Unlearning my experiences as a South Asian woman

Growing up, summers meant time with family in India. During the day I would visit different relatives’ houses, eating delicious, fresh food and various temples around Chennai. It’s a city in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, where my parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents were born and raised — and where I’ve always felt safe, loved, and wanted. 

In the evenings, I would watch television with my grandmothers. In between Tamil shows like Kolangal and Manaivi (Indian dramas and soap operas), commercials from “Fair and Lovely” (now called “Glow & Lovely” after discriminatory controversy) would appear on the screen. In them, a well-known Indian actress shared how Fair and Lovely cream had changed her life for the better by making her more fair skinned. With regular use, the commercials intimated that she had more professional opportunities, friends, and romantic interests. Actresses and actors like Priyanka Chopra and Shah Rukh Khan appeared on the screen. I wanted to be just like them — yet here they were telling me the life I wanted was inaccessible to me because of my skin color, which was already a topic of conversation among my family.

During those summers in India, my relatives would make comments on “how dark” I had gotten in America. They would ask if I was wearing bronzer, went tanning, or spent too much time outdoors. Some even told my parents that I would be prettier if I were more fair. Only I loved the sun: the way it felt, the warmth of its rays. After all, I was outside playing and being a child. I couldn’t understand why that was a problem. 

Equally confusing was growing up in Portland, Oregon, where my predominantly white peers envied my skin tone but none of the features that come with having brown skin: my curly hair, big eyes, and prominent nose. I’ll never forget the seemingly innocent laughs and smiles while classmates compared the color of their arms with mine, saying, “Look, I’m almost as dark as you.” Or if I happened to leave my hair natural, “Is that your real hair? How did you get it like that?” as their hands reached towards my head. I never knew whether to take these comments as a genuine compliment or veiled criticism. I never saw peers with hair like mine, and still feel a pang of jealousy when I think of all the girls with wavy or straight hair who could toss it over their shoulders effortlessly. 

It didn’t help that there weren’t many role models or representatives for brown girls in American culture. There was Kelly Kapoor from The Office, but everyone found her irritating. As a result, like many South Asian girls, I found that I was expected to fit into one of three boxes: nerdy, weird or awkward, since this is how we were depicted in the media. Then within the South Asian community, I was often told I was ‘whitewashed’ and not ‘Indian enough’ compared to my Indian peers. 

So I straddled two worlds: one where I was surrounded by people who looked like me and another where almost no one looked like me. In both of them, I still was deemed too foreign. I always felt that I couldn’t fit into either group — and I hated that I knew I needed a sense of belonging, which I found through straightening my hair and wearing makeup that fit with the current trends, even if it didn’t fit with my personal taste. 

This lasted until I returned to India again in December of 2017. My cousin and her friends, the warmest, most genuine people I’ve ever met, encouraged me to embrace the intangible. They were less concerned with people’s looks and more on their characters and how they treated others. Not once did my cousin and her friends judge others on their appearance: what they wore, the designer brands they owned, or the type of makeup they acquired. It was refreshing. They loved me for how they felt being around me. They embraced my natural self — the one behind the layers of makeup and straightened hair and latest fashions. 

As a result, I’ve learned to love instead of judging myself. I try to enhance the “me” deep down instead of covering her up. I’ve started embracing my strong Tamil features: my warm chocolate brown eyes, my cheekbones, my prominent nose, jet black curly hair with a mind of its own, and skin that glows in the sun. My confidence deepens during the moments I’m told that I look like my mom, or my grandma, and I see the way their faces light up when I receive such a compliment. I remember who I am, and where I come from with the ability to see the resemblance in my face, and different family member’s faces while I flip through old photo albums that haven’t been touched for years. My appearance is an ode to my family history, my past, and my heritage from Tamil Nadu. What could be more beautiful than that? 

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