tone was the priority. So starting from the choir group to dance teams, I was always pushed behind, but fortunately I somehow managed having good pictures of me peeping out of the crowd and getting the largest cheer from the crowd. So that has made a much more positive impact than the dent these self proclaimed beauty hunters could gift me. I am genuinely glad about not letting them be a hinderance to my art.

I was in the 8th grade, being one of the high scorers and a decent orator, I was chosen to be Vice Captain of a particular house. My senior, who was also my captain, asked me to visit every class informing students of our house to meet at the space below the big banyan tree at 11 am, considering there were few announcements to make. So I went around announcing this in each class and their 3 sections. When I reached 10 B and made this announcement, one of the students yelled from the crowd, saying ‘why can’t we have the event in the afternoon.’ So hearing this, one of the other seniors yelled ‘Abey dhoop mein khelengey toh hum iske tarah ho jayengey (If we play while the Sun is out we’ll become dark like her).’ Voila, they figured out the reason behind my brown skin. So, I stepped out of the class took a deep breathe and went to the next classroom, made the announcement again, and WASN’T AFFECTED AN INCH.

A strange thing happened - I took a deep breathe and asked myself, who among us was the most powerful person in the room, when I was making an announcement? It was me. So I realised that no matter how heart-wrenching, offensive and personal people get, the choice to react or not react to certain people and situations is within oneself.”

Shruthi Mohan
Shruthi Mohan

One piece of advice for other brown girls being teased or criticised

“You don’t have to be fair to be beautiful, pretty or a great human. You don’t owe your beauty to anyone - not to your boyfriend or your husband. your children or your family, and especially to random people on the road. Being fair is not the rent you pay for occupying space as a women in this millenia.

So instead of walking through the cosmetic shop or spending an extra buck in a parlour, work on yourself. Be a little more empathetic, a little more witty, a lot smarter and smile more often, and that recipe works. Be the woman who left behind an impact and was not impacted, instead.”

VI. Sreeporna | 28 |Completing Doctorate in Children’s Literature

“‘You’re dark, but still beautiful’ - a line I’ve always heard while growing up, and still do. Initially, it sounded like a statement of sympathy or pity, and it merely conveyed to my naive mind that I’m not beautiful because I’m not fair-skinned. I grew up in God’s own country where being fair was enough to being called beautiful, to be called smart, or to be even be considered as such. While in school, I was called ‘black rose’ by fellow classmates, blacky by relatives, and different imaginative names that were enough to shatter a young school girl’s mind.

Moving to Tamil Nadu for college was no different, being fair was considered most important here. Being fair was admired in this state where majority of the people are dark-skinned. It was funny how friends were surprised when a senior student proposed me because ‘I’m dark but still beautiful.’ It was also hilarious and annoying when self-acclaimed fashionistas suggested colours to wear so that I don’t look dark. Suggestions came by all along and I happily refused.

I never took these issues to heart or mind, but never forgot them either. I survived all this. The brown girl in me never lost her cool nor confidence when I was called different names or treated differently. Yes I’m a dark skinned woman living in this country and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m brown, I walk in the sun and get tanned, I wear all colours because I like them and I don’t use any fairness products to boost my confidence or to be beautiful according to societal norms. I’m 28 now, a researcher who is confident, independent and living life on her own terms. My skin colour definitely does not define who I am. My skin colour does not stop me from conquering my dreams.
I’m brown and it is a fact. Whether I’m beautiful or not is not anyone’s concern.”

One piece of advice for other brown girls being teased or criticised

“Embrace yourselves for who you are. No other persons’ acknowledgment nor admiration will help you fight your battles. You’re beautiful in your own way, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You and you alone are enough. Break the barriers and don’t let other people’s opinions or remarks stop you from living the life you deserve. Shout, scream, and let your stories be heard because you are not alone.”

VII. Taruka Srivastava |Former Asian Games Player & Sports Journalist

“I was very dark growing up as I used to be in the sun all day long due to my Tennis practices. Everyone in school used to call me kaali. However, I knew I had an aim and goal in life to pursue so I would never let anything what others said bring me down. I am a former Asian games player, played Soft Tennis for India and have also won All India Lawn Tennis tournaments.

Tennis is an outdoor game and I was a very hard working kid. I used to play in the morning and evenings and on off days, you would have found me on tennis court till midday. At that time, I wasn’t very concerned about my skin colour but in my teen years, some of the kids I knew, started calling me kaali, tanned, dark etc. which wasn’t pleasant. Boys wouldn’t speak to me at all and preferred much fairer girls. In my teenage years I used to feel a bit embarrassed and to top that, I had braces. I believe many sportspersons go through this since we all have to play outdoors.

Basically, I had a tanned skin. So I tried to take care of my skin with homemade remedies and with sun screens. My mother is a gymnastic coach and she was quite supportive. She told me that what matters in life is what you achieve by working hard and skin colour doesn’t matter. I have lived in UK as well, and trust me, there are more racist people in India than abroad. I think one should be proud of who they are and how they look like. It is important as that gives you self confidence. All you need to remember is be the best in whatever work you choose to do. Personality matters more than your looks and skin colour, and any sensible person will know that.

Not scars really but some unpleasant memories still remain a part of my life. Some of my distant relatives would tell my mom to not let me play tennis as I was getting darker and no one would marry me, but all I can say to those people is - look at me now!”

Taruka Srivastava
Taruka Srivastava

One piece of advice for other brown girls being teased or criticised

“Don’t give a damn! You should always take in opinions of those who help you feel good about yourself and encourage you. Anyone who is stooping low to tease or bully you isn’t worth even talking to let alone their opinions bother you. Rise above them. You know what they say ‘Haters gonna hate and potatoes gonna potate.’ Be comfortable in your own skin and be the best at your work.”

VIII. Vaishali | 21 | Student

“From a very young age I have been very insecure about my skin tone. Not because it was weird but because it would stand out. It not just made me insecure of what people think about me, but also lowered my self confidence. I used to feel scared or anxious to make new friends thinking that they would not like me because of my skin color. And honestly, I wouldn’t blame them cause I didn’t like my it either. Even as a 10-year-old kid when I used to watch TV and some fairness ad would come up I would desperately want it. I would beg my mom to buy it, but of course, my mom thought that I was too young to use those creams. So when she would go to the kitchen, I would raid her cupboard, get whatever makeup product or face wash and hide it in my school bag and since she had so many, she never noticed any of them missing.
I would constantly ask her, ‘why am I not fair like you?’ Eventually after a certain point, I just started believing that because of my color I was ugly. Whenever my grandma would come home to visit us, she would comment on my skin. If I had gotten lighter she would appreciate it and if I had gotten darker, she’d tell my mom ‘don’t let her go out in the hot Sun.’

It’s probably during my college days that my thinking changed. I had a friend who also had a dark skin and she was the first person I met who loved herself more than anyone I know. She was always confident and loved being the center of attention. These were the friends who could not care any less about dark skin. My best friend calls me pretty every time we meet, not because he wants to make me feel better but because he loves me the way I am (in a very platonic way of course). Thanks to the internet I came across various articles - from racial discrimination to models with dark skin tone walking on the Victoria’s secret ramp. It made me realise people all over the world are dealing with these issues. Some are trying to fix it and some were beautifully accepting it. It changed my perspective about myself and I finally started appreciating what I have.

I won’t say that I was always treated differently, but whenever I was I guess it’s because society has treated dark skin as a something that’s unconventional, and therefore, initially even I thought it was a bad thing. I actually believed it and so do many other people because our involuntary thought is one set by society. But once people get to know you, all this becomes irrelevant. And now, it literally doesn’t bother me at all.”

One piece of advice for other brown girls being teased or criticised

“The only advice I can give is that the moment you accept yourself the way you are, none of these issues bother you anymore.”

If you would like to join the conversation and share your own experience, write in to us at [email protected] with the subject like ‘BROWN GIRLS.’ Read the first volume of this series here.


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