I may find my childhood pictures embarrassing now, but there was a time, not so very long ago, when 10-year-old Izzah would confidently pose in whatever she was wearing. I was firm in my conviction that I could get whichever white boy band member I had a crush on at the time, to instantly fall head over heels for me.

If you lay out a timeline of all of my pictures ever taken -up until the one I took just before I sat here to write this down- they tell a story of how my confidence in my appearance ebbed and flowed. You would be able to pinpoint exactly when I started idolizing the western beauty ideals perpetuated by content I consumed and people around me.

When you are young and your perception of beauty has not yet been warped by mass media, you tend to primarily associate beauty with love. Your mother is beautiful when she fries a generous handful of samosas for you and asks how your day at school was. Your father is beautiful when he colorfully narrates his childhood to you over a cup of overly sweet chai and you are careful not to burn your tongue. Your Nana Abu is beautiful when he asks about your childhood friend every time you go visit him, you don’t talk to her anymore but hers is the only name he remembers so you tell him she’s doing well. Your brother is beautiful when he splits a Dairy Milk and gives you the bigger half. This innocuous perception of love intersecting with beauty is tarnished over time. The decay in our worldview begins when we are exposed to media telling us beauty can only look a certain way.

The earliest memory I have of not feeling pretty is when I would read about female protagonists who were described as effortlessly gorgeous, with long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a slender figure. I would contrast it to the description of the frumpy side character who was short, chubby, dark-haired, with glasses and crooked teeth. The latter would closely match how I would describe myself as a character in a novel. The awkward-looking side characters would never go on adventures or fall in love or have a compelling personality. They existed solely to make the lead look even better by comparison, and for the longest time as we consumed western media, my friends and I felt like the side characters of our own stories. There were countless movies and TV shows revolving around a predominantly white, conventionally attractive cast. I have vivid memories of sitting in groups at lunchtime, as early as seventh grade, lamenting our heritage. No “oceanic depths” in our eyes and no “golden halos” in our hair, we would talk about the parts of ourselves we would love to change.

The lack of South Asian representation on screen had desi girls trying to contort themselves to live up to white beauty standards. I saw my friends repeatedly give themselves chemical burns in efforts to dye their hair lighter, wear contacts that made their eyes water but their irises appear a stark icy blue, bleach their skin (which was often encouraged by a supportive mother or aunt), and even go as far as to try to lose their Pakistani accent when they conversed in English. Seeing my peers so viciously build barricades over all the roads that could link them to their birth culture and people instilled an inferiority complex in me about my heritage that I had to spend multiple years to unlearn.  I too once dreamed of cutting all ties with my country and for the longest time regretted not being born into a white family.

Body hair was another major facet in my journey of acceptance. Being South Asian I was genetically predisposed to a greater amount of darker, more visible body hair. I was subject to waxing since I was eleven, before which I remember thinking women don’t grow underarm hair, because I had spent all my life having never seen armpit hair on a woman anywhere, from animated characters in TV shows to movies of shipwrecked castaways where the female lead would always be hairless. Even women around me never let themselves wear anything that would show off their body hair in-between waxing sessions, lest they be thought of having “let themselves go”. All this because “log kia kahen gai?”

“What will people say?”

An avid propellant of this beauty ideal has been brown aunties with their unsolicited comments on our appearances, who instill the belief of our self-worth being inherently tied to our appearance from a very tender age. I have a vivid memory of being 10 years old and having a random auntie get in the elevator with me, and proceed to spend the duration of our descent from the 8th Floor of my apartment building asking me what those stains on my face were — freckles, auntie — and start listing off whitening creams with bleaching agents that would help “fix” my face. A 30-second interaction with a total stranger was all it took for me to gain a whole new insecurity.

Being portrayed as the side character and the second choice for decades of cinema really took a toll on the way people of color perceived themselves. Decolonizing my definition of beauty has not been easy, and there are days when I have to actively work to remind myself that my body is just a vessel and my “beauty ideals” are attained by millionaires and celebrities after copious amounts of Facetune and cosmetic surgery. Flaunting these images as normal to expect of puberty, down the throats of impressionable young children, gives girls and boys a warped expectation of what normal bodies and faces look like. Hiring twenty-something actors to play high school children may seem innocuous enough in the moment, but the lasting impact it could have on the body image of the target demographic of a show is often swept under the rug.

Our female ancestors were not able to inherit land, wealth or even pass on their last names to us. It would only take three generations for their ancestry and familial ties to be forgotten completely, their identities dissolved in their marital vows. All we have that ties us to the resolute, tenacious women that came before us, are our features. The pigment of our skin, the folds of our body. We wear our heritage on the crevices of our face, the least we can do is learn to wear it with unapologetic pride.

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  • Izzah Khan

    Izzah Khan is a Pakistan-based freelance writer who is very opinionated and often finds herself launching into politically charged tirades about lived experiences and an ever-growing list of interests. Current passions include climate advocacy and desi indie music.