“Akka, if you drink wine or beer, do you become fairer?” Meena asked me, almost hopeful that I’d tell her the rumour was true.
“Once you drink wine, you won’t care what colour you are!” I replied, putting a different spin on a conversation I had almost every second week with her.
Meena is all of 18, with a thick plait of lustrous black hair, kohl-lined eyes of a danseuse, and a striking smile that belies the naughtiness behind the half girl-half woman that she is. Meena is stunning, but she’s not happy with the way she looks. Her two sisters and her mother, call her kari, which is coal in Tamizh. They see her complexion as too dusky compared to theirs, and tell her no one will look at her.
Lakshmi, her neighbour, was listening to our discussion. “My son is fair like his late father. But look at me, I’m so dark,” she lamented. “And now even my daughter-in- law is also dark, but she has nice features.”
These ‘nice features’ were the only redeeming quality as she moved on to compare the complexions of African and Indian women. “I think we have nicer faces,” she said, as I quickly observed that people everywhere were beautiful, and looking at them with a shade card didn’t help.
But trying this colour blindness technique with someone in their forties has proved futile. She has made up her mind that lighter skin is better. Who can blame her? I’ve been told not to go out in the sun for fear of getting a tan, and seen countless matrimonial ads which say “Wanted: fair, educated girl”.
But contrary to the usual line peddled about fair skin and better prospects, Lakshmi has often told Meena, “You have such lovely skin, and you must love yourself as you are. Massaging your face with haldi is not going to change it.”
She explained to me later, “If we don’t tell them they should love themselves when they are this age, they will grow up like us, unhappy, and trying to change themselves. Fair or dark, we all have a tough life.”
I have spent many afternoons trying to explain skin tone, melanin, tropical climate, and the reasons behind the colours we are. I’ve taken baby steps with my children, explaining why so many shades of brown exist within our country. It’s okay to be any of them, and it is definitely not okay to tease or be teased because of them. But changing the mind of a teenager, for whom looks are a big part of attraction, is so much tougher.
Meena quizzed me, “What about haldi milk, or applying milk cream on the skin? Will that lighten the tone, akka?”
I tried, in my broken Tamizh, to explain that milk cream has no effect on skin tone. She was not convinced. “What about honey? My friend said drinking honey and milk will make me fair,” she added.
“Oh! Kadavule!” Lakshmi interjected, throwing her hands up in the air, invoking the Almighty to drive some sense into this young girl. The mention of milk reminded me of a stand-up bit by comedian Saikiran, where he talks of the South Indian penchant for white-hued food, hoping the light food would translate to fair skin.
But that didn’t really help my case, so I decided to show Meena pictures of ebony-skinned deities in a series called ‘Dark is Divine’ by Chennai-based photographer, Naresh Nil. Captivating visuals of goddesses Durga, Saraswati and Lakshmi, resplendent in their celestial glory, brought a smile to her face. But she said, “They’re not that colour, are they?”
“Why can’t you see yourself like that?” I asked, to no avail. I figured we would continue this thread another day.
I did some reading, to understand the social and cultural factors with varying skin tone in India. An interesting piece in the Hindu in 2018 elucidates research by the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), on skin tone among varying caste groups in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. The confluence of caste, culture and colour was an eye-opener.The study concluded that environment played a smaller role (16%) in determining skin colour in Indians, while social factors could explain 42% variation in skin colour.
The study found three agricultural castes in Andhra Pradesh had similar skin colour while Brahmins had far lighter colour and the merchant caste (Vysya) had darker skin. In Tamil Nadu, Brahmins and Saurashtrians had lighter skin than the pastoralist Yadava caste.
So, where one sat on the social ladder affected skin colour, not just the land one inhabited. Meena’s father and mother, who belonged to different social groups, might have played a role in her skin tone differing from her sisters, along with the interplay of their genetics.
I tried to explain positives from the study – greater pigmentation helps protect the skin from harmful UV rays near the equator.
Still, I couldn’t help Meena feel any better about herself. The voices around her have become the voice in her head, telling her she is not good enough.
It has been four months since we have seen each other. I haven’t told Meena that Fair and Lovely has buckled under pressure, and now no longer promises fairness, but a gentle glow. That the Black Lives Matter movement has shown the world that the colour of your skin shouldn’t merit mistreatment.
But will she ever believe she is beautiful, or that dark can be divine?
Anisha Menezes is a freelance writer based in Chennai. She is an art enthusiast and is passionate about environmental causes.
Featured image credit: Reuters (Editing: LiveWire)