Fifty shades of brown

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Indira Naidoo’s Sydney Writers’ Festival author’s talk ‘On Being Brown’ 

I have often stood and gawked at the bravado of sunbathers at Bondi, while sheepishly slathering on SPF 50 on my very brown skin to save it from becoming purple. At the supermarket, I have pondered over the rationale of displaying tanning products alongside sunscreens in a country where 2000 people die from, and 750,000 are treated for, skin cancer each year.

Being brown.Indian Link

Why then is sunbathing and a suntan so socially desirable?

Australian journalist Indira Naidoo was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to comment on “being brown” and the white affinity for getting a tan.

Naidoo, a highly regarded broadcaster, shared her experiences of growing up with brown skin and ideas about beauty, health, acceptance and belonging.

With a background portrait of hers made by Sydney artist Alicia Hollen, fashioned out of a composite of hundreds of photographic images of skin of every colour and hue, she noted, “Skin is mesmerising, it’s alluring, it’s delicious. It’s the largest organ in our body. It is through our skin that we interact with the outside world – and the outside world interacts with us. We use our skin to explore and probe. And it has become our cultural marker, our measure of attractiveness.”

Being brown.Indian Link

Born in apartheid South Africa, where dark-skinned Africans were made to sit at the bottom of the racial ladder, and toffee-toned Indians like Naidoo were trapped in between, this Australian exaltation of tanned skin leaves Naidoo baffled.

As it baffles you and me. How did a genetically random trait, an arbitrary skin pigment, determine and subsequently stereotype our abilities, social status and hierarchy, our assumed Indian-ness?

“‘Does the colour rub off?’ asked a little white girl to my family who had now migrated to Tasmania,” joked Naidoo.

It was hard adjusting to Australia’s skin colour codes. “After being surrounded by black faces in South Africa, now in Tasmania we were surrounded by a sea of white faces. And even more disconcertingly, many of these same white faces wanted to be brown.”

She soon learnt that they were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths, which included painful blisters and peeling-off skin, to achieve this colour conversion.

Tanning was inadvertently made popular in 1923 by French fashion icon Coco Chanel, through an image perpetuated by the media where she had apparently caught a little too much sun than she had intended while on a Mediterranean holiday.

Up until a 100 years ago, “pallor was popular” reminded Naidoo, and dark skin was akin to serfdom and outdoor labour. Pale white skin was your ticket to social class and noble indoor life. It was the era of whitening creams, egg whites and vinegar masks.

By the 1960s, Hollywood had made sunbathing glamorous and accessible. Australia’s long coastline and a depleting ozone layer over the Antarctic made sun tan ubiquitous and brown bronze skin desirable. Until the 1980s.

Things began to change with the slip-slop-slap campaign. The sun was now considered sinister.

But the myth that brown skin is sexy still lives on in our media and advertising industries, and on Instagram accounts. Coffee- and toffee-coloured stars such as Halle Berry, Beyonce and Kim Kardashian currently define the 21st century notion of beauty. Everyone wants to be 50 shades of brown. Colourism and the beauty bias lives on.

“Indigenous Australians, even today, are 15 times more likely to be jailed than non-indigenous Australians. Indigenous women make up 34% of the prison population. There’s a greater likelihood that indigenous children will be jailed than complete their Year 12 schooling,” Naidoo explained. Then there is the casual racism such as assumed stereotypes, cab refusals and playful Karl Stefanovic-like comments thrown at brown people with brown skin.

Naidoo also lamented the lack of make-up that matched her skin tone at the start of her television career. Another marker of casual, harmless racism perhaps.

There is no straight and easy answer as to whether beauty myths and stereotypes will vanish, or if tanning will become a forgotten pursuit.

Instead, Naidoo suggests, attacking the problem at its start and modifying the social desirability of any behaviour or beauty trend, indulging in healthy skin and thoughts, are what we need going forward.