The children and I recently read a Hindu myth together about how the Goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) hid from an army of demons in a celestial ocean of milk. When she was eventually rescued by Lord Vishnu, the Protector in the Hindu trinity, she emerged with a milkier, fairer complexion and therefore (as the myth goes), more beautiful than she was before.
And so I had to ask myself – seriously? That was the moral of the story? She couldn’t have emerged from her milky grave with a reduced risk of osteoporosis; a renewed commitment to the humane treatment of cows; and an advocate for an end to EU subsidies of dairy farmers? No, the Goddess Lakshmi emerged from the ocean of milk, still lactose tolerant but now “fairer”.
Suddenly it all became clearer. As clear as crystal. Actually as clear (or as milky) as the sunblock I liberally apply on my children. As clear as the sunblock that was excessively applied on me as a child. Sunblock applied the Sri Lankan way is not for prevention of skin cancer, but for preparation for marriage. To the Sri Lankan, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the fairness of the beheld. It’s hard to escape it when even the mythology is embedded with complexionist propaganda.
My grandmother was allegedly renowned throughout Sri Lanka for her fair complexion. It’s a small island and admittedly our only source for this important piece of historical information is our grandmother. Husband finds it amusing that my grandmother’s fairness (and indeed the fairness of any Sri Lankan) may well be caused by the presence of unaccounted-for colonial genes. My grandmother finds that theory less amusing.
Social anthropologists would have many things to say about the origin of a complexion-linked notion of beauty and the interaction and influence of gender, class, caste, conquest and colonialism in its development.
I have no such insights but I have observed in the Sri Lankan community (Gen A through to Gen W), that a fair-skinned woman is considered a more attractive “catch” than a dark-skinned woman. In fact fairness (of skin) has been known to negate all manner of personal failings, including meanness, foolishness, poor dental hygiene and the inability to deep fry an aubergine.
For generations Sri Lankan mothers have been keeping their daughters out of the sun in case they Slip down the marital hierarchy, have to Slap on a serious amount of incongruously lighter foundation and be forced to marry the Slop that the fair-skinned girls left behind.
When Prima started kindergarten in London she was the only dark-skinned child in a class of fluorescently pale Brits. Understandably she went through a phase of feeling uncomfortable about her skin colour. She thought it was “ugly”. Prima’s skin is the colour of the finest milk chocolate. The Belgian or Swiss stuff, not that Hershey’s crap. Her skin is divine and it made me sad that she hadn’t realised it yet. Now as her colour deepens under the Australian sun, I can sense that without saying anything to her, I put more sunblock on her face than I do my sons. Damn that propaganda.
Last night, concerned that by reading this particular Hindu myth, I had unwittingly passed on a ridiculous (and at times destructive) cultural idiosyncrasy, I asked the children what they thought about the story of the Goddess Lakshmi (who incidentally, with her new milky complexion, goes on to marry very well). The children laughed, seemingly unscarred, and they sang a little rhyme they had composed about it. It went like this “Lakshmi and Vishnu sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”
It’s now a couple of years since Prima was in kindergarten and she has changed. She seems a lot more comfortable in her skin. She starts taking off her clothes as soon as she enters the house after school and by the time she gets to the pool she is all naked milk chocolateness. She slips, she slaps and she slops but for all the right reasons, immune to antiquated notions of beauty and unaware of how truly beautiful she is.