7 Women Tell Us What It’s Like To Be Dark-Skinned In India

7 Women Tell Us What It’s Like To Be Dark-Skinned In India
Manasi Vaidya

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 second volume of the series here].

I. Aleena Das | UX Designer

“I am about to tell you a story about a brown baby girl born to a fair skinned mother.

Brown baby girl thought her mother was the most beautiful woman in the whole wide world. She would imitate, copy, repeat everything her mother would do. Even sneakily wear her heels, red lipstick, wrap herself in a make shift dupatta saree. But there was a problem, a major problem - her skin colour didn’t match her mother’s. She would detest her brown skin, especially when neighbours would pass comment saying that brown baby girl did not look anything like her mother. It would totally piss her off. She would not step out in the sun and apply many bad fair skin product just to match her fair skinned mother.

Even her brother would tease her saying ‘You are no rasgulla, you are a brown gulaab jamun!’
And later mother would console her saying ‘What tastes better to you - rasgulla or gulaab jamun?’ Well fortunately, she answered gulaab jamun. Basically, mother tried to explain that it’s not the colour but the essence which mattered.

Fair-skinned mother was worried with her daughter’s fixation over fairness and in return she showed her some photographs of beautiful dark-skinned actresses like Rekha, Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi and said, ‘Look at them, don’t you find them pretty?’
Baby girl with her sparkly brown eyes would say ‘Yesss !! They all are very pretty. Am I beautiful, Maa?’ Maa would smile and say ‘yes, always!’ Mother’s conformation was enough for baby girl to feel content with her own beauty. Since then she never ever tried to hide or run because she knew her mum is always by her side. And whenever poor judgements were passed on the girl’s skin colour, mother would transform into a tigress saving her cub’s sentiment.

I was the fortunate brown baby girl. My Maa’s confidence helped me overlook what society has to say. Most of the times we adults forget that we are influential. Kids look at us - they learn, they are blind followers and the ones who are highly influenced by society. So, it is important that we shape ourselves in a dignified manner and don’t affect their present or future.

I live in Goa, 3 shades darker than the original skin colour and loving it!”

Aleena Das

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

“I would suggest that young girls gracefully embrace their own natural complexion, that is the first step to combat self-criticism and then it’s quite easy to ignore the judgement passed on by others because one won’t care anymore!”

II. Aratrika Das | Producer

“I’m not fair, not wheatish - I’m dark. Dark enough to hurt anybody’s really fair sentiments. I’ve not always been proud of it because well, people. But it has never stopped me from doing anything. As a child I was told to do many things, including bleach my face (as a 9-year-old!).

I have faced several funny (read: hurtful, for a teenager) instances, but I, at this point, can only remember one that was also very embarrassing that I recall. Staff room gossips played a very important role for us students in school. I was 12 years old, new to the city, and had very few friends (still persists). I used to play football and go ten shades darker than I actually was, I didn’t care, my parents didn’t. But obviously someone had to, so my teachers did. The whole staff room did. I faced a 2 hour long conversation/ lecture on how I should enhance my beauty (which I would’ve easily been able to show had I been fair) through various face masks, and other beauty treatments. I remember my favourite teacher telling me, ‘soh you know you’re very cute (I was also chubby, still am; amused by the word cute being connected to chubby/ fat folks and girls who act foolish) but you should apply cow pee because it has some kind of acid in it which burns the melanin’ - exact words used. There were unknown teachers, peons and random people walking in involved in the conversation with me in the centre. I laughed, there was silence.

I feel more than funny anecdotes for any dark skinned woman, there will be anger, embarrassment, shame and wonder of why they are born with a colour so demeaning. And sometimes, just sometimes even if you’re able to come out of all the negative vibes, it still remains difficult to laugh at them. ‘Have you grown to be comfortable in your own skin?’ I can answer with a yes, but there are times when I blame myself for different situations, and surprise! The reasoning turns out to be my skin colour, the most unimportant subject in the universe. So yeah, it’s a work in progress for all of us. We tend to be too hard on ourselves because all we’ve ever been compared to is a crow or a particular dark-skinned model, which isn’t completely wrong, but it also is in a way. Unlearning is difficult for everyone but am I in a better (if not good) place with my body and skin colour? Yes.”

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

“The only thing you should like attached and cherish all your life, is a mind to yourself, so move on.”

III. Debanti Roy | Journalist

“Growing up in an average middle class Indian family and being dark skinned - my story is no different from many other Indian girls, except maybe that my own parents thought I was a burden to the family and would never get married. There were times when they bought me Fair & Lovely creams hoping that my skin colour would change and they won’t have much trouble getting me married.

Dad cursed me for his professional failures and mum told me, ‘fairness creams are of no use and you are never going to look beautiful ever.’ My mother (though I still love her to the moon and back) once told me that I am very ugly and I must not waste time trying to beautify myself. Under such circumstances, I sometimes would try to use these absurd fairness remedies!

Once a dear friend of mine told me, ‘Debanti, pretty girls get married easily, but as you are dark it’s going to be difficult for you.’ Yes, of course, she was fair and considered to be one of the prettiest girl in school.

So there was I, a dark-skinned girl who hated her existence. But everything around me changed the day I realised I was pretty, just the way I am. The day I got comfortable in my own skin, the world’s perception changed. They not only thought I was pretty, but started envying my skin colour. I only wish the 10-year-old me had known this, that she was pretty then also and she should not have bothered about what others thought.”

Debanti Roy

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

“Just be confident of who you are and how you look - fair or dark, you are your own kind of beautiful.
And remember. how you treat yourself is exactly what you should expect in return. The day you start believing you are pretty, people will follow suit. Beauty comes from within.
Never waste time in becoming someone who you are not, rather just embrace and love yourself, learn new things and life will change for the better.​”

IV. Deeksha Khanna | Banker

“I’m Deeksha, a dark-skinned Punjabi girl from Haryana. Now that we have that out of the way, my skin color was literally my only identification when I was a little girl. I was called everything from kaali billi, kaalu mausi to plain ol’ kallu - in school, at family gatherings, everywhere I’d go with my ‘dusky’ face. In every family gathering, my grand-aunts would huddle around my Mom, offering condolences (first) and recipes (second) before assuring her that with enough care, I’d look less like a ‘kaali billi’ very soon and she’d definitely find a ‘nice boy’ for me.

So by the time I was 10, I’d had a bath with literally everything you could find in a kitchen - from haldi and besan to potatoes and tomatoes. I’d also been programmed to never wear a dark colored dress, never wear anything ‘too bright’ and strangely enough, anything ‘too white’. I think the stinky after-bath smells aside, the one thing that would actually get to me was my well-meaning mother assuring me that she loved me despite my colour, because how else do you teach a pre-teen self worth?

Until I was around 13, I was always convinced my skin color was an affliction. A disease, that I would have to come on top of, to get literally achieve anything of note. I’m an old maid of 26 now, and I think what’s changed since the first besan-laden years 13 years, is two things:

1. Cultural Exposure: So the thing with our melanin obsessed culture, is that we never do celebrate women of color. We don’t know of Frida Kahlo, we scoffed at Naomi Campbell, we never read Maya Angelou and Josephine Baker toh, hai rabba! Thankfully, I took to reading very early. That’s a biggest favor a small-town kid can do to herself. I learnt of a world that existed outside of our colonial obsession. I learnt that beauty was multi-faceted. There was no one way to be beautiful. There are beautiful dark women, just like there are beautiful fair women. Skin color could be a matter of preference and conditioning, sure! But the one universal trait that unites women that rule isn’t their color- it’s their confidence, their swagger and their style. All of which, you cultivate and grow into.

2. Giving No Fucks: This was a derivative of the first, but really, they go hand-in-hand. I wear the darkest of lipticks, put on the shiniest of clothes and may have, on occasion, colored my hair peroxide blonde - guess what, I felt great doing all of these, not because these were great choices, but because that’s what I wanted to do, in that phase of life. And I felt good, doing it. When I felt good, it showed.

You life is literally your show on the road. You define what’s beautiful, you define what’s hot. The world is waiting on signals from you. Fall in love with yourself, the world is chickenshit, it will follow suit.”

Deeksha Khanna

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

“Pity the fools, don’t fear them. Cruel words, no matter how well-intentioned, do sting. So don’t be hard on yourself if you do feel bad about what people say, at time. But one thing one must always remember (myself included) is that you owe it to yourself to rise above. You owe it to yourself to live the life you want to lead- blonde hair, bright lipsticks, short skirts- go for it! Throw back your head and do exactly what you want to. That’s the only way to live life!”

V. Jasmin Sehra | Artist

“In many cultures around the world, the concept of beauty is very much focused on the melanin in our skin. No doubt that lighter skin is something that is celebrated hugely.

I’m going to rewind back to when I was a child. Up until now I was never comfortable with my skin, my body; I was always scrutinised for being dark. I’m also someone who is quick to catch a tan, that’s just how my skin is. But whilst growing up I would be told not to go out in the sun too much because I would get darker, not to wear certain colours because it’ll make me look darker. Obviously being a child I kind of did what I was told. But it made me turn in on myself, disliking my complexion, making me think that I should be light skinned to be beautiful. To be normal.

I specifically remember being photographed on holiday in a room during the evening, I was the darkest of everyone and my face wasn’t that clear as with everyone else; I ridiculed myself for being so dark that you couldn’t see my face. I mean how wrong is that?! That I automatically created a safety action by making a joke of myself to feel accepted. Thinking about it makes my stomach turn, makes me feel for the mindset I had as the girl I was growing up to be. I was vulnerable, insecure, innocent.
Being told that I should scrub the maal (dirt in Punjabi) off my face daily by the older generation to make me lighter seemed like a huge chore, it made me feel so so conscious of who I was. I always used to question myself, why? But always did it. There was even a time when I used a skin lightening cream that was given to me from India, a pearlescent white cream with a rosey floral scent. When it finished I panicked for a little while because I wouldn’t be able to get another. It’s only now, in my 20’s that I’m fully embracing who I am; my skin, a beautiful glowy caramel colour.

We’re living in a world that makes you hate yourself. A modern example of this is through Snapchat filters and contouring through makeup. What scares me is that it has become so accessible that even girls as young as sixteen are becoming affected through the use of westernised snapchat filters which include features that lighten skin tones and give blues eyes. Furthermore, why is it that whilst darker skin faces degradation, people of lighter skin are praised for being tanned? A feature also used in a Snapchat filter - a hypocritical paradox.

No doubt that my experiences caused me to have low self esteem for a long time, no confidence in my being, constantly comparing myself to others and wondering ‘why me?’ No wonder plastic surgery exists, bleaching exists, hate crimes, racism exists. The fact that other girls/ women and even men put each other down for their beauty is beyond me. We live in a cruel world where sexuality and youthfulness are praised by both sexes more than anything. Where being yourself, embracing your natural self is still scrutinised the same as with people who wear makeup on a daily.”

Jasmin and her artwork

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

“Embrace yourself people. Love yourself. Know that your skin, whatever colour it may be is absolutely beautiful. It’s the makeup you’ve been naturally blessed with. And even though some of us may be darker than some, that we wear makeup, and get tanned from the sun, don’t forget to love yourself both ways and that you are loved both ways. You don’t always have to contour to fit.”

VI. Kavya Ghai, On Behalf Of Her Mother

“My mother and I are strangely close - sharing secrets and details that don’t fit into the usual mother-daughter dynamic I’ve seen around me. During one such conversation way before I was a teen, my mother told me about her first boyfriend - the man she was convinced was the love of her life. After dating for a couple years and zipping around town on his motorbike, they decided it was time to tell their parents. My mother, dressed in her Sunday best met her to-be mother-in-law at a five-star hotel, the first she’d ever stepped foot in - naturally she was giddy with excitement. She doesn’t remember details of the conversation but can never forget when the lady slipped in a comment around how my mother was slightly darker than what she had hoped her fair-skinned Punjabi boy would choose in a partner. Their conversation basically boiled down to the contrasting colors of their skin. Despite her love for this boy, my mother was unwilling to deal with his mother’s thought process and made a difficult decision of ending the relationship. She hasn’t looked back since and went on date and marry a different Punjabi fair-skinned man who I’m pretty sure has never bothered about her or their children’s visibly darker skin.”

VII. Neha Deshpande* | Teacher

“It was always about being comfortable in your own skin, but I was never. Being brown for me is a lack of confidence. People don’t understand the sometimes embarrassing moments with us ‘brown girls’. They’ll pass a comment as a joke and probably say that they’re kidding, but do they actually know how we feel, even if it was said as a joke. Yes, we shouldn’t take it to the heart, but according to some people we are the prime targets for bullying and name calling.

This was me when I was in a hostel in Pune for 5 years. I was a new admission and was not spoken to by any classmate for a few months. As years passed by, I did make a few friends but they were not true friends. Never did they support me once when I was called names because of my skin colour. The boys in my class called me names like ‘black mamba’ and ‘African,’ oh and let’s not forget ‘dark bitch’. These were the names I’ve had to put up with for those horrible 5 years for which I was very happy to get out. The behaviour of such people has made me give a deaf year to most people, but it’s difficult to let go of the years which were supposed to be fun. When we went on trips, I would be the last to get chosen as a roommate because of my skin colour. In class, no boy use to sit beside on anywhere around me because I was dark and they stupidly believed that I was an unhygienic person.

After all those years, the past always catches up when I see my pictures. My mother decided to take me to a dermatologist. When the doctor saw me she started out by saying, and I quote, ‘ye itne kali hain aur aap itne gori ho (she’s so dark and you’re so fair).’ She made me use end number of creams, do countless procedures, take injections etcetera. It did make my skin lighter but it was not light enough for my mom. For a few years, she forbid me to go out before a certain time anywhere even if it was in the car. She would make me sit in my room and make me hate myself for being dark. After a few months passed by I would just go out of the house during day time because I didn’t care much at the time.

Today, I dread going to parlours because they make you feel like shit the minute they open their mouth. There’s only one parlour I go to. The people over there helped me partly for my treatment and actually do care.

I am still not comfortable in my skin and I don’t think I’ll ever be. Some days I just want to sit at home and hide myself where no one can see me. My journey to self-acceptance has not begun. I’m still trying to take my first step. Not once have I gone out without makeup. The day I do, will be my first step. The scars do remain - when people ask questions based on my past, there was absolutely nothing good about it. I am not in contact with any person from my hostel life though they are all over my social media. Sometimes when I watch movies, it all comes back to me. I guess the past is something which will remain with me for life.”

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

“The advice I would like to give young people who are brown would be that be confident from the beginning. Start early, open your mouth to whoever even tries to tell you something. That’s something I didn’t have the courage to do. Be open with your mom and tell her how you feel. Be proud that you’re not like every fair person and that you are unique. I bet being brown has it’s many advantages, we just have to realise them.”

*name changed on request of the contributor to protect their identity.

If you would like to join the conversation and share your own experience, write in to us at editor@homegrown.co.in with the subject like ‘BROWN GIRLS.’ Read the second volume of the series here.

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