How My Race Affected My Self Image

It’s nothing new to say that a woman’s value is often reduced down to her looks in a society obsessed with the perfect and, more recently, with the surgically and photographically enhanced.

But where’s the fun in looking over your tank top covered in crumbs at Gigi Hadid’s flawless bikini body, when you want to feel like the reincarnation of 2002 Britney Spears strutting down the aisles of your local Sainsbury’s? It’s not hard to see how witnessing a stream of Amazonian-like perfection leads to us wanting to replicate it, but what if you just can’t? Not because you can’t be bothered to go to the gym, or to die your hair, but because you were born the wrong colour.

Let’s go back to the late nineties; when people who weren’t characters from Of Mice and Men wore dungarees, crimpers were a thing and Peter Andre still wore his hair like this – strong look Pete.Little me sat in her room playing with her Barbie doll, my favourite toy as it happens, wondering her hair wasn’t poker straight and bleach blonde like Barbie. I didn’t notice how significantly different Barbie was to me until later, but the message stuck – if she’s beautiful and I don’t look like her then I’m not.

Surely not, you say: a child’s mind needs repetition to internalize a thought like that.

Well, that’s exactly what I got: a barrage of validation all affirming the message that a piece of plastic generated – ‘brown isn’t beautiful’. Like a real-life Dorian Grey for every piece of evidence I collected that supported it, I became uglier and the Barbie now sitting in my cupboard, long ago abandoned for a tamagotchi, became more beautiful.

It’s not like anyone told me I was ugly, it’s more what was left unsaid and unrepresented in relation to brown and South Asian beauty. None of the princesses in my books were brown and beautiful – and even now the ethnic princesses appear tokenistic. No one on the front of glossy fashion magazines was brown and beautiful, and where most of my schoolmates could dress up as anything they wanted for World Book Day, I spent hours searching for a character that looked like me, only to find my appearance was much more suited to witches than to princesses. I always got cast as the evil characters in my school plays, and maybe it was because I was good at playing them, but I feel as though I was victim to a deeper narrative of typecasting; surely not all pale skinned girls are better at playing the angel in that year’s Nativity Play? What are the odds?

The internalization of ‘brown isn’t beautiful’ came, undoubtedly, from a lack of representation in the media. In 2014, Harpers Bazaar and Vogue UK featured exactly zero women on colour on their front pages. Fast forward to February 2015 and Jourdan Dunn becomes the first women of colour in twelve years to have a solo front cover with Vogue UK since Naomi Campbell in 2002. London fashion week this spring featured had, on average, only 4% of all its models being of Asian descent – on the flipside, 84% of models were Caucasian.

Nowadays it seems the beauty of South Asian culture is riper for appropriation over representation in Western media. Picking and choosing the bits that can be made trendy, and ignoring the rich culture and the ancient traditions they were born from. Even in this case, Major Lazer’s Lean On video, Indian women are used as props in a song that uses the setting of Mumbai as an aesthetic gimmick. Maybe this just comes down to society’s fetish for the intricate and the perfect, but in packaging another culture up and putting a bow on top for public consumption, we’re guilty of treating what we know of South Asian culture as a bit of exoticism – a throwback to colonialism. We’re ‘othering’ it, peering at it like Dudley Dursley at the zoo pressing his florid face to the glass – heaven forbid we lean too far and fall into the tank, to actually live it.

So the message broadcasted is clear: ‘brown isn’t beautiful’. But how does that translate to the self-esteem of the millions of people whose looks it invalidates?

Internally, we bear the scars of existing in a society whose binary beauty standard will never recognise us, and we strive to meet it – despite knowing that it’s impossible for us to reach. What’s the point in making an effort with your appearance when you’ll never look like a glistening emblem of the divine? No matter how much you change yourself, you’ll never be conventionally beautiful, and that hurts.

With that in mind many South Asian women set about changing themselves, through removing every last bit of unwanted hair or using skin-bleaching products to lighten up their complexion. The bottom line is that these women – consciously or not – feel so undervalued for what they are, that they’re willing to de-ethnicise themselves to meet beauty standards. Spending hundreds or even thousands of pounds in doing this and risking skin damage – not to mention the pain of all that hair removal – for what? Barbie doll branded perfection, without the packaging.

We’re forced to listen to dialogues, from Eastern and Western perspectives, telling us that lighter skin is better. The caste system in India, compounded with its colonial legacy, reinforce ties between lighter skin and higher social status, meaning that the beauty standards in the subcontinent are skewed towards lighter skinned, more European-looking women. I’ve seen older women in my family sit under parasols and cover up on vacation to avoid a dreaded tan. More shockingly is that it’s not uncommon for those same women to warn me about ‘getting too dark’ before I go abroad to preserve my fair skin. It’s a mindset that is propagated even within my own race; where is the refuge or the validation when an aversion to dark skin comes from all angles?

I’m not saying that other women don’t feel under pressure from the same norms, but the closer one is to the ideal the less you feel obliged to change yourself. Your colour places a gulf between you and conventional icons of beauty, more than your hair, your weight or stature ever can. Try as you might, you cannot change it; and how devastating that anyone thinks they ought to.

The contrast of South Asian appearances against Western and Eastern beauty standards leads to us being consigned to the exotic or ignored all together. So how do we tell ourselves that brown is beautiful when we are running against the tide of what’s represented in the media and fed to us within our own cultures?

Awkwardly I don’t know how to answer that question. All I ask is that we start with ourselves: be happy with ourselves, appreciate our natural complexion, believe in its beauty and believe that brown is beautiful – that seems like a good place to start.

Follow Rupen on twitter: @Rup_Kal & find her blog here

Illustration: Alessandra De Cristofaro