I was born to a very dark-skinned mother, and a very light-skinned father. Whenever my mother spoke about my birth, which happened after almost 15 hours of excruciating pain for her, she shared how her first question to the doctor hadn’t been about the sex of her child but whether I was light or dark-skinned. She used to remark proudly that she felt so happy when the doctor told her that I was light-skinned, because she didn’t want me to go through all the taunting that she had faced in her life for being dark. I would see her beam with joy whenever people used to remark that I looked exactly like my father; I also heard disparaging comments about her dusky colour, when they didn’t realize I was listening. My father tried to counteract the negative narrative, by reassuring my mother several times that he had married her primarily because he was attracted to her dark skin colour, and because her skin colour reminded him of the skin colour of South Indian Goddesses. His words would make my mother smile, which in turn would make me happy, but we could never get away from the larger negative atmosphere around her colour. This obsession with fair skin was to the extent that my grandparents had a huge problem with my parents sending me to swimming classes. They were angry because “the chlorine was making me dark.” So, swimming, an activity that I enjoyed, was stopped.
The older I grew, the more aware I became of how much being light-skinned is valued in the Indian culture. By the time I reached college, I was a few shades darker than I had been as a baby, but I was still light-skinned for the South Indian community. It shocked me to have relatives and family friends make teasing remarks about me marrying someone whom they knew in a few years, primarily because I met their skin colour requirements and came from an upper middle class family. The Fair and Lovely ads, the marital columns where grooms wanted a ‘fair, homely, cultured, etc.’ woman, the innumerable lotions that women around me applied in order to avoid getting tanned by the sun, the dire warnings that I was given about getting more tanned because of playing out in the sun- all of this increased my anger towards the prejudice that existed about dark skin colour. I remember telling my mother that I would only marry a dark-skinned man in the future because I wanted to have dark-skinned kids and make them very proud of their skin colour. My mother would laugh and tell me not to say such things (not sure whether that was the primary reason I did marry a dark-skinned man, but I definitely like to tease him about it!).
Besides being aware of skin colour politics, my concept of beauty was also influenced by experiencing fat-shaming. In my early childhood years, I was a skinny, waif-like child who often had health issues. My health improved with the birth of my sister, when I was 7 years old. My sister was my pride and joy- a companion whom I could play and go to school with. I started eating more- it was almost like my body had finally discovered how good food could be. I also started gaining weight, and filled out in certain places like my hips, thighs, and cheeks. That was when I started getting unwanted male attention, at the tender age of 8! The heckling, cat-calling, being fondled, and being grabbed- I faced these from some male passers-by, and our family doctor. For several years after these incidents, I felt guilty that maybe I was responsible for these experiences happening to me. I didn’t disclose what happened to my parents because of the shame. Additionally, I attended a convent school which didn’t do much for sex education, except scare me about the concept of sexual activities. By the time I reached high school, food had become my primary means of coping with all the stress and I had gone from being ‘chubby in a cute way’ to obese.
Along with weight gain came the resulting low self-esteem, fad diets, and never-ending advice on exercise and food habits from “well meaning” people. By the time I turned 16, right before entering college, I started wearing exclusively Indian clothes (salwar-kameez), because it hid my large body. I would always keep my hair tied up in either a ponytail or a braid with a lot of oil. Puberty pockmarked my face with acne, and my unhealthy diet eventually led to me developing PCOS (PolyCystic Ovarian Syndrome), which further ensured that the acne never reduced. I also got glasses, not the chic, cool ones but the cheapest ones that I could find (why would an ugly girl need cool glasses?). I definitely succeeded in my goal of diverting male attention away from me. Unfortunately, this also meant that I stayed single while most of my closest friends in college, whom I had always considered to be more beautiful than me because they were slim, took care of their skin, and dressed much better than me, got asked out for dates and started romantic relationships. I got obsessed with reading Mills and Boons, and watching all the sappy, romantic Bollywood movies, which further fed the notion that in order to attract a man, I needed to become slim and keep myself as light-skinned as possible.
I applied myself academically, because I was determined to not be considered “fat, ugly, and stupid.” I applied for graduate school in Psychology in the U.S., and about 6 months prior to coming here, I decided that I wanted to start life in the U.S. as a slim woman. I got into exercising and really decreased how much I was eating. As a result, by the time I got to the U.S., at the age of 22, I was quite slim. I started wearing “fashionable” clothes and was beginning to attract the attention of Indian men again. U.S. however complicated my notions of beauty further- from being considered light-skinned in India, I was now one of the darkest people in my class (I attended a predominantly White university called Boston College for my Master’s degree, and this university didn’t attract many students of colour). A lot of my White female classmates envied me for my “tan.” I also experienced racism because of my skin colour, including on occasion being mistaken for being a Middle Eastern or a Mexican woman and have people say racist and xenophobic slurs because of that. There are some who get visibly uncomfortable to be around a foreigner like me (the current political climate, under Mr. Trump, certainly fuels the xenophobia and racist tendencies!). While these experiences are certainly unpleasant, they don’t mask the larger learning that has happened because of my move here. It is in the U.S. that I confronted my own prejudices and stereotypes about what is considered beautiful. Being in the field of Psychology, I meet people of different races, colours, political beliefs, genders, etc., and my notion of what is true beauty has changed so much! I read articles and have discussions with my peers about how much beauty is defined by cultural standards and how women across the world are taught to hate their bodies rather than love them.
Today, I have my Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, and I have completed almost 10 years of living in the U.S. Looking back on my life now, I see how my socialization and prior traumatic experiences shaped what I thought was beautiful. I cannot honestly say that I completely LOVE my body now, but I have definitely reached a place of more acceptance with it. I still have PCOS, because of which my face still has acne, but it is no longer a mark of shame for me. I have gained back most of the weight that I lost in my early 20’s, because of PCOS and the experience of anxiety and depression after the death of my main support person- my mother. I continue to hear disparaging comments about my looks, from some relatives in my husband’s family and some Indians whom I have met here in the U.S. However, the love and support of my closest family members- my husband, sister, father, and in-laws- combined with the love, support, and acceptance I have received from my closest Indian and American friends, no longer make me doubt myself. I hope to have my own children one day, and I often think about what message I would want to give them if they experience the same doubts and insecurities that I have. And, in my lowest moments, I think about what one of my roommates in Boston had said to me- “Shraddha, physical looks don’t matter. It is all about how confidently you carry yourself. If you are confident, you can pull of any style, any colour, any dress, any body shape. And, you will win hearts!”
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Today Naturals Salutes the Beautiful Indian Woman.
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