Colombo Telegraph

The Politics Of Skin: A Velvety Intervention

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

Prince Dutugemunu is said to have been close to two sisters, one fair and the other dark. They had duly been re-named ‘Sudu’ (Fair One) and ‘Kalu’ (Dark One). The dark one had spurned him and in the end the prince had fallen for the sister. When Kalu finally overcame her pride and expressed her feelings, it had been too late. The Prince, legend has it, had simply said ‘manda Kalu pin nokale?’ (why did you not acquire enough merit?).

This has been variously interpreted. There’s one which holds that ‘Kalu’ had first spurned the prince and by the time she had finally decided that she loved him, his heart had found residence with her sister. The other is all about color and the claim is that the prince was essentially saying ‘why couldn’t you have been a bit fairer?’

Here’s another story. It’s not about a prince and not about the skin color of a girl. Not about love either. A young boy is fascinated by the trials and tribulations of an older girl in the village. The thrills are inversely proportionate to the sorrows that visit her. It’s the reason that concerns us.

One day, he narrates, the said girl who was actually his cousin had been walking ahead of him along a niyara. His mother was between the girl and the boy. The girl had made an observation. Maybe she thought the boy wouldn’t hear, but he did. The boy had a pet name: Sookiri. Sookiri on account of color (he was fair) and not disposition (whether he was sweet or not we are not told). The girls’s observation: Sookiri is fair, but he’s not as pretty as his brother. Sookiri’s brother was the darker of the two. That comment was the source of his mirth at the cousin’s misfortune.

The girl touches on something that is suppressed in the politics of color. Beauty is made of many things, colour is just one of them. If it is all about attracting someone then the following brag by Voltaire should provide food for thought: ‘give me five minutes to talk away my face and I would bed the Queen of England’. The more we engage with a person the less we see the person’s skin, or even that person’s shape or size or perfumes or other accessories. None of these things, by themselves, are able to sustain a relationship.

And yet we cannot get enough of color. We see colour but we cannot ascertain texture as quickly and sometimes it’s impossible since consent is required by social norm. But then again texture aside, we can with the naked eye obtain the nature of the skin, whether it is healthy or otherwise. It’s easy on a face, which can have all kinds of ‘blemishes’ although there have been and probably will always be ‘hot’ serial killers.

We don’t ask ourselves, do we, when we see someone ‘pretty’, ‘could this person be wicked?’ We don’t second guess what’s beneath the skin. We are conditioned to equate ‘pretty’ with ‘good’ or worse, ‘fair’ with ‘good’.

Skin color lends to distinction of various kinds. It is political. Violently political even, if we consider the various and lengthy histories of apartheid. Here it’s more subtle and the violence leaves scars not on skin but mind.

Maybe there’s nothing which is as symptomatic of this malady is the fact that we don’t have much of a vocabulary in either Sinhala or Tamil to describe skin apart from the color aspect.

It is in this context that a recent advertising campaign constitutes an interesting and important intervention in the politics of skin. Velvet, a personal care brand, has proposed a fresh set of one-word skin descriptives in both Sinhala and Tamil.

Interestingly this campaign, which was unfolded in the print media, goes beyond the usual ‘black is beautiful’ (an important ideological statement) discourse. ‘Beauty beyond color’ is the title of a petition that did the rounds recently and was part

Nandita Das, the Indian actress who signed the petition observed in an interview conducted around the time that obsessions with fair skin is not unrelated to concerted campaigns by the cosmetic industry to market ‘whitening’ products. If one checks all the ads of the cosmetic industry here in Sri Lanka you’ll find it’s all birthed in the womb of white-promotion.

Of India’s white-obsession, Nandita says the following:

‘The cosmetics business thrives because the aspirations exist. The two feed off each other. All the beauty magazines are designed to make you feel ugly and want to change your features and skin color. During my field work in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, when it was called Phulbani, I went to areas where there was no electricity and people did not even have food to eat, and I saw women using fairness creams that were well past their expiry date. These had obviously been dumped here. So this obsession with fairness cuts across class. The cosmetics companies only capitalize on it.’

It is probably true of Sri Lanka as well. This is why Velvet’s campaign is important. Velvet is not even talking about color. Velvet, in this campaign at least, is going beyond colour, essentially saying ‘take care of your skin and be proud of your skin; you are Sri Lankan, don’t try to be who you are not’. Sure, the campaign does not venture as far as to state that beauty has little to do with color, texture or skin-health, but we can applaud Velvet for taking the initiative to open a debate on the subject.

The terms proposed are obviously unfamiliar. They can impact only if they gather currency. They have to get ‘picked up’ in all media, especially television, radio and of social media. It’s hard, terribly hard to oust the eye from the privileged position of appraisal. However, until such time that we get there, we will continue to discriminate, continue to scar and continue to succumb to the nonsensical notions of human worth that have knowingly or unknowingly inscribed themselves on our thinking.

One hopes that this is not a campaign that plays on the politically correct. That would be a pity. Velvet, however, has put itself in a position that in all commercials it has to affirm the ideology that has been spelled out in this campaign. Painted into a corner, one might say, but then again it’s a decent and civilized corner to inhabit, all things considered.

We are still quite a distance away from that happy day when cosmetic-peddlers will not bombard us with beauty-definitions and ‘ugliness’-removers. One day, perhaps, the truths that all of us as individuals affirm, i.e. the truths of love and wisdom being the superior cosmetics, will become that is collectively affirmed and therefore the prime informer of cosmetic-marketing. Until such time, though, it is good to have a discussion that puts color in its place and moves on to talk about other things related to skin.

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