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I Was a Dark-Skinned South Asian -- Now I'm White

09/25/2013 12:29 EDT | Updated 11/25/2013 05:12 EST

I found it very interesting when medical student Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American woman captured the crown at the recent Miss America pageant.

She won. A gorgeous South Asian woman from Fayetteville, New York won. For a change, it wasn't your cutout fair-haired, bosom-wielding, American pie-noshing, Colgate-beaming, Breck Girl. This time it was someone with a darker hue. A gorgeous raven-haired beauty. Yes. We all were thrilled. Especially me.

I love watching beauty pageants. I'm referring to the decades-old American tradition of trotting out these gorgeous (legal age) gazelles. Stunners who mastered the art of locking their gaze with the audience as they saunter from stage left to right, fearlessly showcasing their talents, representing their state/country with the utmost of pride, and of course providing fantastic viral videos of what happens when you inadvertently go off on a tangent when asked that poignant current affairs question.

It's a beautiful geography lesson, a hot & not list and a media training class all rolled into one glorious theme-song humming, scorecard-filled, two-hour television event. Bring on the popcorn and the colourful commentary.

Of course then came the hate-filled (and let's be honest, a tad bit terrifying) tirades, which flooded the twitter-verse. Her brown hue got the bottom-feeding morons, who clearly can't find their way out of a paper bag with a GPS system, all hot and bothered. Accusations such as "a Arab" and a "terrorist" filled up the newsfeed. And just a side note: Racists are bad people. Racists with bad grammar ("a Arab"), well that hurts me on just so many levels.

As a South Asian woman, beauty pageants aren't a foreign concept in our world. In India, the current A-list roster in Bollywood is rife with former beauty pageant winners who were freshly plucked by the dream weavers of Indian cinema as soon as the crown was placed. If Nina won one of those pageants, would the Bollywood big wigs come banging on her door, ready to make her the next screen siren? Come to think of it, would Nina actually win a pageant in India?

Dream on.

The newly crowned Miss America 2013 wouldn't even make it past the door of the first contestant call.

Not only did the ethnicity of the winner bring out the crazies here, but her appearance also struck a note in the Motherland as well. And not the tone you would expect. Because India has its own problem with skin colour. Nina's skin colour.

And all of this just bugged the hell out of me for deeply personal reasons.

Because, I miss my dark skin.

I was born with a gorgeous darker hue similar to Nina's but it wasn't in my kismet to keep it.

As a South Asian woman, I've seen the evolution of what is "beautiful." Just as it is in all cultures, South Asian women also battle with changing silhouettes, and the constant beauty upkeep with the latest trends. However one aspect of South Asian beauty has remained constant. And that's the notion that going white is right. And that's wrong.

Why South Asian women (and men) feel that life would be better if their skin colour was just a few shades lighter is beyond my comprehension. Simply because I was never afforded that choice -- if I wanted to make that choice, that is. My pigment just decided to stop working all on its own. It's called Vitiligo -- an auto-immune disease where the body creates antibodies that destroy the pigment, melanin, leaving patches of white pigment-less skin, which spreads over time. So when I see girls electively going through various beauty treatments to achieve that sort of lightness of being, my blood boils.

The mindset of purposefully lightening one's skin has been well documented. The exact root of this form of identity crisis is debatable. It can be attributed to centuries-old Ayurvedic beauty treatments which have been passed on from one generation to the next (as evidenced by the fair depiction of the moghul-era courtesans) or it can be tied to the colonial remnants of the British Raj, or the present generation's desire to be more like the West. It's not that hard to do. Thanks to today's onslaught of slick ads promoting over-the-counter beauty creams which promise to solve your dark-skinned woes. Don't have a date? Don't fret! In five days, this cream will turn you shades lighter and get you that girl of your dreams.

Feeling the need for a quick freshening up? You can get that spa-like glow, and keep your friends guessing on what you had done. No one has to know. Passed over for a promotion? Once you see (or rather be) the light, that corner office is yours.

In a nutshell, replace our tooth-whitening obsession with this and you get the idea of how deeply rooted this problem is in the South Asian beauty world.

The appreciation for the lighter hue is even engrained in daily South Asian vernacular used to describe one's appearance. Dark-skinned? You get called "Dusky." A term that is so ensconced in the South Asian vernacular its underlying negativism is shrugged off or completely mentally blocked out. Case in point: three years ago, Vogue India had a "special issue" (a token salutation if you ask me) called "The Dawn of the Dusk" celebrating the dark-skinned model. We, who reside outside of South Asia, were shocked. But in India, and especially for a high profile fashion publication such as this, to use it as a cover line, clearly showed that it's just another cute nickname. And those aren't the only ones. I call it the "colour code." When describing someone as "beautiful" that means they are fair. When someone is darker skinned they are simply "charming." Even in Bollywood, the colour lines are firmly drawn. The Indian movie machine historically favours leading stars and starlets to be lighter. Dark skinned? That's OK; every film needs villains, whores and thugs, so it's all good.

Get the picture?

I've seen this pigment power play first hand, having been slotted in both colour columns. I've had Vitiligo since I was 13, so through my teens, and young adulthood, it was hidden behind conservative clothing and camouflage makeup. My early-thirties introduced me to hair colour as the Vitiligo started to turn my brunette mane into patches of white as the pigment of the skin also affects the hair. Patches were also appearing in areas where makeup was just impractical to use such as my hands and feet. All the while, I was going to Toronto Western General Hospital Phototherapy Clinic, for my weekly medically supervised UVA treatments in the hopes of bringing my dead pigment back to life. Much to the frustration of the incredibly supportive staff, all I got was years of sunburn and false hope in the shape of freckles. My family was incredibly strong through all of this, as my parents watched their oldest child slowly morph into a different person -- literally.

Then that day came. As is the case with advanced Vitiligo patients, once your body passes the 50 per cent white margin (mine was 70 per cent) you are then given a choice: continue with treatment (there's no cure for Vitiligo), or just eradicate what's left, call it day and unify the white. At this point I was doing 20 years of phototherapy and was tired. I opted for Door #2. Waivers were signed and my journey to turn completely white started with my first of many jars of prescription-only skin-whitening cream. I had no idea what I would look like on the other end and that was terrifying.

Enter Michael Jackson.

Our family knew he had it before he even publicly acknowledged it. As is the case with anyone who has Vitiligo. There are signs, symptoms that only those affected could recognize. But when he did finally publicly declare his battle with this disease, my family and I were thrilled. Finally we thought, Vitiligo will get the high profile attention it needed. But it didn't last long. Accusations of him voluntarily turning his back on his blackness still dogged him. And his surgically-enhanced face? Let's just say that didn't help matters. But I had a unique connection with MJ and in my own way, I knew the level of mental anguish he was going through. Just like his blackness, my connection to my South Asian-ness was also being doubted.

It took me up to a year to go completely white, and that was 10 years ago. The level of support I got from my medical and work family is immeasurable. My career at Canadian national fashion magazine debunked all the myths that came with working in a beauty-focused world of fashion publishing. Everyone knew I had it as you could clearly see the patches on my hands, neck and face. The somewhat off-coloured foundations (when I look back at my photos) definitely stood out. But no one made a fuss. They knew better. They knew me. Beyond the mis-matching beauty tones, the sunburns from my treatments and my wardrobe, which showed little skin if any. And that was awesome. It also did help me get access to the best makeup artists in the country who helped me cosmetically through my colour transition (thank you Shelley) with suggestions on products, test trials on different shades and making that nerve-wracking jump from brown foundation to ivory foundation.

I had to re-jig my beauty colour palette, now needing the "white girl" makeup, which I jokingly referred to in the past. As I have no pigment left to protect me, I burn so SPF 50+ and a hat is my must-have. Then the inevitable happened. When it was time to step out into the real world as a completely "white" woman. The reactions were --to put it politely -- memorable.

Some were funny. Strangers couldn't (and still can't) figure out where I fit in with my family when we're seen together. Cab drivers would (and still do) talk freely on their phones unbeknownst to them that I could understand every word of their Urdu poetry that they are showering their girlfriends with, on the other end.

Some were infuriating. I get treated differently now than I've have been treated before. In subtle, and not so subtle ways, I would get that tad bit of extra attention by the South Asian business owners (who don't know me) when I randomly walk into their store during a shopping afternoon. That is here in Canada. In India, I often get charged a "foreigner" rate or get talked behind my back, to my face, (again, a case of them not knowing my linguistic abilities) with obvious conversations about ripping me off. It happens rarely but when it does, I call them out, often rendering them speechless and me getting a better deal. And I would get inquiring aunties wanting to know my relationship status for potential suitors just by looking at me. I know. Oh which reminds me, another word used to describe that person's beauty is "gauri." Which literally means "white." And a popular term used in the matchmaking community. The 'we-are-looking-for-a-nice-gauri-girl-who-is-a-doctor, loves-to-cook-and-respects-family for-our-son' -- sort of thing. I know.

And some were heartbreaking. I knew full well the adoration I was receiving by some South Asian men was because of one thing. To borrow from Martin Luther King, I was being judged by the colour of my skin and not by the content of my character.

And finally the heavens parted and the angels sang when I saw this advert appear on my Facebook page. By none other than the fabulous actress Nandita Das.

The recent grassroots campaign "Dark is Beautiful" lead by Nandita is pushing the sensible notion that dark skin shouldn't be shunned. It should be celebrated. Embraced. Loved. And I love it. Their Facebook page has close to 20,000 likes and her campaign poster went viral on Facebook.

It's one giant step for me. But will it deprogram the generations-old idea that fair is indeed lovely? I'm not that confident that it will. But I do have hope. It's nice to see this sole substantial campaign versus the current tidal wave of Bollywood stars who appear in endless television, print, online adverts hawking the latest skin-whitening cream. Here, Nandita is our (my) heroine who will combat the negative stereotypes and hopefully knock some much needed sense into the colour conversation that being brown shouldn't be the reason for banishment.

And that is precisely why, because of my missing colour link, my appreciation of beauty is in the pigment. The darker the better. Just like an oil painting, Nandita's campaign (and her skin colour) holds an undeniable level of gravitas for me.

To me that beauty is undeniable. So for those who voluntarily want to go lighter, I know deep down, even fifty shades won't make the least bit of difference for them.

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