So when I’m asked to write something about being a dusky lady married to a fair guy, my first reaction is to shrug it off! “How does it matter? Who cares about skin colour nowadays? It has never mattered to me. No one has colour-shamed me.” I’m thinking aloud with my mother over our evening tea. “We need to talk about ‘bigger’ issues. Patriarchy… Gender stereotypes. Non-equal wages. Fat shaming.” Colour comments operate in the same cultural space, she points out. “I asked you to apply multani mitti and besan for a glowing blemish-free skin. You’re lucky I never made kesar a part of your childhood regime,” she chides. And I know that made all the difference.
Yes, of course I remember her warning about fairness creams being filled with ammonia and bleaching agents, making homemade products for her ‘beautiful’ daughters’ skin regime – but what I recollect is that she always had distinct words to say someone is beautiful. Like aishwaryam (grace), tejas (glow), pakwata (confidence) and so on. All these words connected to an internal space in our bodies that needed enrichment in the form of reading, experiences and reflections. Until now I had never acknowledged that these formed my perceptions of beauty. I make mental notes to go back, hug her and say that she isn’t a great mother, but a great woman.
Related reading: ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ – You Need Not Be Ashamed Of Your Desires
Later, over dinner I’m picking my ‘fair’ husband’s brain. It’s common knowledge that his crushes have been Malayaligirls. And I’ve already enjoyed a fair amount of exotic quotient as a Malayali bahu in his Marwadi household, in the four years of our marriage.
“Well, the colour of your skin is beautiful. It amplifies your eyes and your smile.”
Thanks! But I already know that and want to hear something different. “Well, maybe then you can talk about me, and the celebrity status I enjoy every time I make a trip to Kerala. Remember, your relatives think you got very lucky?” We laugh. We recollect a trip to our family temple. The temple priest was so fascinated with my husband’s complexion (in Kerala temples, men are supposed to be shirtless), we got a fair amount of the reflected attention as well. We had a great laugh about it then. We talk, a bit grudgingly, about our ‘friendly’ cousins who tease us, saying he can endorse fairness creams. After all, he is ‘fair and handsome’. Sometimes they say “Our sister seems to be getting fairer; the company seems to be rubbing off on her.” We were never sure if it was a joke or a compliment. But we’ve laughed it off.
“So has no one from my family (extended) made a comment on you?” he gets the chance to ask me. Not that I can think of. “No uncle, no aunty?” I really can’t think of any. There are ‘bigger issues’, I mumble again. Gender stereotype. Patriarchy. Feminism…. We are soon talking about Mr Tarun Vijay and rolling our eyes at the reaction comments like ‘Not all south Indians are dark!’ I make mental notes once more: often we aren’t grateful for our own situations. This is what it means to have a gender neutral and liberal spouse. I love him more and for fun day-dreaming aloud campaigns where he’s a feminist poster-boy!
The next day, the conversation continues in my office. There are four beautiful girls of varying Indian skin-tone working here. I ask them if they’ve faced any ‘colour comments’? Pat comes the reply “Oh a-plenty!” Where? At their colleges. Their homes. Some juniors. Some seniors. They laugh about ‘that’ aunty worried about who’s going to marry them, because they are not fair. Greetings like “You have become so dark! You should not go out so much or swim so much.” The reply in each case is an expression that reads as “Why don’t you mind your business?” And they laugh about it later.
One of my colleague rightly points out, “Most of these comments are offhand. They’re said ‘just like that’. So yes, we too shrug them off ‘just like that’.”
Subtle or not, statements like these are the tools that establish societal norms. The so-called bigger issues, we try to fight: gender stereotypes, patriarchy, racism and so on. Even if, seemingly, they have never come in the way of my personal or professional choices.
Maybe laughing it away is not the right thing to do.
So who cares about fairness creams other than pharma companies? We do.