“You have nice eyes, but it’s a shame you’re dark.”
“You have beautiful hair, sad that you’re dark.”
“How lucky you are! No pimples or scars, what a shame that you’re you look dark, though.”
I’m beautiful, but I’m dark. I have nice features, but I’m dark. In a hierarchy of fairness and beauty, I was at the bottom.
For years I applied Fair and Lovely, the infamous skin lightening cream in India. We’ve seen the commercials: a radiant woman showing us how her skin went from brown to white in a matter of months. “You can do this too,” they say, “you can be beautiful too,” and we believe them. I applied the skin-whitening creams, the face masks, the powder, just as my mother showed me. I smeared the Fair and Lovely cream on my face for years, disappointed every month, as I looked into a mirror reflecting brown.
I see the tube of cream sitting in every bathroom countertop, next to our toothbrushes, shaving cream, and soap. I go to parties, watching my friends do their makeup, smearing the cream and powder on their face. “Do I look pretty now?” they ask me. I watched my mother buy tubes of the ointment ever since I was born. Every day she washes her face, twice, patting it dry with a towel. She puts on some lotion and unscrews the top of the Fair and Lovely and squeezes a pea-drop of it on her fingers. In five swipes she places it on her skin in the same steps: forehead, left cheek, right cheek, nose, then chin. Finally placed, she goes to work blending it deeper. Once settled, she dips her brush in the bowl of white powder to her right. Circular motions even it out. Routine, every day before work, topping it off with some red lipstick as she left. Slowly, her brown turns into an ash, her larger-than-life eyes fade away. Her flaws are covered away now.
My father, the progressive, tells me that “fair skin is an obsession, don’t pay any mind to it.” I flip through the comic books he got my brother and me, each chapter telling a story of Hindu mythology. The heroes kill villains and gods kill demons. The gods are powerful, they radiate purity, and are everything good. Demons are the ugly, dark, criminals; destructors of happiness and murderers of the innocent. Never had I seen a clearer divide between black and white. I never looked divine. I looked evil.
“Just wash your face more.”
“Apply more powder.”
“Don’t go out in the sun.”
The advice that came from all the aunties. Maybe I could wash the brown away. Maybe I could hide it. This way I could be beautiful.
I was eleven when I went shopping for makeup for the first time. I walked into the store when one of the makeup artists asked me what I was looking for.
“Foundation,” I said.
“Oh, I think have one you can try.” He handed me a tube of a brown liquid.
“Is it okay if I try it on your skin?”
He applied the foundation along my jawline and asked me to look in the mirror.
“You have beautiful skin,” he told me.
Expecting to find an abrupt steak of paleness to my face, it actually took me a while to find the smudge of foundation on my skin. It was an exact match to my skin tone.
“Are you sure this isn’t too dark?” my mother said. I was thinking the same.
“Oh no, any lighter and she’ll look like a ghost.”
I look into a crowd of woman at a puja. They wear dresses of envy; dyed in colors of peacock feathers, glitter and jewels adorning the silks. I look at their faces: white, mismatching the rich colors of their arms. Identically faded, I think. I gaze into a mirror and I take in my dark skin. The shadows tell me my ancestors were shepherds and farmers. I note my grandmother’s thick hair. I see my mother’s large eyes. I feel the bridge of my father’s nose. I am not pale or white or bleached.