Slam poets have been using the spoken word to question politics, express identity, and connect with their audience since the mid-1980s, more than a decade before Aranya Johar was even born. But the 18-year-old performer is already making a big name for herself on the scene — not just in Mumbai, where she lives, but all over the world, as her poignant sets tackling issues like gender and misogyny go viral. In her most recent video, “A Brown Girl’s Guide to Beauty,” Johar lays bare the stereotypes and beauty standards that Indian women face, and her words are as powerful as ever.
“Since the age of 9 I’ve been slapping my face with fairness creams,” Johar’s poem begins. “Every face wash was a slap in the face because I was a skin tone which was ugly.” She goes on to talk about how the color of your skin dictates how beautiful you’re considered to be — lighter complexions are seen as more desirable and higher-class, so some Indian women spend time and money slathering themselves diligently in whitening creams to change their natural skin tone.
“We brown girls revolt against our own reflections every single time an Indian magazine puts a light-skinned girl on a cover, calling her brown,” Johar raps. “I ask my mother to get me haldi, yellow paste over yellow paste, because anything is better than brown, anything is better than dark.” (Haldi is the Indian word for turmeric, which many women use to make their skin appear brighter.) “Forget Snow White, say hello to chocolate brown,” she says. “I’ll write my own fairytale.”
Johar’s words also have a deeper meaning. “We’re all more than our coloration and body types,” she says, “’cause you and I, we’re all alike.” She’s alluding to the obsession with fair skin in India, where extensive discrimination against darker-skinned people still exists. Her message? Beauty comes in all different shapes and shades, and it’s time that society learns to love all of them.