The argument for non-whitening deodorants

I have no trauma attached to growing up with dark skin. However, there were evidences all around me. In school I'd see light yellow faces betray nights of thickly applied turmeric or cakey talcum powder. Personally, I wasn't really aware of my skin colour, maybe because my family never cared and I'm grateful for that because that is exactly how a young girl's life should be.

Only at 21, when I moved to fairly liberal Mumbai, did I first hear the term 'dusky' associated with me; 'dusky beauty', 'dark but pretty', 'tan zyada ho gaya hai bleach kar lo' and once even a condescending 'kaali'. I am thankful this happened when I was old enough to be self-aware. Even though it made me vaguely annoyed back then, I put it down to geography, there are fewer dark-skinned people here, I told myself. 

Now I know there's a larger problem than geography if I can't find a deodorant that doesn't want to kill the melanin in my underarms. Nearly every cosmetic is pushed to the hysterical tune of 'LighteningWhiteningBrightening', even Shah Rukh Khan (who was brown once) wants me to believe that fair is handsome and the other day someone made a cream that would whiten our vaginas. Did the world go mad or did I just walk into all the wrong department stores?  

And then I watched Nandita Das speak about colourism for the first time on the 'Dark is Beautiful' campaign. I saw spunky girls take on misconceptions about skin colour on Instagram with #unfairandlovely. It is the beginning of a very important conversation that certainly shouldn't stop. With this story I'd like to open that conversation to not just talk about how persecuted we are but how great we can be. 

Soup interviewed 14 beautiful, confident dark-skinned women on their varied experiences and their common story of loving themselves, just as they are.

Photographed by Priyadarshini Ravichandran. 

Nikhita Chinnari, 21, Financial Analyst

Nikhita Chinnari, 21, Financial Analyst

"Being a native of Berhampur, Orissa where 'Fair & Lovely' is perhaps the most easily sold product, it's hard to ignore your skin colour. Everyone seems to be chasing a fair saviour to procreate with and make fair babies dipped in milk and rice flour. I think 3 in 5 people have powder stuck in the creases of their neck. But barring 4 years in Orissa, I lived my whole life in Bombay. I was never made to feel conscious about my skin while growing up which is probably why it never affected me. I've obviously been teased and called 'kaali' but I'd grown indifferent to it simply because I knew it didn't matter. In fact I'd feel the same way if I had electric pink skin."

Mandovi Menon, 26, Editor and Co-Founder Homegrown

Mandovi Menon, 26, Editor and Co-Founder Homegrown

"I was a pretty serious athlete and I was always in the sun, and when I wasn’t in the sun I wanted to be. These feelings haven't changed over time either, so the idea of trying to be fairer completely contradicted everything I love doing the most. Skin colour has never been a cause for concern in a superficial external way, it's definitely a marker of identity for me but I suppose I haven't had any insecurities about it. In fact, I've always really loved the colour of my skin, if only from an aesthetic viewpoint."

Madiha Ali, 28, Student

Madiha Ali, 28, Student

"I've been real lucky. I grew up in an environment where I was always showered with love and attention. In fact my sister who is fairer often jumps up in my defence if anyone considers her the prettier one. As for my mom, she has never bought any face creams to make me fair. She thought (and still believes) that her little one is perfect." 

Megha Ramesh, 28, Copywriter 

Megha Ramesh, 28, Copywriter 

"I was teased in school. And sure, the boy who made up the mean names eventually ended up asking me out. But I remember feeling so dramatically awful in school that I think it has to some extent bruised my self-confidence permanently. I want to tell my younger self, that it's okay. It could have been much worse, kids are born fighting through a lot more. I was stupid to cry in the shower; feeling ugly - all because someone said I was. There have been times when I thought it'll be easier to be fair, but I've gotten used to myself and grown to love myself. I like that blemishes don't show up that easy on my skin. I like that turquoise eyeliner really pops and red lipstick stands out. Yes some things look really gaudy against my skin, but unless you're a VS model, not everything is going to look fabulous on you! I'm lucky that I'm in advertising. Dark skin is a lot more accepted and celebrated. I meet photographers, stylists, designers, models and they're all clued into what's happening in the outside world. White skin is normal and over. Chocolate, caramel, toffee - it's all in."

Shilpa Colluru, 33, Brand Consultant

Shilpa Colluru, 33, Brand Consultant

"I never really thought about the colour of my skin until I went to college in Delhi. That's where I was discriminated in subtle ways about not just my skin colour but also for being South Indian. I guess that's when I looked at women like Nandita Das and Konkana Sen and felt proud about being dark skinned. Now I find that there is an awareness in the upper classes of society. But we have a long way to go before it percolates down to every strata of our society. The day my parlour girl stops trying to sell me an anti-tan waxing solution or a fairness facial, that's when the real change has happened. But I'd tell any young girl I know that skin colour doesn't matter. What matters is that you love yourself and start feeling confident." 

Sangeetha Thomas, 28, VP Goldman Sachs

Sangeetha Thomas, 28, VP Goldman Sachs

"I was very influenced when I read  the story of Waris Dirie (I read about her in a story published by Reader's Digest as a child) and was deeply influenced by her attitude and wowed by her beauty – I was secretly happier that I was dark after reading about her." 
Smrithi Rao, 30, Associate Manager, Myntra 

Smrithi Rao, 30, Associate Manager, Myntra 

"Most of my so called 'trauma' was self induced. As a kid (growing up in the 90s), I was fascinated by the idea of fair skin. It was probably because you'd hear elders in the family or movies, television, school, colleges associate beauty with being fair. I've gone through a phase where I obsessed over being fair. So, this one time a friend mine in school suggested we sandpaper our skin to make it fair. So we made all necessary arrangements. But just in time my mom caught us. She sat me down and told me what I was about do would have been extremely harmful and achieving fairness should never be my end goal. It didn't make a lot of sense then but in hindsight I am glad I got caught. Now I wish I could tell my younger self that it's OK. It's OK to be dark-skinned and I should focus on building relationships, a sense of humour, being a good person and on expressing myself better."

Yasmin Ponnappa, 32, Model/Actor

Yasmin Ponnappa, 32, Model/Actor

"My mother would constantly harrow me about playing in the sun. Always harping that no suitor would marry me. I overcame it by 'not giving a shit', I'm quite resilient."

(It must be mentioned that Yasmin was featured as one of the 100 most beautiful women in the country by Femina)

Lavanya Kannan, 28, Photographer

Lavanya Kannan, 28, Photographer

"Society is more vicious about colourism than I thought as I was growing up. This is maybe because I was shielded from any irregular comments because of the attitudes of my parents and so I never took it very seriously. My sister is paler than me, and I never felt discriminated by my parents because of it. But right now, perceptions of beauty have shifted. But I still don't believe that people have never liked dark skin, I refuse to believe that."

Shovona Karmakar, 26, Photographer

Shovona Karmakar, 26, Photographer

"When I was 19, I did a 365 day project where I photographed myself every day and tried to understand every nuance of my body, face, hair and ultimately my identity. I started this project right after my break up with someone who didn't accept me for the way I looked, but as the project drew to a close, it became much bigger than that. I started to understand my heritage and my uniqueness. I am very comfortable with myself today, I know I am different and I am very proud of it." 

Megha Ramaswamy, 33, Artist/Filmmaker

Megha Ramaswamy, 33, Artist/Filmmaker

"If I could speak to my younger self, I'd tell myself it's a long journey to security and understanding but always be comfortable calling yourself a dark girl. You're not wheatish or dusky or like chocolate. The opposite of fair is dark and that is normal and lovely too."

Aishwarya Arumbakkam, 28, Photographer/Filmmaker

Aishwarya Arumbakkam, 28, Photographer/Filmmaker

"There is so much literature you know, in Tamil, old and new that represents dark skin as something that's sensual and beautiful. That was also the case with mythology and art that I was exposed to when I was young. 'Dark as indigo or midnight sky'- that's quite heady and beautiful. Apart from this I don't remember that skin colour ever featured as a topic of discussion while growing up. I think I had a good support system and a position of privilege that insulated me from this issue. And honestly, I have a lot more real concerns in my life regarding work, health, lifestyle etc. I'd rather spend time thinking and feeling about that, because dark skin is just a natural part of me."

Mariette Valsan, Model/Actor

Mariette Valsan, Model/Actor

"I remember an incident where I wasn't allowed to audition for a hair commercial saying I didn't fit the look. I was puzzled and proceeded to ask what look they were going for and the casting director let it slip that I was too dark to do the commercial. Which was hilarious and outrageous both, because I was auditioning for a HAIR commercial. And then again, recently, I was shooting for a TVC and the clients were American. They came up to me and said I looked absolutely beautiful on camera and my skin tone shone. They said they paid to get spray tans for a tone similar to mine. We laughed about it then but the moment stuck in my head when I realised that half the world made such an effort to get what I am naturally blessed with." 

Vinitha Shetty, 25, Blogger/Brand Manager

Vinitha Shetty, 25, Blogger/Brand Manager

"Growing up I was made to feel so ugly by both the kids around me and my relatives. I would not want to go out as much, or smile too wide as I hated my black gums, I wouldn't wear dresses because I was conscious of my dark knees. I have overcome all that only through time. And more importantly, I no longer care. But now when I think about it, I feel a deeper part of this problem is the lack of representation. Every community needs to be channeled to think a certain way. If they don't see a single dark-skinned spokesperson for beauty in this country, how will they relate to them in real life? Inclusion is so important because it plays on the psyche of the ignorant. You know when I started my blog I was pleasantly surprised to get so many positive reactions from other dark-skinned young girls over how I could carry off bold colours and so on. It was great to hear. And I can't quite believe I am saying this but I love my skin colour and the way I am right now. I didn't think it would be this easy after I turned older." 

Written by: Meera Ganapathi