I’m not a huge fan of the latest social media trends of idolizing once “victimized” population. Although I identify as a liberal who, as an Indian American woman, is and has always been highly conscious of the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, and every other mis- or under-represented population to an equal place of dignity in today’s society, I feel outside of the group of social justice media warriors fighting against -isms. With hashtag movements, social media activism, biased news reports, and all-out open rage, they too often use their historical oppressors’ logic and tactics in order to gain recognition and power, resulting in dividing people rather than uniting them. I do not see this as a respectable road to equality.
I have, however, found a hashtag movement that made me smile and take a moment to breathe out, “Finally. It’s not just me.”
For Indian girls, appearance is everything. I imagine it’s due to a patriarchal culture that has had arranged marriages for years, where a girl’s livelihood could be based on a stranger’s cursory glance over her height, complexion, and degree of eye contact. I do not know the pressure that girls experience in India. In my Texan childhood, my mother yanked my curly hair straight every morning, rubbed Vicco Turmeric all over my face to lighten my dark skin, and encouraged me to eat certain vegetables and light-colored foods because they would lighten my skin from the inside. The smallest pimple was overanalyzed at the dinner table, always ending with my dad wondering aloud if we need to go to a dermatologist and me yelling that Noxzema will take care of it–GAW. My mom’s Malayalam magazines advertised Fair and Lovely cream, showing a depressed dark-skinned woman wiping away the color that matched my own to reveal a happier, fairer face. If I wanted to play outside, I was told, “Not too long. There’s a lot of sun today. You don’t want to get dark.” When I fell in love with the heat of the sun and insisted on going outside before Sunday School, the other girls would complain and measure how “black” they had gotten after our walks.
For the most part, I knew that these ideals for beauty were stupid, but a teenager can only be so strong under such pressure. I got every hair straightener I could afford and ironed out my kinks for the smooth-haired, “good girl” look that my dad loved. I tried Fair and Lovely a few times, but realized it was either a sham or it was making my skin tone uneven, even uglier than just being happy with my natural color. As I matured in high school, I started feeling confident after I got compliments for my natural waves and that tan complexion that everyone wanted.
By the time I was in college, I stopped caring completely and accepted my natural look. I let my hair be curly. I read outside and soaked up the sun. Whenever I came home, my mom would complain that I looked like a dark-skinned, wild-haired gypsy, and the girls at church would comment on my dark look in a way that would have made Regina George proud. But I was happy with who I was and what I looked like. I’d shrug off the church girls and remind my mom that these are the genes she and my dad gave me, then go back outside and let my hair get tangled in the wind.
In recent years, I’ve seen a lot more of the young girls at church letting their hair stay wavy or curly. Despite attempts to bring acceptance of dark skin in the Indian community, I still see the same pressure to be fair. Which is why seeing the #UnfairAndLovely campaign made me so happy. Inspired by a group of UT students, dark-skinned South Asians are embracing the way they look on Instagram and Twitter. I no longer feel like the freak who renounced my chance at beauty to play in the sun. I’m now surrounded by a bunch of freaks.
I’m not planning on sharing my picture anywhere and joining the movement. I don’t need to. I’m not going to get angry at British colonists or light-skinned Indians or aunties or the girls at church for encouraging “colorism.” I am going to be happy that I feel a little less alone in letting my hair go frizzy and letting my melanin do its work in the summer. I will rejoice, seeing that today’s young Indian girls have more people saying it’s OK to be themselves, and go out in the sun.