Tag Archives: dark is beautiful

The Venus Flytrap: A Deeper Shade of Brown

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I probably wouldn’t have watched the new live-action Aladdin remake, but it was the birthday girl’s outing of choice. Social media had prepared me to cringe at just how problematic this beloved movie from my childhood really was, full of Orientalism, cultural conflations and racist tropes. But there I was with tears streaming down my face during the “A Whole New World” sequence, smudging the 3D glasses and my real glasses both, moved by the surrealness of watching the song in a new rendering. Briefly, I forgot the different sort of pang that had come earlier – seeing that Princess Jasmine, unlike her animated counterpart, was light-skinned. I was surprised by how hurt I felt, grasping then just how powerfully her original incarnation had impacted me.

As far as princesses go, it was 2009 before a black girl, Tiana of The Princess And The Frog, was illustrated. Amazingly, brown kids like me had Jasmine back in 1992. She was a rare representation. Not of brownness per se, but of darker skin (the actor in the remake is half-Indian: technically brown, but light-complexioned). Jasmine, the cartoon, was properly brown, “like dosas, samosas and stikki chikki”, as the title of a children’s book on skin colour goes. This was why I was also vividly drawn to Esmeralda, from the often forgotten The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Brown like caramel and sapotas. Brown like me.

My skin tone is the kind that gets bleached out in sunlight and in smartphone selfies (there’s a historically racist bias in photo technology, some of which remains in play with manufacturers today). I prefer my true colour, and I wish to be visible as a darker-skinned woman who is achieving things, going places, and yes, is even attractive. I want to claim and share the space, the void really, caused by colourist erasure. It is currently over-run by light-skinned brown celebrities criticising racism in the West but promoting fairness creams and practising casteism in India.

An international publication once adjusted the settings so much on my portrait (which perfectly captured my true tone) that I looked positively pink. Bubblegum pink. Someone must have thought they were doing me a favour, like how people are quick to say like it’s a compliment, “Don’t worry, you’re not so dark.” Conversely, any fetishizing of dark skin takes me right back to the creepy man who told me when I was little – “Black Beauty. Like that book you’re reading instead of talking to me.”

But I am worried. Even today, many children do not have enough positive acknowledgments of their appearances. This includes all non-normativity in: skin colours, body sizes, hair textures, the shapes of facial features, heights, (dis)abilities, illness-related conditions, amputations, scars and more.

There’s a feminist twist in the new Aladdin and it can’t compensate for the whitewashing of the iconic original Jasmine for me. Despite all that character’s flaws, she was a way for some (though not all) darker-skinned children to see ourselves as being at the centre, admired. She was beautiful. For those of us who didn’t know we were too, it meant the world to be shown a reason to believe it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 13th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Laying It Out In Lavender

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“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” goes the famous poem by Jenny Joseph. Well, Aishwarya Rai is just 42, old only by the punishing yardsticks of the entertainment industry. She looks fabulous, but wouldn’t be forgiven if she doesn’t, or if she looked beautiful and aging. On the red carpet at Cannes, she appeared whimsical, winking at the camera in a lavender lipstick like it was the most natural thing in the world, while the world itself looked on aghast. The often-forgotten title of that poem is “Warning”. In it, a woman trapped in a conformist lifestyle promises to misbehave in her elderly years, and wonders if she should start practicing; she begins with wearing purple.

Why is a woman putting on a cosmetic so temporary that she’ll only have to blow her nose once into a tissue to have most of it come off the subject of debate? “Debate” was a word actually used in headlines (why were headlines made because a woman wore a cosme… never mind). In one article, several inquiring ladies gave the shade a shot and found that that particular lipstick, by a brand that Rai is an ambassador of, does not retail in India. Their trip to two stores seemed to yield no equivalent, which led them to concoct the colour themselves through mixing white and purple eyeliners with a concealer base on their lips. They didn’t like the effect (their photos don’t have too many smiles, which may have made a difference).

Which brings us to this ridiculousness: how does white eyeliner exist when a lilac lipstick, which is stunning when offset by the dark skin of so many Indian people, can’t be readily found? For local manufacturers and franchisees, my sapodilla skin is probably the swarthiest tone they consider. My even more dark-skinned friends must either fork out several thousand rupees per product for elite brands like MAC or Inglot, or forego skin cosmetics altogether. Similarly for more deeply pigmented colours which will stand out on an array on eyelids and cheekbones and lips. This isn’t simply about whether people can afford it, or even a hyper-ethical question of whether any of us should wear makeup. Beauty standards are enforced by diminishing not just diversity, but self-esteem, as envisaged and enacted through self-presentation.

Here’s the thing: Rai may have made ill-advised fashion choices in the past but when it comes to this lipstick, my guess is it was neither faux pas nor advice. Some L’Oreal executive would have held out a palette of options and suggested a baby pink to go with the floral print on her dress or a bright scarlet to go with the blood-boiling rage against the system. Rai wore violet because she wanted to. Maybe her child liked it. Maybe she was making a subtle homage to the queer rights movement, whose emblematic hue is purple. I’d like to think that the Jenny Joseph poem was the most plausible reason. After decades of being micro-managed and body-shamed and made complicit in the way other women are manipulated and devalued – through a pastel smile, was she issuing a powerful warning?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 19th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

“Dark Is Beautiful” Poetry Contest

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Vasantha Surya and I are co-judging a poetry contest for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, jointly helmed by Women of Worth and the British Council, Chennai.

The competition is open to anyone living in India (of any nationality), regardless of gender, aged 18 and above.

Deadline for submissions is February 28 2009.

Detailed instructions for submissions can be found on the web site, www.darkisbeautiful.in, and may also be picked up at the British Council, Chennai. Select entries will be displayed at the British Council library and prizes awarded there on March 7.