As an Indian girl growing up in Australia in the 90s and the 2000s, establishing my identity was not an easy task. I felt as though there was a tug of war between my ethnic background and cultural affiliation to India, and the comparatively "progressive" Western environment within which I was raised in Australia. Funnily enough, skin colour and ethnicity remained an issue throughout my childhood, but it came from both sides.
I don't know what your childhood was like, but I would say mine was different to most. I didn't get to play in the sun as much. I wore that dorky hat with a flap at the back most of primary school, sat in the shade and wore skivvies under my shirts in the summer months. I didn't want my mum to scold me for getting too black before my dance concerts. Not that it mattered anyway -- I was always painted with two-shades-too-light foundation, giving me that awesome ashy grey appearance. Apparently being a beautiful dancer required more than just your inherent talent.
I didn't want my mum to scold me for getting too black before my dance concerts. Not that it mattered -- I was always painted with two-shades-too-light foundation...
Fast forward a few years to an impressionable 13 year old with thick, long, black hair all the way to her butt. But whilst Rapunzel was glorified for her lengthy mane, I was prime comedic fodder for high school bullies. I was mocked, compared to a mop and of course considered a "curry muncher". In a world where being blonde and leggy with bigger boobs made you inherently hotter, I was the complete antipode of this "ideal" with my long jet-black locks, dark skin, "curvier" frame and at the time 10B (pushing it) breast size. These physical traits, combined with my Indian origin, basically branded me asexual. I was immediately sidelined and confined to the Asian stereotype of a nerd, not the subject of 13-year-old male fantasies (my moustache probably didn't help). There were negative connotations to the word "curry" or "Indian". This theme, unfortunately, seems to have transcended the decades, recently highlighted in the Twitter feud between Azealia Banks and Zayn Malik, where she hurled phrases like "curry-scented bitch", "dirty Punjabi" and "Paki" as a means of degradation and insult.
[I]f someone even suggested I was of a background other than Indian, such as Brazilian, I instantly felt 100 times better
It led to such self-loathing that I became preoccupied with "westernizing" my appearance, whether that be through wearing coloured contacts from time to time to feel more contextually and appropriately "beautiful", or, of course, slathering my face with cream from the pretty pink tube of Fair and Lovely in the hope my skin would magically get "fairer", like Snow White. (ironically she was my least favourite princess, Jasmine FTW). The colour brown was just not exciting or tantalizing. It also led to a deliberate dissociation from my ethnic background, whereby if someone even suggested I was of a background other than Indian, such as Brazilian, I instantly felt 100 times better and would wear this statement with pride. It was strange, because it's not that Indians aren't beautiful, and Brazilians are. It was all social conditioning. Such priming occurred even through seemingly harmless media representations of Indians, such as in The Simpsons, where they were caricatured or painted in a comical light.
Avoiding the sun didn't come without a cost. There was a point in my late teens where I had incredible and unexplained fatigue. I was so exhausted, and blood tests revealed critically low levels of vitamin D. In a rather hilarious exchange, my GP asked mum if she had me under house arrest. It was interesting how openly she disclosed, without blinking an eyelid, that she didn't want me going in the sun too much. My GP put his pen down, and scornfully looked up. "You know she is already brown, don't be ridiculous Mala." I was prescribed to sit in the sun, every morning and afternoon, for 20 minutes, and to swallow specially patented vitamin D tablets of a high dose.
Avoiding the sun didn't come without a cost. I had incredible and unexplained fatigue... blood tests revealed critically low levels of vitamin D.
My fatigue resolved, puberty finished (thank god), and I came out the other end a bit better for wear. But the assault didn't stop there. I started receiving comments such as:
"You're actually pretty for an Indian chick."
"She's a pretty girl but she's dark."
"You're like that exotic kinda hot, like atypically beautiful."
A patient also referred to me as a "black beauty". I forgave them, given they fell into the geriatric demographic, but all I could think of was how it'd be a great name for a horse running in the Melbourne Cup.
Mum always said beauty was in the eye of the beholder, but I increasingly found this to be untrue. That society had dictated to me from a very young age exactly what being beautiful meant. And I didn't tick all the boxes. Both in the eastern world and western world. Society's portrayal of what it meant to be beautiful was more homogenized than the milk I had every morning.
Such limiting ideals driving beauty standards around the world pervade the minds of girls growing up -- at least they did for me. And though Australia is supposedly founded on these principles of tolerance, anti-discrimination, multiculturalism, there is a clear difference between the reality and our projected ideals. And such discrimination, whilst it may not seem overt or malicious, is real and it's coming from both sides.
You see, us dark people were the ones slaving in the fields, the harsh sun beating down on our skin as we laboured away. Melanin went cray.
For subcontinental people, prior to colonialism, dark skin was seen as a sign of being lower class. You see, us dark people were the ones slaving in the fields, the harsh sun beating down on our skin as we laboured away. Melanin went cray. Being upper class meant being in the shade, sitting indoors living the cushy life, away from the UV.
Colonization didn't really improve this mentality. White-skinned Brits were now sitting at the top of the hierarchy. This concept of White as synonymous with success and superiority was therefore further reinforced, even more so with their social, political and economical influence and reach.
And so the White ideal of beauty became pervasive throughout our media. Creating a climate of constrained and unattainable ideals of beauty for many Asian women, like myself. It was this odd pressure to remain "exotic, but also not too exotic or different so as not to be unattractive by Caucasian standards of beautiful.
Trying to exalt diversity is an extremely empty sentiment to me, when it is so lacking in the reality of our media and in the fashion world. The evidence clearly favours the portrayal of more diverse models in fashion campaigns. It has been shown in labels such as Abercrombie and Fitch and Topshop to increase sales. Labels such as Balmain and Yeezy led by the creative direction of (Black) men, Olivier Rousteing and Kanye West, describe deliberately choosing models of varying shapes and ethnicities. Their decisions were influenced by the lack of any relatable personalities in the media to serve as role models for themselves as they grew up.
Trying to exalt diversity is an extremely empty sentiment to me, when it is so lacking in the reality of our media and in the fashion world.
Perhaps of greater note was the recent Burberry campaign featuring UK Punjabi model, Neelam Gill. She was the first Indian model to feature in a major high fashion editorial for such a notable brand. Burberry's creative director even made her skin darker for the shoot. And whilst she is paving the way for such events to become commonplace, her interviews highlight that no-one is immune to this experience of young Asian women feeling inadequate, told actively and passively throughout society that they do not measure up to the beauty ideal.
It's a start to slowly see emerging figures in the media that I can identify with. Women like Neelam Gill, Mindy Kaling, Priyanka Chopra, movements such as the "Unfair and Lovely" campaign -- it's all slowly raising awareness about the primitive nature of judging beauty on the fairness of one's complexion. But I want to be around to witness the fashion revolution whereby diversity is whole-heartedly embraced. A token Asian woman on the catwalk doesn't suddenly make a brand progressive or culturally sensitive. And many brands are yet to understand this and take the leap towards normalizing diversity.
I really, truly love [my complexion] now. If for no other reason than that it makes my teeth look super-duper pearly white.
They say the fashion world is quite rigid in its ethos and catwalk clientele, that their approach is formulaic in many ways to preserve the "art" of fashion. Similarly, the mentality of the older generation of subcontinental people has been brushed off for years as "that's just how they are." But I still believe we need to be actively rejecting these ill-informed, limiting standards of physical beauty. We've got a long way to go but we need to start and sustain the conversation to break this social conditioning.
It's taken a while for me to embrace my darker complexion and everything that comes with it. But I really, truly love it now. If for no other reason than that it makes my teeth look super-duper pearly white. Which keeps my dentist happy.
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