I used to hate my skin colour. If you described it as a foundation shade, I’d be Mocha or Tan+++. I’d always felt like the dark one in most school or family photos, a feeling that was accentuated when I moved from London to Vancouver, where I was often the only brown person in my circle of friends. Coming from a Punjabi family, I felt like an anomaly standing next to my parents and sister, who all share a certain fairness of skin. But true inner hatred wasn’t unleashed until my prom night in Canada.
Prom was one of the worst nights of my life. It started off wonderfully, as I spent four hours getting fiery red highlights and putting on my loud blue salwar-kameez. It was the typical movie makeover moment, from which I expected to emerge as a gorgeous ’60s Bollywood heroine. But instead I was done up like a Jersey Shore star at a MAC makeup counter.
I’d always looked to MAC as a cosmetic brand that included diverse celebrities for their collections. Their shades vary from ivory, tan, and olive to stark brown and dark brown for foundations, concealers, and powders. That day I brought in a picture of my favourite ’60s Bollywood actress, Saira Banu, whose sky-high eyeliner and red lipstick I wanted to copy for my prom look.
But Banu looked almost lily-white in the photo. It was half my fault for bringing that particular picture to the makeup artist, who then tried to recreate that skin tone on me. She tested several shades on my arm, wearing a quizzical look on her face, before whispering that there was no accurate concealer shade for me, so would I like to look so beautiful with a lighter shade?
Of course I did, because I had a date to impress.
As the makeup artist applied a tan concealer on me, I tried to stay still, but I was quivering with tears. I knew the shade was wrong, but I felt too paralyzed to stop her. I shrugged it off and committed to the part of “looking beautiful.” It had been just one of many similarly painful experiences when makeup artists or sales associates trod on my self-esteem, implying, “There are no shades for you here!”
My mum’s silence on the car ride home was overwhelming. I prattled on about how nice I looked, how I looked and felt exactly like Banu, and she had the immense tact not to deflate these delusions. I still cringe whenever I look at my photos from that night.
That 17-year-old dressing up her face had been hoping to score with her boyfriend. But that night on the dance floor, he drunkenly said, “You know, I like really like you, I just feel like we don’t match. You’re a bit too dark for me, but we should stay friends.”
I might have turned red with hurt and anger, but no one would have been able to see under the pancake of makeup on my face. I got my friends to grab an emergency kit of tissues and booze so I could wash my makeup off.
I’d never hated my skin colour more than I did in that moment. It was obviously repellent. I violently scrubbed my face until it felt raw, and emerged from the bathroom dishevelled but drunk enough to dance the pain off.
Colourism is hard for me to talk about, because then I have to acknowledge that I once believed that lighter skin was better than the skin I was born with. That conflict was never more apparent than when my skin actually started changing colours.
The summer after my prom, I discovered little pale brown spots, each about the size of a dime, forming on my stomach. It was tinea versicolour, a treatable skin condition that can cause anything from minor pigmentation to red rashes in the affected areas. I was devastated when a spot appeared on my face, next to my mouth, where everyone could see it.
I counted 37 spots on my stomach, 19 on my arms. With a friend’s help, I found out there were 29 on my back. I saw each one of these small spots as a betrayal. My body wanted to remind me that I was not the light brown colour of these dots, and that I never would be.
At first I was tempted to buy Fair & Lovely cream to make my skin colour more uniform. Fair & Lovely is a skin-lightening cream widely sold in India and the diaspora, in cornershops and Indian grocers. It’s owned by Unilever, one of the largest makeup companies after L’Oreal and Shisheido, but it’s not the only skin lightening cream on the market. For every L’Oreal foundation cream that disguised my spots, there was a L’Oreal White Perfect fairness cream being marketed in India as well.
One day, before attending a wedding in London, I stuffed a tenner in my mum’s hand and asked her to get me a tube of Fair & Lovely. She berated me: “Do you know it has mercury in it? Why would you even ask me to get it for you?”
That was a low point. I didn’t try to get skin-lightening cream again. But I still couldn’t look in mirrors for too long, because the leopard spots were increasing. They restricted my fashion sense in many ways. Gone were the high-waisted jeans and crop tops, the vintage ’60s dresses with mini cutouts. They were all sent to the bin.
During those years, I lashed out a lot at my family. I started loud arguments with, “As the dark-skinned person in a light-skinned family…” which never went over well. My mother would admonish me: “Don’t you dare pin it on us or say that we made you feel like that. Me buying you Fair & Lovely would be against everything I taught you about skin colour not mattering!”
Sometimes I’d scoff at these lectures, which sounded sanctimonious, but she was right about one thing: my family had never made me feel inferior for being slightly darker than they were. I had internalized all this pain and doubt from elsewhere.
I couldn’t resort to skin-lightening creams, but makeup hid the spots quite well. My younger sister’s teenage years were spent glued to her laptop, watching YouTube makeup tutorials while taking notes on brands that suited us. Every time I walked into a drugstore, I’d look at range of shades and get a brown colour and think it was the right shade. This is a common problem; you can’t buy foundation based on the colour on the bottle.
High-end brands like Clinique, YSL, and Bare Minerals have increasingly widened their offering of shades to suit the demand from women of colour, which is so heartening to see. At the same time, there’s a booming market of brands like Black Opal, Fashion Fair, and Iman Cosmetics as alternatives. I was glad to find Iman Cosmetics; among their shades of sand, clay, and earth, they actually stocked my colour: Clay Medium. I bought one of each product from Iman, from powder to primers, then went home and threw out all the other concealers, powders, bronzers, and foundations I’d amassed over the years. It was wonderful not to have to lug around a huge makeup kit. The spots on my body began to fade, and the ones that remained were easier for me to look at now that I had a way to conceal them.
Despite being armed with the right makeup, I still hadn’t gotten over the sting of prom night rejection. Only when I went away to university did the awkward “validation” start. There was the campus house party at a neighbour’s place, where a white guy told me, “Your skin is hot as fuck.” As drunk as I was, I switched off my inner cultural studies critic, which bristled at the exoticizing, and snogged his face off.
In these darkly lit places, my insecurities lifted slightly because white men deemed me beautiful in my own skin, something I couldn’t see once the makeup came off. In the sober light of day, these compliments were often reiterated, which sometimes made me melt into a puddle of desperate thankful goo. I stockpiled these compliments to repeat to myself when I started feeling self-conscious about my skin.
“You’re beautiful in those bright colours.”
“You catch the light in interesting ways.”
“Who cares if you think you’re dark, I like it.”
“I always liked you because I spotted your hair, then your mocha skin a mile away,”
Eventually, these backhanded compliments struck me as less enjoyable and sweet than glaringly reductive. But they still made me feel slightly better when surrounded by fair-skinned brides during the summer wedding season, with relatives commenting on their “wheatish” skin tones. I don’t have the “wheatish” complexion shared by the majority of my Punjabi family. On the marriage colour wheel, some would consider me a harder sell.
The Dark is Beautiful campaign, which went viral in late 2013, came along at a crucial time when I needed more than Iman. It was amazing to see a social movement that relied so much on identification and testimonials from darker-skinned women from India and abroad. The campaign helped shift my own mindset by unpacking the ways in which colourism can affect your identity formation. In 2013, the group petitioned to take down an offensive Fair & Handsome ad featuring India’s top star, Shah Rukh Khan. Kavitha Emmanuel, the director of the campaign, believes it was so successful because it had a triumphant appeal.
“Our vision,” she told me in an interview last March, “is to help women celebrate who they are based on their innate value and unique potential. I feel that this is the first step towards recovery from skin colour bias. Change begins within one’s self. One of our goals is to help people believe in themselves and celebrate who they are.”
Soon after this campaign went viral, a group of celebrities including Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o began speaking about how colourism affected their career choices and self-esteem. Nyong’o gave a powerful and brave speech at the Essence Awards about her own experiences growing up, and how she was inspired by Sudanese model Alek Wek. Nyong’o quoted her mother’s profound words: “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.” She went on to say, “And these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.”
Seeing these women speaking out against colourism, I saw myself.
These days I have my Iman concealer, foundation, and powder stashed in the back of my makeup drawer. I’ve finally arrived at a point where I have stopped caring so much about my skin, and have even learned to love it. It’s been a slow transition – I’ve had to relinquish control over how my body and the sun interact with each other every autumn when I look lighter and the leopard dots come back, or in the summer when I embrace my quick tan. If there are any egregious remarks, like before, I now know how to school the guilty party on how offensive they are being. Yet self-love comes in waves. I have my bad days. Sometimes I relive the times when people stared at me, or when my aunt insisted I write down a recipe for a turmeric mask, which is supposed to lighten skin naturally. But those feelings subside more quickly now.
It has taken a long time for me to arrive at a place of acceptance regarding my skin colour. I’ve finally put away the mask of concealer, cream, and foundation, because you might as well see the tan dots, the pink spots, and the brown shades of my skin. They don’t occupy my mind in the same way anymore. If I could talk to the 17-year-old girl I used to be, the one reeling from her prom, I’d tell her not to be daunted by media, men, or magazines that insult and put her down her for how she was born. I’d tell her to do what I’m doing now: just get on with living fiercely and proudly, with nothing but sky-high eyeliner and a bit of lipstick.
Rumnique Nannar is a freelance writer but you can probably spot her a mile away with that curly hair of mismatched purple. Her work has appeared in Empire Magazine, Mojo Magazine, The Aerogram, and Jugni Style. Follow her @rotikapadarum.