As an Indian girl growing up in Australia in the 90’s and new millennia, 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 topical 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 2 shades too light foundation, giving me that awesome ashy gray appearance. Apparently being a beautiful dancer was more than just your inherent talent.
Fast forward a few years to an impressionable 13 year old with thick long black hair all the way to my butt. And whilst Rapunzel was glorified for her lengthy mane, I was apparently 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 other 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 Azaelia Banks and Zayn malik where she hurled phrases like ‘curry scented bitch’, and ‘dirty Punjabi’ and ‘Paki’ as a means of degradation and insult.
It led to such self-loathing that I became preoccupied with ‘westernising’ my appearance, whether that be through wearing coloured contacts from time to time to feel more contextually appropriately ‘beautiful’. Or of course lathering my face with 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 tantalising. 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 Brazilian’s are. It was all social conditioning. Such priming occured even through the seemingly harmless media platforms. Like ‘The Simpsons’, where indians are painted in a comical and caricature light.
Avoiding the sun didn’t come at no cost. There was a point in my late teens where I had unexplained incredible 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, as well as needing to take specially patented Vitamin D tablets of a high dose.
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 homogenised 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 it 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.
For subcontinental people, prior to colonialism, dark skin was seen as a sign of being lower class. You see, us dark people we were the ones slaving away in the fields, the harsh sun beating down on our skin as we labored away. Melanin went cray. Being upper class meant being in the shade, sitting indoors living the cushy life, away from the UV.
Colonisation 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.
It’s an extremely empty sentiment to me, to try and exalt diversity, 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 personas in the media to serve as role models for themselves as they grew up.
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 common place, 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 normalising diversity.
They say the fashion world is quite rigid in it’s 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 pretentious and ill-informed limiting standards on physical beauty. We’ve got a long way to go but we need to start and sustain the conservation 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 😉 .
Mixed media art by Sakura Rimal