AgentsOfIshq: ‘You Should Wear Maroon For Your Skin’ And Other Advice I’ve Ignored As A Non-Fair Woman
AgentsOfIshq carried my story about being a dark skinned person in a country that worships the pale! And I also got to show off my lipart skills. I’m really thrilled to see my name and story appear alongside the brave, witty others on this site that I’ve admired for a long time. Now go read!!
The AgentsOfIshq story is here:
and here’s one version from my drafts:
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.
ue 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?
I saw a tweet by UnfairAndLovely recently (don’t you just love that handle, btw?)
“Here’s my question to women. And only real answers please. If you had to choose between breathtaking beauty and Einstein-like brains…?”
In my teens, I’d have picked brains. Yes, I was that girl. The one with an annoyingly unconcerned attitude about things of grave importance to other teenagers, such as acne, skin colour, waist size and hair length. If anyone wants to debate that, just take a look at the latest Nokia ad which tells us that, being young is not as easy as it looks. (Life’s epic drama being a teenage girl torn between red shoes or green and finally, after polling all her friends, picks purple).
I always held a superior attitude above such frippery. For after all, wouldn’t my brains (read angsty poetry, weird art and heavy books) establish me in a far more solid, fulfiling life than the Barbie dolls around me? Not only would I have a better education & a more secure future, I’d also be an independent, respect-earning, awe-inspiring, equal citizen in the world.
Ah, how have the mighty fallen!
Over a decade later, I’ve flipped over to the other side. Breath-taking beauty (if one had a choice in such matter) seems to me the sensible choice for a woman. The world does treat you differently if you are fairer, slimmer, taller and in any other way better on the current norms of beauty. Service staff is a little extra genuinely ‘happy to serve you’ (especially if you don’t carry an attitude along with that face). Studies have shown that it affects your employment prospects positively too. And the men, need I even go there?
On the other hand, let’s look at what happens to a woman who is an absolute brain and euphemistically speaking, not much elsewhere. In her younger days, she’s put into such choice social roles like ‘the beautiful girl’s ugly best friend’, ‘fallback option’, ‘just one of the guys’ (notes-taker, proxy-giver, ego-booster, shoulder to cry on). There’s also the delightful ‘stooge to be played as part of Grand Master Plan to snag another girl’. No amount of Einsteinian grey is going to keep the average girl from falling into at least one of these pits. Unless of course, she’s one of pop culture’s horrorshow geek girls that is sexless, emotionless and robotic in every way.
Things really ought to get better as adulthood approaches, right? I mean this is the path of delayed gratification reaping big results later. But no, wait! What is the true measure of a woman’s worth, socially speaking? Is it how successful she is? How accomplished or talented or successful?All of that is nice, of course and hey, it could even add to the girl’s matrimonial prospects! Has it occurred to anyone that ‘single’, ‘unmarried’ and ‘unattached’ are labels more commonly hung on women? Not that there aren’t men who are these things but does a man’s relationship status really form as big a part of his identity and how society sees him, as it does for a woman?
Who are the biggest female icons around? Are they scientists, entrepreneurs & writers? Or are they supermodels, socialites, filmstars and manufactured pop sensations? A nice-looking photograph gets more social value (attention, compliments, awe, nice behaviour) than a well-written story. The new hairstyle is of more interest than a book deal.
We were told that it would be an equal world for us to grow up into but honey, it’s not. I speak as someone who has ventured at least a bit into each side. I’m not Einstein and neither am I a supermodel. But between ‘Smart Girl’ and ‘Babe’, I’ve laid my claim to both labels. And I know which one works better.
Pass me my compact please.
Like every good Mumbaiker, I would spend about an hour and half commuting to work each morning. Once I got in, I’d perch on my chair, waiting for my colleague to arrive. She’d walk in about 10 minutes later, switch on her computer, rearrange her desk and give me a little nod in the direction of the door. And we’d get up in unison and leave.
I’ve heard about this from several amused (and puzzled) men. We call it ‘The Loo Community’. The question is,
Why do women go to the loo in groups?
I suspect the real question is,
“What on earth do they do in there???!!!”
It is a good question.
So what do we do when we ‘go’ in groups? Well….we talk. We giggle. We compare notes on men (boss, colleague, client, boyfriend, husband, friend). The sneaky suspicion men have, that women are having a good laugh at their expense in the loo, is correct. The washroom is a great place for female bonding. After all, that really is the only place the men can’t interrupt our thoughts or conversations. (Down with the unisex!!)
Frantic damage control can be administered and strategies discussed. Ever heard of the following? If it’s familiar, you’re probably female.
“I got an oil stain on my dress!!!”
“Here….use some talcum powder on it! It’s great for matting away all kinds of oils – facial or vegetable!”
And there are questions of earth-shattering importance which need privacy and seclusion to be dissected and pondered over. Such as…
“What if he calls here and wants to talk?”
“Say “Oops, I hear my boss calling!” and hang up!”
Sample the following titbits from real lootime conversations:
I tried some crunches yesterday & got a cramp. I hate these damn tyres!
Hee hee…bet he loves those love-handles though!
Yes well, and we play the fool sometimes too. One time we went out for a drink, the women went to the washroom together (of course!). There we discussed who was drinking what, who was sloshed, who could be lulled into saying something interesting in the present state of drunkeness. We giggled over some of the things the men were saying. Then we looked at the mirror together and appraised ourselves. One of them said
“Security guard is a bloody letcher…did you notice?”
I put in,
“Bully for him, there’s a bevy of beauties passing by after all.”
Rightttttt… she retorted,
“We look more like Charlie’s angels!!”
A minute later a sturdy matron in a grey salwar-kameez walked in on the three ‘beauties’ posing like Charlie’s angels and trying to photograph the mirror (without the camera showing).
Though coming back to the point, this loo community is really obvious at work. All the guys smoke and there’s tremendous bonding happening over a shared cigarette. Strangers walk by and ask my male colleagues if they could share a light and then chat like they’ve been friends for years. My cubicle neighbor (who is male and smokes) has the in on the office gossip practically seconds after it happens. When he gleefully accounts something that he’s apparently known for ages and ages and I ask him how he knows, the answer always lies in smoketime conversations. A few of the women smoke but somehow they are never included in this camaraderie.
But I don’t worry. We have our own version of the office grapevine. I’ve managed to get to know most women in the office, across floors and departments simply because we share the bathroom mirror in the mornings. Great friendships are born from that small-but-useful tip over how to get rid of pimples. Intellectual conversations start from a discussion on the best way to hide a hickey (horrors!…giggle giggle). An unexpected ally may be made from that emergency safety-pin passed over the toilet stall wall.
Female-bonding is a good way to start and end the day.
She tells me about her struggle with weight, coming to terms with it. And she quotes another friend who said that she had to stop obsessing over it, to stop making it the be-all or she’d never be happy. I point out that I said the same thing, a year ago. She pauses and in equal measures of honesty, vulnerability and courage, says,
“You are….a slim person.”
I know the unspoken words, I can complete them in my own head. How then, do I explain, how do I prove to her, that I really do understand? Let me tell stories, instead.
“Let’s play StarTrek. I’ll be captain. You be the pointy-ears guy.”
“Who’ll I be?”
“There’s only two women, one fair one and and one dark one.”
“I’ll be the fair one.”
“Yes, you can be the fair one. Let her be the dark one. She’s quite black anyway.”
“I don’t want to be the dark one.”
“Fine, go away. No one wants the dark one, anyway.”
“You are so black. And all these pimples….13…14…15”
“Don’t count them! I can’t help them.”
“Please stop. Please, please, please stop.”
“I’ll won’t be seeing you for six weeks. Get your face cleaned up by then.”
Two hours later
“Bye, I’ll call you once I get settled in.”
“I brought you a little bye-bye gift.”
“Eraser face cream?”
“My dad recommends it to all his patients. Be sure to apply it every night. I want to see your pretty face without having to count those scars.”
“You can’t wear that!”
“Why not? It’s a great print! I love tie-ups!”
“It hangs on you. Look, let me show you how it should look. You…you don’t have the figure for it.”
“Put your shoulders in a bit.”
“Why? That’s bad posture.”
“A decent woman doesn’t put her bust out to the world.”
“You walk with your boobs thrust out. It’s like carrying a signboard that says ‘I’m easy’.”
“You’re ugly. The only reason a guy would be nice to you is because you look easy.”
“You are so ugly.”
“My friends don’t think you are hot. So I don’t want them to know about us. Don’t talk to me when they’re around.”
“Don’t hold my hand. I don’t want to be seen with a black girl.”
At every age
“No, madam, we don’t stock that size in ladies wear. Your feet are too big.”
“Why do you have to wear those ugly army boots? You just like to scare people, don’t you? They make you look like you have polio.”
“What are those things on your legs?”
“My knees are like that!”
“They look funny. People like you should not wear tights.”
“Where are you? I lost my friend!”
“Ha ha. It’s a loose kurta, okay? It’s comfortable.”
“You look like the pole inside a tent. Seriously, girls like you should not wear loose clothes.”
Age 16 onwards
“Madam can I show you something for those scars on your face?”
“Dark people should not wear red.”
“What are those marks on your upper arms (pointing to stretch marks)?”
“Open pores. Blackheads. Acne. You need help.”
“Is that hair on your back? Don’t you wax?
“Bags under your eyes.”
Red is my favorite colour.
Most of my garments are sleeveless.
I buy facepacks and lotions and scrubs. The skin stays mostly the same, give or take a few spots.
The knees are generally concealed in denims or attention is diverted away by a bold neckline.
No amount of exercise or dieting or bleaching or creaming is going to change my skin. Well…it holds my organs in. I try not to think about it. And I cover my thin skin with a thick attitude.
Yes, love, I do understand. Really.
I wasn’t a pretty child. Oily skin, stringy hair, gangly long limbs. Then puberty came along, and like a fairy godmother, bestowed me with a complete makeover. Suddenly I had the passport into BabeLand.
That was an eon ago, long enough anyway to make me wonder whether the fairy godmother was really a wicked witch in disguise…such is the two-sidedness of her gift. Let me explain.
The love of my life was my dearest friend for many years. Then we got together and shortly afterwards broke up. It was a shattering experience and the final knife in my heart was his parting shot,
“Someday you’ll make some guy really happy…in bed.”
With that one statement he had reduced over six years of warmth and affection, of loyalty and empathy, of buried pride and caring gestures to something as frivolous and fleeting as my body. It still haunts me.
Another time, my best friend who is one of those few people who was born beautiful, was at the receiving end of the attentions of a guy I knew well. She didn’t reciprocate and so didn’t bother prolonging the conversation with me. Later, I heard him complaining about what a frigid ice queen she was. I found myself chiding him with,
“You know that’s not true. I could never be friends with someone like that. She’s just reserved, that’s all.”
He shrugged and in a rare moment of honesty admitted,
“I suppose so. But no guy likes taking no for an answer. And if the girl is good-looking, it’s even more of incentive to bitch about what a cold creature she is.”
I’ve had a chance to speak to someone I almost dated a few years ago. Almost I say because he ended it before it had begun, so to speak. Recently we got talking about the times back then. He said,
“I thought you were very attractive and I was tempted to give it a shot. But I knew it wouldn’t go anywhere so I decided not to. It wouldn’t have been fair on you.”
I always held him in high esteem and my regard for him grew even further after this conversation.
And for my final story there’s someone else who I’ve gone out with a few times. I discovered that he is already in some sort of relationship. When I pushed him, he admitted to it. I was left in a quandary when he told me,
“I think you’re attractive. You are quite hot, you know. At least I didn’t kiss you or something.”
Yes, I am deeply grateful for that. But the fact remains that I am left feeling a tad humiliated as well as quite insulted.
There’s a pattern I see in all of the above. Except for my wise never-boyfriend friend, all the other men have treated women as desirable objects, strong temptations. There’s a part of me, my vain, feminine side that basks in such glorious admiration. Unfortunately that’s only a part of me. I’m more than my face and my body and my sex appeal. What none of these men seem to have considered is that the woman, regardless of how hot she is, has actual emotions like any other human being. It seems basic but why don’t they get it?
A pretty face does not insulate you from being hurt. A great body does not protect you from feelings of rejection, abandonment and humiliation. My looks are not your excuse for bad behavior. And yet much of the bigger half of the population seems to think so.
- A thing for chocolate – hot, sizzling, dark, rich
- A fetish for shoes – expensive, gorgeous and uncomfortable
- A love of all things khatta: Neembu, Imli, Amla, Kamrak
- Sex and the City
- Long phone conversations with friends and texting only for mushy SMSes, naughty SMSes, sweet SMSes
- Bacardi Breezers, Vodka-with-lime, Red wine, White wine, any wine
- Inappropriate crushes (gardeners, colleagues, bosses) at inopportune moments (board meetings, spring-cleaning, funerals)
- Chick Lit
- Lingerie – slinky, stylish, comfortable, physics-law-defying
- Lipsticks with names like Cinnamon Toast, Chocolate Drizzle, Mocha Kiss, Divine Caramel, Passionate Purple, Sweet Lily, Plum Heaven, Red Siren and Lucious Cherry
- P(re)MS-ey mood swings, P(ost)MS-ey mood swings, ‘during’ mood swings, ‘It’s bloody well not PMS!’ mood swings
- Guilt trips
- Shoulder shrug, raised eyebrow look accompanied by “Men!! Honestly!”
When I first chanced upon the Agony Aunt section in HT Cafe, I had to smile when I saw who was solving problems for the lovelorn. Kim Sharma!! Kim Sharma?? What sort of advice could she possibly give anyone?
Then today I read an interview with her.
You seem to have a mind of your own, so why do you have this image of a bimbette?
You tell me! I’m sufficiently well read, I can conduct an intelligent conversation whenever I get an opportunity to discuss things beyond Bollywood.
Maybe it’s because of the way I look, my voice, the pout I was born with..
I was pleasantly surprised to find that her answers sounded plausible, coherent…and intelligent. And unpleasantly surprised to discover my own stereotyping habit.
My best friend, the last of the campus stunners has had her share of admiring hordes all through college and thereafter. A conversation that came to mind after I read the above interview,
So he asks me which college I went to and I tell him. And then he goes
You’re an engineer????!!!!
I mean why should it be so surprising?I suppose I’ve got ‘DUMB’ written all over my face?!
And I chuckled and told her that,
It isn’t that. Beauty equals stupidity for most people.
To be quite sure, I am one of those people. I’ve been around enough of bimbettes and ‘Him-bo’s to loathe the presence of anyone who spends too much time before a mirror. People who get a lot of attention in childhood and their teens on account of their looks don’t seem to find the need to grow a brain or even *shudder shudder*…a personality. The rest of us find ways to compete in the attention stakes with grades, a sense of humour, whackiness, style et cetera…
But I wonder if that’s entirely correct now. Especially with women. I’ve always thought that women were far more practical and ruthless than men. And a pretty woman is perfectly capable of utilizing her looks to get her way (oh, don’t we loathe that sort!!!).
On the other hand, what of the few that don’t exactly like it? I can’t imagine that it is very flattering to be thought of as dumb, even if half the world’s population lusts for you. I wonder how many people would associate Madhuri Dixit with microbiology (after a brief flirtation with the medical sciences)? And who cares or even knows about Aishwarya Rai Bachchan‘s architecture degree (These get only cursory mentions on Wikipedia. I remember them as random trivia from the Ms.World pageant and filmi-gupshup days).
I suppose if they are really, really, really smart, they’ll let the world get away with underestimating them and not need validation. Barbie with a brain is probably too radical a concept for the world, after all.