"At the wedding ceremony, many guests told me that even my mother and her sister looked fairer than me.”
When Kochi-based make-up artist Priya Abhishek Joseph got this distressed message from one of the brides she worked with that morning, she realized that this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Because that was not the first time that her clients had approached her, requesting that she not only make them look beautiful on their wedding day, but also fair.
“People in Kerala are terrified of being dark, or being told that they are not fair enough,” says 36-year-old Priya, who has been a make-up artist for nearly two years.
Rejecting the fair, glowing and whitewashed face of the Malayali bride that has been the standard for many years, Priya insists that brown-skinned Malayali women need to wear their skin unapologetically.
“I just don’t understand the Keralite’s obsession for fair skin. To begin with, the majority of our women are brown-skinned. The whole idea of make-up is to even out one’s skin tone and not to entirely change one’s skin colour. But some brides tend to have this obsession for looking fair on their wedding day. This is the result of social conditioning - that anything dark is undesirable and not pretty, and that fair is what is beautiful,” says Priya.
Priya was working in market research for a few years in the UK and later moved to Kochi in 2013 with her husband and child. When her sister got married a few months later, it opened up new possibilities for Priya’s career.
“It hit me, how the marriage industry is so huge in Kerala. But I did not want to open up a boutique or an accessories store, since I felt the market was saturated. So I didn’t want to follow the status quo and decided to apply my creative skills through makeup, ” Priya says.
She tried helping out her architect husband at work but when that didn’t gratify her, she went on to pursue hair and make-up training at Fat Mu Academy and in the Marvie Ann Beck Academy in Mumbai in 2014.
It was as part of a photo shoot at one of the academies that she first chose to work with a brown-skinned model.
“One of the rounds was bridal make-up and I was particular that I wanted to work with a brown-skinned model. However, though nobody voiced their disapproval explicitly, I could sense from the other students’ expressions, how alarmed they were at seeing a dark-skinned bride,” Priya recollects.
On returning to Kochi, she shadowed a popular make-up artist for a brief period, but was alarmed by what she encountered.
“The artist would use the same foundation on every bride he worked with, irrespective of whether it suited their skin tone or not. The idea was to lighten their skin tones, and while the same foundation worked on some brides, it clearly did not work on some others. One cannot hold the artists alone responsible for doing so. They are only catering to the market demand. Look at popular magazines and one would see the same skin tone everywhere,” Priya says.
She fondly remembers the first bride she worked with, who had approached her on hearing about her work. The bride being confident about herself and certain about her needs was a relief for Priya.
"I didn't have to go convince her that she ought to be comfortable in her own skin. But this had not been the case with other brides, many of whom decided not to go with me after their engagement ceremony. Some would look at the mirror and wonder whether I have made them look darker than their original skin tone. Some others would go back satisfied with the look, but later call to say that their family disapproves of the look."
In August this year, she conducted a "Brown Beauty" photo shoot featuring Shaun Romy, the actor who shot to fame for her performance in the Malayalam film “Kammattipadam”. Shaun was the heroine of the film and did not disguise her dark skin tone.
"I had been following Shaun even before her appearance in the film. I had seen many photographs of her in which she looked beautiful in her natural dark complexion. I wanted a popular face, somebody whom the people would be able to relate to, as my model. Everything fell into place when Shaun agreed to do the shoot," Priya explains.
Priya believes that make-up artists can bring in considerable change to the way people see and treat skin tones in the state. So much so that the logo of her official Facebook page features a smiling brown-skinned bride.
Though many Kerala women have begun to accept their brown skin tones, Priya feels that Kerala has a long way to go.
"We are not there yet. Not unless we stop looking up to fair skinned celebrities as a benchmark of beauty...not unless the media stops glorifying lighter skin tones. We see brown-skinned models on fancy magazine covers, but what do we see in regional magazines? The same fair skinned faces. I feel our celebrities and the magazines can be pivotal in changing this wrong perception," Priya says.