It was a hot Saturday afternoon in March when I finished my 3 hour art exam. People who know me would tell you that it was a herculean task for me to sit cross legged in a place for 3 full hours. All I wanted to do was to go home and rest my mind and body. I was a little annoyed with the fact that I had to write an exam on a Saturday, but it was nothing that my grandma’s buttermilk couldn’t fix.
As I walked out of the school gate, relieved to go home, I was met with a surprise. My mom was waiting for me. I usually go home by myself, but she had come all the way to pick me up as we had to urgently make a detour to a photo studio for a passport size photo to be given along with my class XI admission form. I was restless to go home soon.
Since our school is situated in the midst of a village called Thazhambur in the outskirts of Chennai, any photo studio required a 15 minute ride. After a quick ride under the hot sun, we found a small studio and decided to take my photo there. It was a repurposed garage with a poster on the front that read out “photo studio”, near a highly photoshopped picture of the owner sitting near a waterfall. The studio had pale blue walls and a small desk upfront, with a computer and a printer nearby. For the customer’s comfort, they had one wall mount fan and a row of few plastic chairs. I was not convinced of the studio, but we were short of time and patience. Once we entered, I told the man I needed a passport size picture taken. The man who I thought was the cashier, got out of the billing counter, took his camera and brought me to one corner of the garage. He told me to stand straight, with my back against the pale blue wall as a background.
The photo was taken in less than 2 minutes , so I came to a logical conclusion that we could leave the studio and head home in less than 15 minutes. We ended up waiting for 45 minutes. In the end, the picture he gave us was stamp sized with a pale dirty blue as a background with no borders. It was completely unprofessional, and I couldn’t put that picture in my admission form. When I asked him what took him so long, his response filled me with frustration. He said to me in Tamil, I was trying to give you some colour but with your complexion it was very hard. By colour he meant making me “fair”( I never understood when and why the word “fair” came to denote skin colour… but that’s a topic for another day)
He said to me in Tamil, “I was trying to give you some colour but with your complexion it was very hard.” By colour he meant making me “fair”( I never understood when and why the word “fair” came to denote skin colour)
Disappointed and annoyed we searched for another photo studio to take my passport size picture. We found one just 5 minutes away from the previous studio. I felt extremely lucky. This studio looked much more promising. It wasn’t a garage, but a 2 storey studio and had sofas to sit on. They were well staffed with young and well groomed men and women. This studio had multiple air conditioners and high end equipment. The cameraman took me to the first floor to have my picture clicked. He told me to stand straight with my back against a clean white screen as a background. Similar to the previous photo studio, the picture was taken in less than 2 minutes, but this attempt felt promising. But we waited for half an hour. When I finally got my picture I was stunned, dumbfound with anger. I could not recognize myself in the photo that was handed to me. They painstakingly made my face change colour from an exotic chocolate brown to a disappointing mushroom beige and an unusually rosy pink lips for a true blue Tamizh boy.
As the shock factor of my feelings wore off I was filled with rage, ready to bite the head off the studioman. With tremendous effort, I suppressed my anger, and managed to have a rational conversation with him. I asked him why he decided to change my skin colour when I never told him to do so, and his response caught me by surprise. In Tamil, he said to me “all my customers requested me to do so, therefore I assumed you wanted the same thing.”
His statement got me thinking. I realised this incident was not only due to the ignorance on his part, but also due to the deep rooted insecurity in the hearts of most dark skinned people about their skin colour that is fed by society and reinforced by the media.
…deep rooted insecurity in the hearts of most dark skinned people about their skin colour that is fed by society and reinforced by the media.
That’s when I began to think about how our society made fair skin the center of all things; I have definitely observed these things before, but this was the first time it pinched me. In almost all movies and advertisements fair skin is a virtue and it is glorified. In jobs that require customer interface ( restaurants, air hostesses etc) most employees have fair skin. Probably it is almost true that skin colour dictates the choices people make in their lives. I wish no situation arises wherein a person chooses to change their skin tone because of the strange preferences society has that shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Some of you may be wondering about what happened to my admission form. I managed to stick a proper photo of mine on the form, but chose to save my “rosy lipped beige self” for posterity.