Personal style accumulates -- while watching “Breakfast at Tiffany's” or studying that cool, favorite aunt. For me, everything sped up a few years ago during a visit home, when I found a red Revlon lipstick in my childhood bathroom.
Trying on the mysterious lippie felt subversive, like wearing a man's suit. It must have been left by a “local” friend, as we called the native Texans around us. I'd never seen an Indian girl sport anything but our one approved color, burgundy. (Why burgundy? I can only guess because it pairs well with the milky skin tones so many Indians aspire to have.)
I loved my face set off by firetruck red. If anything, my dark skin –- which I liked to keep bare -- seemed to make more of a statement.
After that, colors opened up to me. Yellow eye pencil, coral lip gloss. I discovered pastel pink blush, which makes me look nicely wild, like I've just stumbled out of the desert. Dark-skinned style icons also emerged, clad in color: Solange Knowles, M.I.A., and the great new Hollywood beauty, Lupita Nyong'o.
Below, some tips I've collected on how to enjoy your beauty. The biggest one: Experiment. It's a colorful world.
1. Liquid liner isn't omnipotent.
After polling a few friends, I realized -- this is a divisive issue! Some insist black eyeliner is a must for Indian girls. I'd like to propose the opposite: I like mascara with no liner, combined with a shimmery white shadow. I find it keeps my eyes looking bright even through a long day, and makes eyeliner a distinct nighttime look. A colored eye pencil, however, is lovely during the day because of the matte effect. And dark skin can really take all shades: Yellows, blues, greens and browns.
At night, kajal, aka Indian liner, makes for a sultry, earthy look (available at Indian stores or in beauty shops in a translated version, as kohl pencils). One girlfriend pointed out that smudging regular liner creates a similar effect.
Don't be afraid of a simple eye though, especially if you're wearing a standout lipstick. The Indian aesthetic is to go all out -- painted face, topped off with earrings, a necklace and two arms worth of bracelets. That's great if you're starring in a Bollywood movie, but to create drama at close quarters, contrast is key.
2. Make your brows pop with an optical illusion.
A trick I love -- echoed by one of the friends I polled -- is to dab a touch of white shadow just under the arch of the brow. Particularly on dark skin, this sets off a dramatic brow.
Sephora sells a great, fool-proof eyeshadow kit by Too Faced Cosmetics that has taught me how to achieve the mythic "smokey eye" -- which can be magical on darker skin.
3. More importantly, work with your brows, not against them.
Indians love our high-octane decimators, whether it's threading, waxing or zapping everything in sight. But I've found that putting myself in others' hands always leads to anemic brows. And this strikes me as silly. We tend to be blessed with naturally bold brows. We should work with them, not against them!
Of course, you can be your own worst enemy if you're not careful. I developed an overzealous tweezing habit in college brought on by procrastination (just one laaast pluck before I bang out a brilliant thesis!) that I thankfully kicked. These days, I tweeze those odd stray hairs and trim the tops of my longer hairs with manicure scissors for a WSJ-approved, bold-but-groomed brow.
4. What you do is not as critical as how often you do it.
It is our birthright to believe in supposedly magical home remedies. Turmeric, yogurt, oatmeal, honey, coconut oil -- like many Indian women I have worn all of these delicious food items on my head region. Do they change lives? In mine, I've found that a sense of well-being and discipline do more. Adopt a routine you can manage, don't stress too much about it, and your skin and hair will thank you.
5. Find your signature hair and stick with it.
Once again, less is more for me. I invest in paraben-free shampoos, and don't use conditioner because it weighs down my hair. Every now and then, I follow received Indian wisdom and condition my hair with coconut oil (told you so), letting it sit for as many hours as I can stand before washing it out. Who knows what long-term effects, if any, this leads to, but in cold months, it soothes a dry scalp. One friend swears by yogurt as a leave-in conditioner.
The most transformative thing though, is to identify a cut that works for your face and your lifestyle. Landing on my favorites for myself -- a jagged bob, or when long, an unlayered cut -- has simplified my life. Another destresser: Choosing not to color my greys, which trend early in my family. If you keep your hair healthy, silver on black can be stunning.
6. Don't try to lighten your skin with makeup.
The right foundation is like the holy grail, in that it's very hard to find. My personal preference is to put nothing on my face except, occasionally, a smudge of blush. I love The Multiple stick by NARS in Riviera, which doubles as blush or lipstick.
If you are going to wear a base, take time to find the shade that matches your complexion (which I guarantee is more complex than "very fair" or "dark"). Do not try to lighten your skin with makeup (or bleach, or anything). Not only does it look odd, it's entirely unnecessary. Dark skin is a generous canvas -- you can wear prints, the brightest white and every color on the planet. More importantly, you woke up like this!
7. And, of course, bag a red lipstick.
The revival of hot spectrum shades is a wonderful thing. These babies are basically made for us, and there are so many to choose from. NARS makes a great orangey-red lip color that works well in the daytime (Heat Wave). I also love Burt's Bees chapsticks for hydration with a hint of color. For a bolder look at night, I like to cut whatever I'm wearing with my old faithful, the red Revlon lipstick that snuck up on me.
*These methods work for me, but I'm only one Indian gal. I'd love to know your tried-and-true tricks -- please share in the comments!
More beauty inspiration:
Indian Beauty Icons
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post included British-born Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. in the slideshow of Indian beauty icons.