Be it advertisements, characters on screens, friends, or even family, discrimination based on one’s looks is rampant in our society. In India, where one’s skin tone often defines success, ability to find work or a spouse, 15-year-old Kajal Janith is proving that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder through a series of photographs that are going viral and are proving fodder for thought.
According to the class X student of Little Flower Convent, Varkala, she was often ostracised and made fun of for the colour of her skin, while growing up. “I used to get upset and feel insecure when people passed comments, brought up what they thought were helpful suggestions, and when they stared at me if I were some kind of alien,” she said. Some of the helpful suggestions she has received include “use turmeric and milk”, “try this fairness cream”, and “don’t spend so much time out in the sun”.
A staunch family support
However, Kajal has now learnt to brush off such comments and negativity, adding that she is fortunate to have family who rallies around her. “My family, especially, my mother Archana, and father Janith, have always insisted that I be comfortable in my skin.”
Comfortable she is and how. The teenager exudes confidence in each frame of hers shot by the team from Le Beaute Salon and Spa, Kollam. “Beauty is about being confident and comfortable in your skin,” says Kajal, who is “unapologetically proud” of the colour of her skin.
The teenager, who is fond of travelling, fascinated by cars, loves movies, and enjoys playing football, says that the confidence seen in her viral photoshoot comes from wrestling. “I started learning wrestling from class III. National wrestling coach Sathish sir is my coach. Wrestling is what taught me to be confident.”
A confidence she lacked in front of the camera, however. “I am camera shy, only because I dislike how people try to lighten my skin tone through photo editing. My brother AJ Prince, however, managed to convince me to pose for some photos.” One of the photographs posted on a Facebook page soon went viral. “I received a flood of comments, some good, others bad. While some found the picture an inspiration, some seem to forget that I am just a teenager in their comments. I have, however, chosen to focus on the good,” says Kajal.
When Le Beaute approached her for a photo shoot in December 2020, her only prerequisite was that they retained her skin tone. This shoot went viral as well. Dressed in an off-shoulder white bridal gown, Kajal looks stunning with a sunflower tucked between her locks.
Kerala, she feels, still has a long way to go to rid themselves of their prejudice against people of colour. “Take Miss Universe, where a dark-skinned person stands a chance to win the crown. That’s already something quite unimaginable for people here,” says Kajal, who plans to become a chef, adding that she makes a mean beef roast.
The youngster, who is an inspiration to many similarly dusky toned people, says, “I want to tell everyone that your colour does not define your life, it’s how you tackle life’s challenges that chart your path.”
‘Beauty has no skin tones’
According to Rahul R Nath, it was Kajal’s outlook to life and positivity that led him to her. Rahul, who runs Le Beaute, was impressed by Kajal’s post that followed the picture she had shared in a Facebook group. “She bared her heart out in the post as she wrote about the prejudice she faced over the years. The post touched my heart,” says Rahul, adding that the only changes he made to her face were highlighting her features and add a dash of colour to her lips. “It’s all her in the frames. She has proven that beauty has no skin tones.”
The ace makeup artiste says he did not expect Kajal’s shoot, which they had posted on Le Beaute’s YouTube page, to go viral. “It was more of a trial session,” says Rahul, who went on to do another shoot with Kajal in January 2021. This too has gone viral. “There were two costume changes in the second shoot. We have released her look in the first costume — a peach party wear. We have yet to release the photographs of her dressed in a lehenga,” says Rahul, who adds that he has been receiving calls from people from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh asking if he could do similar such shoots for them.
“I feel that anyone can look beautiful in anything as long as they are confident and happy about themselves and the way they look. It does not matter what people say or what they think or feel about how you look. What you feel is what you become,” says Rahul.
Dark is Beautiful campaign
Then again, prejudice against skin colour is nothing new in our country. In fact, such bias has spawned a global, multibillion-dollar industry in cosmetic creams and invasive procedures. In 2009, Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Indian NGO Women of Worth, launched the Dark is Beautiful campaign, which was about inclusivity — beauty beyond colour. In 2019, a powerful video titled India’s Got Colour was released to mark 10 years of the campaign. The video, which was helmed by actress-filmmaker Nandita Das, had an army of celebrities including Radhika Apte, Swara Bhasker, Ratna Patna Shah, Ali Fazal and Vikrant Massey, chiding the audience for the prevalent fixation with fairness and discriminating attitude towards people of colour.
Yes to red
Recently, actress and theatre activist Kani Kusruti was in news for having sported a bright red lipstick while receiving the Kerala State award for Best Female Actor. Apparently, some of her followers did not approve of her choice and use of lipstick. To her naysayers, Kani, on her Facebook page replied, “Proudly wearing Rihanna’s universal red lipstick from Fenty beauty for the State award function.”
Quoting from an article published in BuzzFeedNews, she says, “Historically, darker-skinned black women have been derided for wearing red lipstick. As recently as 2013, the rapper A$AP Rocky, while on tour with Rihanna, was criticized for telling the lifestyle site the Coveteur that ‘You have to be fair-skinned to get away with wearing red lipstick’. The message often is that black women’s lips — a body part that is simultaneously ridiculed and sexualized — are meant to be downplayed, not highlighted with red.”
Kani had previously criticised a Malayalam magazine who edited her photo for an interview, to make it “fairer”.
However, things are looking up as the once rampant prejudice is taken down a notch or two. In 2013, Tanishq startled viewers by presenting a different bride: dark-skinned, not fair; confident, not submissive; a far cry from the fair-skinned models that once ruled the ramps and graced the covers of magazines. In fact, several A-list fashion designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Anju Modi, Rahul Mishra, and others are working with dusky models and making them the face of their collections. In 2014, the Advertising Standards Council of India announced a stop to ads that depicting dark skinned people as disadvantaged.
Hindustan Unilever, last year, announced that they would be dropping ‘Fair’ from their skin whitening cream Fair & Lovely. The announcement followed Johnson & Johnson’s decision to stop producing its Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness lines. The French cosmetics giant L’Oreal announced that they would drop using words such as ‘white’, ‘fair’ and ‘lightening’ from their skincare products.
In 2019, Chennai-based photographer Naresh Nil came out with a photo series, named ‘Dark is Divine’ that reimagined Indian gods with dark skin. Meanwhile, cinematographer-cum-photographer Mahadevan Thampi recently did a makeover shoot of Rajasthani street vendor Aasman, retaining her natural skin tone.