Saturday, May 21, 2016

My 'On Being Brown' lecture for the Sydney Writers Festival 2016

'On Being Brown' - delivered by Indira Naidoo at the Sydney Writers Festival May 2016

In a country with one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world, where 2,000 Australians die from skin melanomas each year, where 750,000 people are treated for skin cancers annually, why is having a tan still so socially desirable? Indira Naidoo shares her experiences of growing up in Australia with a genetically-enhanced Bondi tan, and asks what our obsession with brown skin says about our ideas of beauty, health, acceptance and belonging.

The portrait of me on the stage was painted by Sydney artist and clothes designer Alicia Hollen for the 2014 Archibald Prize.

While it wasn’t selected as a finalist, I love this painting because of the unusual creative technique Alicia has used. She spent several months sorting through dozens of fashion magazines and cutting out photographic images of skin of every colour and hue. Alicia then glued these ‘skin squares’ onto her canvas to create a collage effect. She then carefully painted over each intricate, individual piece of paper for the final portrait of me.

So my skin is actually a composite of the skin of hundreds of others.

(And if you were wondering, this artwork has already been snapped up by a collector who obviously doesn’t mind having a huge painting of my head in their home.)

I thought this painting would provide an interesting back drop for our discussion today about skin colour.

We all know the vital role our skin plays in our well-being – it’s the largest organ in our body, it tightly wraps our blood vessels and muscles to our skeleton, it regulates our heating and cooling, it protects us from infections and disease.

It is through our skin that we interact with the outside world – and the outside world interacts with us.

Our skin has a vast network of sensory receptors just below its surface particularly on our lips and on our fingertips – and in a few other places as well.

We use our skin to explore and probe.

It’s why we like our skin to be touched. It’s why we like touching the skin of others.

Skin is mesmerising; it’s alluring, it’s delicious. And it comes in the most amazing array of tones and blushes.

Hands up those who like the colour of their skin?

A show of hands from those who aren’t so fond of the colour of their skin?

And hands up those who couldn’t give a toss what their skin colour is?

To experience this ‘skin appeal’, can I ask you to participate in a little exercise for me?

Please turn to the person sitting next to you, and if they say it’s ok, touch the skin on the back of their hand with your fingertips. A gentle stroke - not a grope!  So what was that like? You’ve just begun the first stage of foreplay you know!

As pleasant as skin feels to touch, its skin’s cosmetic value that we’re most obsessed with.

Skin has become a cultural marker.

We’ve elevated its folds and wrinkles, freckles and blemishes to symbolise our health, our wealth, our social status, our attractiveness.

Nowhere is skin – particularly tanned skin - more eulogised than here in our sunny antipodean outpost where skin can take its rightful place in the Holy Trinity alongside sun and surf.

To have tanned skin in Australia is to be bestowed with a sun-kissed gift from the Gods.

Skin has become our calling card. We make all sorts of judgments and assumptions about someone based purely on a person’s skin and most particularly their skin colour.

In Apartheid South Africa where I was born in the 1960s, those assumptions were quite extreme.

This dys-topic society created a savage hierarchy built around skin colour.

Dark-skinned African citizens sat at the bottom of this race ladder and pale-skinned Europeans ordained themselves superior and ruled at the top.

All other citizens were graded according to how dark or light their skin was.

This meant that South African-born, toffee-toned Indians - like me and my family – were trapped on the ladder somewhere in the middle.

In South Africa a person’s skin colour dictated every aspect of their life. Something as genetically random and arbitrary as your skin pigment or how much melanin you had in your skin, would determine everything that happened to you from the cradle to the grave.

Anyone without blanched skin tones was ruthlessly exploited and dehumanised.

There were certain beaches, schools, suburbs, buses, park benches only pale-skinned people could use. Shops had separate entrances; even toilets were colour-coded. Of course only whites could vote.

As soon as they were able to escape, my parents fled their homeland to build a new life for their young family in Australia in the 1970s.

We arrived in a tiny country town called St Marys on the east coast of Tasmania.

The town’s local socialite - the bus driver’s wife - organised an afternoon tea for my mother and my sisters to meet the townsfolk.

The largely Anglo and European immigrants in the community were unaccustomed to meeting dark-skinned people and were fascinated by us. One little girl even asked me if she could touch my skin to see if the colour rubbed off.

Australia’s skin colour codes took a little adjusting too. 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.

It has been a fascinating sociological dysmorphia to witness.

Many pale Australians - we soon learnt - were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve this colour conversion.

My Anglo friends would spend hours after school, on weekends or during summer holidays stretched out on their towels around the local pool or at the beach scorching under the Australian sun.

They called this peculiar practice ‘sun-baking’.

What I found even more bizarre was that rather than turn the desired shade of brown, most of my friends – instead - went lobster red.

Occasionally their skin blistered painfully - peeling away like a prawn shell.

For days afterwards they were unable to shower, walk or sit comfortably in class. We all laughed it off as a teenage rite of passage.

Even with my brown skin which acted as a semi sun-shield in this harsh climate, I still wore sunblock every day. My family has a medical background so the sun smart directive was always enforced.

I felt a strange social exclusion from the Anglo ‘sunburn culture’.

It was a ritual that deeply puzzled me.

On Monday mornings the girls would share their sunburn horrors with each other but never with me since ‘You’re lucky - you already have brown skin’.

During lunch break they would show off their tan lines, and peel off papery flakes of sunburnt skin from each other’s backs and shoulders.

I became fascinated with what that might feel like.

Once I even painted my entire arm with Clag glue and waited for it to dry so I could ‘peel off’ my skin in a similar fashion.

Now I know differently. What my friends were actually putting their bodies through were second degree burns, and, for 2 in 3 of them, those burns would lead to skin cancer.

Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world – second only to New Zealand. Melanoma kills an Australian every 6 hours.

2,000 Australians die from skin melanomas each year.

750,000 are treated for skin cancers.

Skin cancers account for 80% of all new cancers diagnosed in Australia.

These are grisly statistics.

I’m sure I’m not telling anyone here anything you don’t already know.

What health authorities are at a loss to explain is, that, while there has been a stabilising of skin cancer rates in some demographics, why is tanned skin still so socially-desirable?

In contrast, smokers and their cancer sticks are treated like social pariahs, excluded from restaurants, bars and public spaces and seen as bad parents.

But sun-bathers are still admired – even revered.

While their tanning addiction or tanorexia may not be killing others, they are certainly putting themselves at risk and putting grievous strains on our public health system at a cost of $4.5 billion a year, according to the Cancer Council.

Sun tanners are victims trapped in an unspoken deadly cultural paradox; a deeply held almost unshakeable belief that tanning makes us look more attractive, thinner, and sexier.

This view is so ubiquitous, so pervasive, it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t always think this.

But up until 100 years ago pallor was popular.

Dark-skin was associated with serfdom and toiling in the fields all day. Pale skin indicated you were from the upper classes and led a noble life of leisure indoors.

In fact many aristocrats accentuated their pale skin by applying whitening creams and treatments such as powdered white chalk, and white lead mixed with egg white and vinegar. Treatments as deadly as they sound.

The trend for whiteness came to a halt during the industrial revolution.

As rural workers downed their pitchforks and headed to the mines and factories, they moved into the shadows far away from sunlight. And any leisure time they had was spent inside so they could escape the choking smog and soot of the streets.

The lack of sunlight had health repercussions. Children developed rickets and other bone deformities from Vitamin D deficiencies.

UV rays in sunlight help our bodies manufacture Vitamin D.

Most of us only need about 5 to 15 minutes exposure to sunlight each day to produce the Vitamin D we require. (Although - as an interesting aside - dark-skinned people who have a stronger resistance to UV light need a longer exposure to get their daily dosage.)

Around the turn of the 20th century, doctors began prescribing sunbathing to their patients for a variety of ailments including tuberculosis which was the second leading cause of death in the US in the early 1900s.

A short stay at a seaside health spa or bath, soon became a new sign of wealth for the leisure class.

Here, in Australia, the sun-bathing trend was initially frowned upon.

This is an entry from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1901 head-lined;-

Disgrace at Coogee Beach’

A correspondent made strong comment regarding the behaviour of some sun bathers who visit Coogee, stating certain persons acted in such a manner as to call for the strongest protest from the public and demanded action from the authorities. About 400 men and women ‘indulged in an unrestrained sun bath. Many poses were disgusting to anyone with a true sense of propriety’.

Tanning is believed to have only become truly chic in 1903 when French fashion icon Coco Chanel returned from a Mediterranean holiday with a tan after accidentally getting sunburnt.

Her bronzed limbs set a new beauty precedent.

Many wanted to replicate her look.

But holidays were still aspirational for most people - especially during the war years.

So some women took to dousing their legs with Bovril to create the illusion of a tanned leg that didn’t need stockings - and they had a delicious beef-flavoured afternoon snack at the same time.

By the 1960s Hollywood and jet travel had made sunbathing both glamorous and accessible.

Cary Grant’s permanent radioactive glow was on every screen and billboard, and even the British working classes could afford holiday packages to Spain or Greece to copy his look.

By 2000 a survey of Britons revealed that 50% of people said that returning with a tan was the single most important reason for actually going on holiday.

Of course Australians are lucky in that respect. We don’t need to go anywhere. With our warm weather, long coastline and endless sandy beaches, tanning is accessible and easy. Deadly easy.

Here in Australia, sunburn became a glamorous symbol of the active outdoor lifestyle we all aspired to. Basted in various greases, creams and potions, pallid sun worshippers would lay prostrate, sardined into oily rows on the sand as their skin slowly cooked. 

We had become ‘A Sunburnt Country’ in a way Dorothy McKellar could not have imagined.

But in the 1980s things began to change.

Health campaigns such as Slip, slop, slap’ warned of the dangers of sunburn as sun-lovers started to become cancer statistics.

The sun was now sinister.

Sun-sinners learnt some awful truths.

Getting painful sunburn, just once every 2 years, could triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer.

Sunburn doesn’t have to be raw, peeling or blistering. If your skin has gone pink or red in the sun, it’s sunburnt.

Sunburn is caused by UV from the sun. You can’t feel UV rays –this is why people can still burn on cool days.

And tanning beds and solariums were no safer.

Sun-tan salons were banned across Australia two years ago after they were found to increase the risks of most types of skin cancer.

Sun-tan beds for private use, however, are still legal and black-market ‘backyard’ operations are flourishing.

The social site Gumtree is filled with ads from people desperate to book a session in a tanning bed as a winter pick-me-up.

Teenage boys and girls are still particularly susceptible to the bronzed myth.

23 per cent of teenagers admit to getting sunburnt on weekends compared to only 5 per cent of adults.

So, why are so many Australians still addicted to this high-risk behaviour?

Quite simply studies consistently show we all think tanned people are sexier.

We think we look healthier and more attractive when we have that ‘holiday glow’.

The media and advertising industries reinforce this belief.

And it seems no matter what your skin colour -light or dark - everyone wants to be 50 shades of brown.

In her study ‘Shades of Beauty’ Examining the Relationship of Skin Colour to Perceptions of Physical Attractiveness’, University of Missouri-Columbia researcher Dr Cynthia Frisby, found that people perceive a light brown skin tone, on white people as well as black people, to be more physically attractive than a pale or dark skin tone.

She says she is not surprised coffee-coloured actors and singers such as Halle Berry, Beyonce and Kim Kardashian currently define our 21st century notion of beauty.

Dr Frisby says we can’t fix this bias until we are made aware of it.

Matthew Harrison a doctoral student at the University of Georgia says colourism is alive and well. ‘Colourism’ was a term coined by American writer Alice Walker in 1982 to describe prejudice and discrimination based on skin pigment – or the lack of it.

And of course in many parts of the world this colourism works in reverse to the suntan myth.

The skin whitening industry is a multi-billion dollar global juggernaut. It pushes cosmetic lightening creams and products – many with unsafe mercury levels – at people with dark skin.

Consumers in Asian and African countries are often assaulted with ads depicting dark-skinned people as unhappy or disadvantaged.

The ‘Fair and Lovely’ cosmetic whitening range, which is popular in Asia, recently got itself into hot water when it launched a Facebook App that enabled users to lighten the skin tone of their profile pictures.

It seems many cultures struggle with skin colour and social acceptance.

When my family first came to Australia from South Africa little did we know that Australia had long-controlled its indigenous citizens with its own version of race segregation laws.

Most of these discriminatory laws have now largely been removed from the statute books – but how deeply do the ghosts of the White Australia Policy still haunt our subconscious?

Indigenous Australians 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.

A quarter of the inmates in our prisons and most of those in refugee detention centres have brown skin.

A co-incidence or part of a skin-colour racial bias?

It could be argued that Australia’s ‘bronzed life-saver’ ethos seems to celebrate white people with brown skin but remains a little ambivalent towards brown people with brown skin?

There have been a number of occasions where my sisters - who have slightly darker skin than I do - have experienced the daily casual racism that most pale-skinned Australians are oblivious to… taxis not stopping for them, not being served in a country pub, or a policeman once pulling my sister over while she was going for jog, after a resident reported a ‘suspicious’ character in their neighbourhood.

As a young brown-skinned girl growing up in largely-white Australia, I often came across a skin-colour majority bias when shopping.

Lingerie and undergarments were often labelled - and still today in some cases - as ‘skin-tone’ or ‘flesh-coloured’ or ‘nude’.

But whose skin-tones were these garments replicating? Certainly not mine.

The universally used Band Aid, for instance, was initially only manufactured in one colour – soft pink. The advertising described it as ‘neat, flesh-coloured, and almost invisible. But of course on my skin, pink Band-Aids stand out like a sore thumb.

18 years ago a New York entrepreneur, Michael Panayiotis, saw a yawning consumer hole in the Band-Aid market – particularly amongst African Americans. 

He created Ebon-Aid. ‘The bandage exclusively designed for people of color’. It came in shades called black licorice, coffee brown, cinnamon, and honey beige. Sadly his Band-Aid range wasn’t displayed in stores prominently enough and his Band-Aid revolution never quite took off.

It’s not surprising minorities in majority monocultures can grow up feeling they have the ‘wrong’ colour skin.

When I began presenting the news on ABC TV in the 1990s there weren’t any TV make-up foundations or powders available in Australia for my skin tone. Every brand catered for the pale skin market.

There just weren’t many non-Anglos on Australian television at that time. Actually there still aren’t.

Singer Marcia Hines was so horrified at the strange colours the makeup artists mixed and applied to my face to mimic my skin tone, that she personally brought me back some dark-skin makeup from the US during one of her trips!

Fortunately the ‘MAC’ brand and ‘Bobbi Brownmakeup brands for dark-skin are now widely available in Australia but it does make me wonder what brown-skinned Australians used before.

Reworking a line from a famous frog – being brown hasn’t always been easy’.

So, will there be a time in Australia where sun-tanning - like smoking – is seen as an anachronism of the 20th century? A pursuit that simply went out of fashion?

I don’t know.

As with the anti-smoking campaigns, scaring the public with the threat of death and disease just won’t work.

Instead, the social desirability of the behaviour has to be modified.

This requires not only clever health campaigns but the support of the media and advertising agencies not to keep promoting the suntan look’ or the suntan culture’.

A concerning finding from a recent survey I came across showed that when you remind people that tanning puts them at a higher risk to cancer, they actually want to tan more!

This is apparently because tanning boosts self-confidence and patients will unconsciously seek comfort in precisely the behaviour that puts them at risk.

I hope this doesn’t mean you’ll all be rushing off to the beach after this talk!

But I hope it does mean that you’ll leave here thinking more about how you

can love the skin you’re in – and the skin that everyone else is in.

I personally love my skin. And even if I didn’t have a genetically-enhanced Bondi tan I hope I would still love my skin whatever colour it was.

While I can’t always control how other people interact with my skin, after researching and writing this paper I have a new appreciation of how miraculous skin truly is.

I’m blessed with skin that is healthy and keeps me healthy. Shouldn’t  that be where the conversation begins and ends?

Thank you for coming along today - and for bringing your skin with you.

Thank you.

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