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You Should Wear Maroon For Your Skin" and Other Advice I've Ignored as a Non-Fair Woman

Why hide under drab colours? Bold lip art – bright colours, filigree designs, polka dots – are my jam

I love beauty jaunts. This is where I revel in having a body and a whole industry devoted to painting it. Recommended remedy for PMS, hard break-ups and bad days, in general. I started in the late 90s, freshly into adolescence and in possession of hard-won permission to paint my face. Naturally, I paid close attention to the leading authority on my body – the rest of the world.
My first lipstick was the only shade everyone told me was “appropriate” for me – maroon. This is the colour I call India’s apologetic vanity. Lipstick reminds people that women have mouths (which can speak) and presumably most people don’t want to know that. So we are permitted one dark colour “for special occasions” that’s barely going to show in the evenings – when it’s deemed appropriate anyway. Women of every age are huddled under this concession colour. A paler shade may just about pass for someone fairer, but only so long as its not ‘too loud’. Because even with our lips, women are not supposed to scream.
My ancestors hailed from rice country, with no connection to wheat, grain- or colourwise. So I didn’t fit on the melanin scale that ran from “gori” to “wheatish”. Everyone from fashion gurus to well-meaning neighbours wanted to rescue me from the dire plight of having an unfair and lovely complexion. Multani mitti and milk cream found great favour as India welcomed the fashion industry with its own “natural”/“ayurvedic” concoctions. Mismatched concealers were scratched into my skin in the hope that the reddening would look closer to something on the melanin scale. Fairness creams and burning bleaches were whispered about, behind the doors of girls’ bathrooms and beauty parlours. And finally, what could not be rescued, would have to be concealed. Hide, I was told, in dark colours, full coverage clothes and long hair. We dark girls, we’re taught to erase ourselves.
I know what Michael Jackson meant when he sang, “I’m not going to spend my life being a colour.” The politics of colour is multi-dimensional. How often do you see a dark girl in shorts, singlet or a backless dress? How many of them wear their hair short? These unsanskari dressing choices place more of the skin on display. Vanity, already a trespass for women, becomes an unthinkable sin for those rich with melanin.
But bright colours call to me, and this choice always comes at a price. Ae kaali, shouted a voice down the school corridor where I was shaking the rain off my neon orange raincoat. When I entered the college in a fire engine red t-shirt, two boys put on sunglasses, pointed at me and laughed. My electric blue work shirt entered the room before I did, with whispers and later, anonymous notes left on my table. Try maroon, I was told, or navy blue or brown because they’ll suit you. My fashion choices became a negotiation with a melanin scale that didn’t have room for me.
I began pushing the boundaries first with brightness of colour, and then the colours themselves. One day a parrot green blouse with no makeup, another day black nail polish with regular jeans. Brighter reds became more acceptable in the 2000s and accessible to me. As an adult, I had more control over my dressing, albeit subject to social censure. I played my dressing like it was a game– how much could l get away with it while still staying within obvious boundaries?
A bead necklace as a belt? A multi-coloured scarf around my handbag? And always, always bright colours. Always playing hide-and-seek with navy blue, black and brown. It gave me a lot of confidence. It frequently surprised (and occasionally angered) people.
By my late twenties, I had expanded my distinctive palette to makeup. Gloss, glitter, fuchsia lips, icy-blue eyelids – I was screaming colour. It has never stopped disturbing people, friends and strangers alike. I came to be known as the Crazy Dresser. Yet, what struck me was that no one minded fairer-skinned people wearing these things. As metrosexuality descended into our ranks, the men leading the charge were all pale-skinned. I often felt like the sole flag-bearer for visible brownness. Other shoppers would stare with open hostility as I reached for the sparkle section, while striking up great camaraderie with similarly fair-hued strangers. The salespeople would try to push me towards the skin creams counter, promising to “cure this awful tan” and always, “You should wear maroon for your skin.”
I’ve realised that the shaming system needs one important ally to work – your own self. Shame had no currency if I refused to buy into it. So what looked good to me, became what looked good on me. My need to rebel faded and I was able to embrace colours and styles simply because I liked them. There are no browns in my cupboard (I have so much on my own skin). But fluorescent green? Sunshine yellow? Hot pink? Hello Picasso! Every one of these shades finds a welcome spot on my personal shade card.
Last year I happily adopted the bold lipstick trend. Blue, did you say? Move over Rihanna, I see you your bold colour and raise you funky designs. My Crazy Dresser self surfaces on my lips in the form of stripes, polka dots, filigree work, even comicbook art. Give me black and white and I’ll turn that into a chessboard on my lips. Or a yin-yang symbol. My lips don’t hide or even whisper. They roar.
Recently I bought a gold lipstick, hoping to try a ‘bejeweled mouth’ look. To my surprise, the lipstick wouldn’t show at all on my skin, no matter how hard I swiped. I realised the shade was the exact same hue as the colour of my skin. I know now that colours don’t ‘look weird’ on my skin the way the fashion industry describes. It’s really, really hard to overshadow gold. And I have a natural supply of it all over my body. All bodies are works of art and mine just happens to be framed in gold. Beauty jaunts are public parades for my royal skin. Are you coming to watch?
Ramya Pandyan, also known as IdeaSmith, is a writer, blogger and performance artist. She runs a creative community called Alphabet Sambar and is co-founder of SXonomics, a feminist band. Ramya tweets, blogs, Instagrams and Youtubes as @ideasmithy.
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