Who Says Dark-Skinned Can’t Also Be Drop-Dead Gorgeous?
By Sharanya Dutta
Yesterday, the news exploded with articles about how actor Tannishtha Chatterjee had spoken up about being bullied at a recent comedy event, where the jokes were not about her acting skills or personality, but about the colour of her skin. Although Chatterjee isn’t the first to raise the issue, her account of the incident and her reaction to it struck a chord because it voiced the prejudice that many of us of have faced in our daily lives, whether it’s being cautioned against going out in the sun to avoid getting a tan, or being reminded that being dark is somehow linked with being unattractive.
We spoke to Kochi-based bridal make-up artiste, Priya Abhishek Joseph, who has become famous for doing beautiful bridal makeup that doesn’t attempt to whitewash dark-skinned brides. She has spoken extensively about colour on social media, highlighting this issue in almost every photo she puts up (with the hashtags #darkisbeautiful and #unfairandlovely) and says on her Facebook page, “We encourage a culture of self-hate amongst those who are dark-skinned in Kerala and this is laughable because a majority of us here are very brown-skinned.”
After having trained in the Fat Mu Academy and in the Marvie Ann Beck Academy in Mumbai, Joseph says she has found her particular brand of styling, which is accommodating towards all ages and skin tones. We asked Joseph, who provides makeup and hair services for weddings, photo shoots and other special events across India, what it was like to deal head-on with the question of skin colour on a regular basis.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
How did you decide to get into makeup in general, and bridal makeup specifically?
I’ve been involved in hair and makeup in Kochi for about two years now. I went to makeup school in Bombay after I quit my job in market research, once I realised there was a real market for bridal makeup in this part of the country.
Growing up, the gender issue was real and whenever a child would be born, the first question to be asked was ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ Now that isn’t as big of a deal anymore, I think. Now the first question is ‘Is the child dark or fair?’ I was an outdoorsy kid and I remember my parents being really apprehensive about letting me play softball or take swimming lessons. We’re four sisters and I was already one of the darker ones, so they were really worried about me getting tanned. But even as a child, I felt gorgeous in my own skin. I think what’s really terrifying is the fact that this is a concern for people, right from birth. That early. You’ll see mothers getting competitive and treating fair-skinned girls like a prize, like they got so lucky.
So even now, when I work with relatively wheatish complexions, the tone always is – “God forbid you go darker” while applying makeup. So whenever someone comes to me, right at the outset I’ve started giving them a kind of disclaimer – I can’t lighten your skin tone. I can even it out. Colour correction does NOT mean making your skin lighter.
Being Christian myself, I get clients who are Christian brides. And then, once I do the makeup for someone and they’re happy with it, they recommend me to others. I’m actually going to be working with a Muslim bride soon, and I think I’ll get more of those requests then. But overall, I just want to give brown girls some confidence. Ninety-five percent of the women in this part of the country are dark – why should that be something to be ashamed of? We should feel comfortable and beautiful in our own skin.
Could you tell us a little bit about your Brown Beauty shoot?
I think I got really lucky with that one, it was almost providential. I had been planning it for years and Shaun Romy, the model, quite possibly busy after the success of her recent film, agreed to do it. I wanted somebody with curly hair (which is another thing people are against, a lot of people want really straight hair, although I think that trend is changing now) and/or dark skin. In the film she recently did, they had made her appear darker than she actually was, and it had created a lot of buzz, like “Oh is she really that dark? (gasp)” The photographer – Ruben Bijy Thomas of Magic Motion Media – who is very young and very talented, agreed to do the shoot with me. I had to be especially careful, so that the final products were not overtly edited to lighten her skin tone. This is very common with photoshoots and I was specifically working against that exact phenomenon.
The shoot was also featured in a Malayala Manorama supplement, which came at a very opportune time for me. I had just done makeup for a bride and she had called me the night before the article came out to tell me that she had received a lot of negative feedback at her engagement party from people who said that her mother and aunt looked fairer than she did. She didn’t go with me for the wedding and I was really dejected because I was genuinely happy with the look I’d given her.
After the article came out, I got a lot of calls from young women and even from a social worker who works with lower income groups. She told me that in the families she works with – if a child, especially a girl is born with dark skin, they feel like it’s an additional challenge/burden that they now have to deal with. She said she’d go to these women armed with the article and show it to them – it really helped that it was in the local language. Some women in their forties called, to tell me that they were *still* being told things like “Your siblings and parents are fair. How did you turn out so dark?” and that my article reaffirmed their confidence. It was a wonderful feeling. Especially because being in this industry and in the business of making people look and feel beautiful, if we don’t talk about it, who will? The point of makeup is to even out skin tone, draw attention to some areas, it’s an aesthetic process. It certainly is not to make one’s skin colour lighter.
You’ve lived in Bangalore, Bombay, Chennai and Kochi. Do you think the stigma around skin tone is standard across the country?
I wouldn’t want to generalise, but I’ve lived in Chennai for instance, and I think they’re more accepting of their brownness. Vithya, a Tamil makeup artist from London, for instance – does wonderful work. I think this obsession with fair skin is more specific to Kerala. It’s startling that it has nothing to do with literacy or education. There was this one [Malayali] bride, based abroad, who was relatively fair, who came to me wanting to appear more tan/bronze. And her mother said to her something which effectively translates to, “Don’t lose the colour you have”.
Do you have to convince brides to keep the look at a natural skin tone?
Brides always come to me saying they want to look ‘natural’. Christian wedding makeup is traditionally not very gaudy. Women wear a white saree or gown so it’s already a bit subdued and not very vibrant. If they do use other colours that are not part of the ‘no-makeup makeup’ look, it is usually golds and browns in their eyeshadow. So, no reds or pinks like in Bengali and Punjabi weddings, for instance. It’s hard, because there are so many colours working on one face. I have to match the base against their skin tone – from their neck to face. There’s commonly hyperpigmentation around the undereye, neck, forehead, and around the mouth, which I then have to colour correct. The brides with lighter skin have this terror to the refrain of – “But you won’t make me dark, no?” You can tell that this topic is of prime concern in their homes, and it’s been drilled into them. I get all sorts, the self-assured ones are easier to work with.
Are the brides’ families more or less resistant than the brides themselves?
It doesn’t really work like that. Sometimes after the makeup is done, they’ll send photos to so many people. And then it’s really difficult because obviously there will be mixed reviews, and how many people can I possibly please? I’ve lost a client to this. Where she’s gone home happy with the engagement look and then later called to tell me she was going with someone else for the wedding because of, I assume, negative feedback.
Typically, what kind of income group do you cater to? Are people who are well-off and educated more open to the kind of work that you do?
See, good quality makeup is expensive. I charge about 15-25k for a whole look, on average. There are people who charge WAY more so I think I’m very reasonably priced. Some makeup artists are likely to get paid way more than an architect, for instance (my husband is an architect, so I’d know). Working women, I’d say, see the value in my work – possibly because they know what it is like to earn for a living.
Apart from skin colour, do you see brides worrying about other body issues, like weight, facial hair or body hair?
I always recommend a natural skin routine before weddings, and in case of a crisis, a dermatologist. Personally, I think it’s easier to remove facial hair before makeup, but that’s an aesthetic choice that is very personal to me. No comment on women who choose not to do it. Surprisingly, acne, blemishes and so on do not seem to be as much of an issue as dark skin tones.
Are makeup products readily available for Indian complexions (which are also very varied)?
NO THEY AREN’T. It’s bizarre. I have to ask my sister to source them from the US. A lot of makeup has to do with getting the right shade of foundation. I’ve been able to source professional makeup base products, in shades that would suit dark-toned brides from abroad. It’s a shame that nearly all the drugstore brands (Maybelline, Loreal etc.) in India don’t have the entire range of colours [for darker skin] that they offer abroad. I don’t get it. Wearing a lighter shade of foundation doesn’t make you fairer, it makes you look ashy and like you’ve worn tons of foundation, even though you may have used only a tiny drop.
What about the grooms — do they ever get makeup done, and do they get the same comments about their complexion? Is it discussed on a scale even remotely the same as it is for brides?
I have worked with men, once, for a Puma shoot. I’ve seen makeup being done for grooms and the male members of the brides’ families, and it’s definitely not as important for them. Men should be allowed to wear makeup, if they like, obviously. But again, the trend should not be to make them fairer. Maybe cover up dark circles — a little bit of concealing, if at all. It’s what I would do.
Do you think ads have anything to with perpetuating prejudice about colour?
Well, nothing specific comes to mind. A lot of beauty bloggers whom I like otherwise, have videos about removing tans and appearing fairer and things in that vein. It just goes to show how deeply rooted this problem is in our country. If you look at any magazines from Kerala, you’ll see saree and jewellery ads using Caucasian models. Nothing against them, obviously, but we have gorgeous women who are dark-skinned, why not use them for these ads? Why set unrealistic standards for possibly the entire population?