I wrote this piece for my hometown community’s Indian Cultural Association of Minnesota (ICAM)’s newsletter recently. I thought that I would share it here as well.
As a young girl of color surrounded by predominantly white spaces, I was constantly shown that light skin tones and straight hair were more attractive features than darker skin tones and curly or textured hair. I remember spending days yearning for my skin to be even a shade lighter and growing annoyed with my hair. I was teased for the dark hair on my arms and legs because body hair could not be seen on my white peers. Every tween girl was straightening her hair for hours before coming to school every day, and the message that boys only liked girls with straight hair spread like wildfire. I wanted a flat iron so desperately because I felt as though I were already losing in other respects: my shoulders were too broad from competitive swimming, my nose was too large, my hair was too thick for a hair tie, and I had brown skin.
In addition to the unhealthy beauty standards that continue to plague the media even now, young girls of color must overcome insecurities based on their skin tones and dark hair. Racism in predominantly white countries, such as the United States, is one issue, but importance exists in acknowledging the blatant colorism practiced in India. As stated previously, interacting with some of my white peers provided little relief, but the advertisements for Fair & Lovely that I would see on the television screen during my visits to India did not help either. I am sure that colonization and the power structures that resulted from it have some influence on why fairness is redeemed, but the lack of action in dismantling this view is harmful. I was constantly comparing myself to even my friends of color who had lighter skin than I did because of this, and through the conversations that I have had with many of my South Asian friends as we have grown older, I realized that we all had these insecurities when we were younger.
We shifted our perceptions of beauty and culture to accommodate our white counterparts and internalized the racism that prompted us to do so. At a certain point, one gives into the pressure to fit a mold that makes everyone else feel comfortable and the microaggressions just fly over their head. On occasion, I asked my white friends in high school about how they perceived me when we met. Did my brown skin and Indianness stand out to them the most? As much as they said that they noticed details of my personality above all else, I could sense that these physical and cultural differences were aspects that they would never understand. This does not have to be a barrier, but for a teenage girl, it can certainly feel like one.
Becoming an adult and building more diverse community in college were the early steps in deconstructing the perceptions that I had of myself. I met so many friends, white and nonwhite, who had genuine intentions and embraced every aspect of a person wholly. I placed myself in more spaces of color and we bonded over our experiences within predominantly white institutions. We also realized how greatly the tables had turned. Suddenly, every sorority girl wanted to be as tan as possible, and all of my friends were telling me how much they loved my thick, curly hair and dark eyebrows. I noticed how much I glowed during the summertime, and I never had to worry about sunburns. Throughout high school and even more so in college, I started using products that worked for my hair, and the moments during which I yearned for my hair to be straight slipped away from me.
I wish that I could give my younger self a hug and tell her that her brown skin and dark hair are assets. The little girl who felt insecure in her skin is unrecognizable now. I have always been proud of my heritage, but I did not know how to wear it confidently when met with classes and extra-curricular activities where everyone looked similar, and I stood out from them. Of course, I still find myself in predominantly white spaces given my career and location, but I now view these aspects of my identity as my superpowers. I care less about how I am perceived and more about the messages that young girls of color receive when they watch a show or scroll through social media. Most children of color have been bullied based on their skin tones at some point in their lives and while eradicating this is a feat within itself, we should embrace the responsibility of empowering these kids when they are in these situations in the meantime. Consistently being surrounded by light skinned or white individuals has a greater impact on a growing child’s psyche than one expects, and while we cannot always help this, we can push them to internalize pride for their brown skin and culture.
I urge readers to reflect on the racism and colorism that they have unintentionally internalized and unpack these views as soon as they are able. The experiences that I have outlined here are similar to those of many other individuals who were raised in predominantly white countries, and we are finally at a point in which we can change this narrative.