'Dark' skin to curly hair: Social media groups ask people to flaunt it, fight stereotypes

black ink blots
Founders of social media group 'Black Ink Blots', Aravind Divakaran, Lakshmi Marikar, Reji Dev

The social media sphere is seeing a paradigm shift — one that could possibly alter the deep-rooted and often ill-oriented concepts of beauty and its stereotypes.

Let us sample the case of Soorya G K, now an independent translator and artist who uses her artwork to break the social norm which once branded her ‘dark-skinned’ and hence inferior.

While Soorya was a higher secondary student, she got a call from a classmate one evening. After the call, Soorya was ‘questioned’ by her father who suspected that it was her boyfriend. During her desperate attempts to convince her furious father, Soorya blurted this out in anguish: “Dad, do you even know me? Have you ever noticed the way I look? How could you think that any human being will be attracted to me?”

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Soorya GK I completed my Bachelors in English Literature from Govt. Victoria College, Palakkad. Was working as an independent translator before the pandemic hit in. I do commissioned art works, also into street photography. One evening during higher secondary school days, the phone rang, it was a friend from class to ask about a project . As I came back from the call I noticed my dad giving me death stares which lead to scolding and ended up in beating me asking why someone would walk away to attend a call, unless I was having an affair and it was that guy on the other side of the call. As I cried out loud I distinctly remember having this one question I wanted to ask him, which was, "dad do you even know me? Have you ever noticed the way I look? How could just make up in your mind that any human being will be attaracted to me?" That was the amount of self-worth I had while growing up. Due to the constant bullying, comparing myself with others, feeling guilty for the way I am, fear of being judged by every passing person, feeling left out, the thought that 'I am not enough' throughout my adolescence. And it was not just my dark skin that bothered me, my Dalit identity, my lower middle class family and financial status, my body type, my ever frizzy, oily hair - basically everything about me was used by the society to make me feel insecure about myself. A good part of adolescent life went with struggling from these insecurities and depression. It has just been 2 years or so that I have gained confidence to be comfortable in the way I am. This happened becuase I came across many women in these few years who are so unapologetically themselves and who fight patriarchy in their own ways. I blame this pathetically normalised obsession to 'fair and slim' beauty standards and the savarna bourgeoisie concepts of living which made me feel inferior in my own skin. Art has always been there as a companion when I felt left out. It was escapism in the beginning and it has grown to become part of my identity. As a woman, I use my art to break existing social norms in this partiarchal society. Love. Jai bhim.

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A young Soorya was then upset at being judged by everyone for her dark skin, Dalit identity, financial status, body type, and frizzy hair, Soorya spent most of her adolescent life fighting insecurities and depression.

Soorya is now part of ‘Black Ink Blots,’ a social media platform founded by friends Aravind Divakaran, Rejidev B, and Lakshmi Marikar. The Instagram page black_ink_blots, started in July, has over 4,500 followers now. Described as ‘black ink blots in your white visualscapes,’ Black Ink Blots gives a platform for the not-so-fair men and women to write about themselves, their achievements, the stigma they faced due to their skin tone and how they overcame it. It also regularly features dark-skinned celebrities and people for the LGBTIQ community.

In another post on the page, model and singer Aleena mentions how the first word which she would have probably heard in her life was in itself racist. ‘Burnt husk,’ was how the nurse described the baby (Aleena) to her mother after her delivery, in the labour room. Aleena says it is the responsibility of each ‘dark’ girl to break the inferiority that society has imposed. “This is an active and energy-consuming process. No wonder we are always exhausted,” she writes.

“It was during our discussion on the predominance of fair-skinned people everywhere — in ads, films, and photographs — that we thought of doing something to give visibility to the ‘dark skin.’ We initially planned a photo shoot, but it didn’t work out due to fund crunch. Then, we decided to launch a page. We wanted to initiate a discussion on the topic, get more visibility to dark-skinned people and enable them to share their experiences,” says Aravind Divakaran, a Kaduthuruthy-based martial arts instructor.

Aravind remembers that the discussion began when the film ‘Rachiyamma’ was publicised. The lead character is played by Parvathy Thiruvoth while writer Uroob (who wrote the short story Rachiyamma in 1969) had portrayed a dark-skinned Rachiyamma. The controversy over the casting resulted in discussions on topics like ‘blackfishing,’ the act of ‘fairer’ people using make-up to portray dark-skinned characters in art, films etc.

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"Burnt husk!" That was the first racist comment I faced in my life. My mother was in labour room. I was being born. A nurse said it. The first words which hit my ears were racist. The first ever opinion someone made about me was racist. Almost everyone in my family are pretty much dark. So I didn't face much trouble from my household. Being dark is somewhat normal here. My grandfather was one of the first people to come to our place, turning it into a village. The women of our family were beautiful, ebony dark and strong. Their lives and strength inspired me to evolve into who I am now. But the society was expecting something opposite . They moaned for me because my skin tone doesn't come with the treasure bag of privilege attached to it. Naturally I became the laughing stock, the centre of attention wherever I went. People made themselves feel better seeing me, bullying me, at least they are not dark, they are not ugly by default. Even in today's world, it is an individual responsibility of each dark girl out there to break the inferiority that society imposed upon her and believe she is beautiful. This is an active and energy consuming process. No wonder why we're always exhausted. Aleena, originally from Pathanamthitta, is a model and singer. She is trained in classical opera, but wishes to produce post - rock music with Latin American folk tastes. She is keenly interested in fashion and aspires to be a businesswoman. She is unapologetic about her identity and is a part of a women's collective on issues regarding caste and colourism. She writes poetry and short stories both in English and Malayalam. Her favourite music bands are Mogwai, God Is An Astronaut and Iron maiden.

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Rejidev says the page intends to discuss more topics. “Aravind and I are from the Dalit community and Lakshmi is a Muslim. We often discuss the absence of dark-skinned people in mainstream art and culture. Even if a dark-skinned model is featured, it will be for ethnic clothes. We don’t see them in casual wear. Apart from the page, we plan to do a lot of activities which got delayed due to the COVID crisis,” he said.

Nothing wrong with curly

Gone are the days when Malayalam film songs and poems lavishly praised the beauty of the curly hair. From once being a synonym of beauty, curly hair fell from its glory days to be termed ‘unprofessional’ and ‘unkempt.’ Chemical straightening or smoothening were the only options for curly girls to get a ‘good’ look till many of them first heard about ‘CGM.’

curly jair
(L to R) Neethu Jawaharibabu, Renju Antony, Anisha Anoop, Sunitha JS

Curly Girl Method or CGM, a haircare popularised in 2001 by US hairstylist Lorraine Massey, involves various techniques to help people embrace their natural hair.

Still, it took decades to reach the country and has slowly been picking up through various curly hair groups like Indian Curl Pride. Now, a platform — Kerala Curly Sundaries — a Facebook group recently founded by a group of eight women, are making waves among Malayalis.

Founded by Renju Antony, Viji Sanjay, Neethu Jawaharibabu, Megha Sujith, Anisha Anoop, Ammu S Prasad, Aswathi Sudheep, and Sunitha J S, the group has nearly 4,000 members who share tips and DIY hair products to keep the unruly curls.

curly hair
(L to R) Megha Sujith, Aswathi Sudheep, Ammu S Prasad and Viji Sanjay

Neethu, who stays in the UAE, said whether she was opting for chemical straightening was the question she regularly encountered during every visit to beauty parlours. "I don’t have a count of the number of people who asked me about straightening at the time of my marriage. Luckily, I didn’t budge and have never done any harm to my hair,” she said.

The concept of CGM not only involves embracing natural curls but also maintaining it in an aesthetically appealing way. Some of the basic rules of CGM are to use a shampoo that is free of sulphate or silicones and ‘putting an end to’ using combs on dry hair. Well-defined curls usually involve the use of conditioners, leave-in gels, and regular deep conditioning.

Neethu said they decided to launch the group to create awareness on the curly hair methods. “A majority of girls in our state have curly or wavy hair. However, we often use wrong methods that will eventually damage the hair. So, this group serves mostly as an awareness platform and shares various options. All of us share videos and detailed posts of various techniques in CGM,” she said. Most members in the group vouch for the fact that following CGM was the best favour they did to their own hair.

(Jisha Surya is an independent journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram)