I was always the first one in line for make-up in every one of my dance performances. The make-up artists would always spend an extra 10 minutes trying to powder my ebony brown skin to an acceptable shade for the stage. I barely recognised myself under the layers of foundation. The routine humiliation I had to go through forced me to drop out of my school's annual day dances at the age of 13.
There are so many habits I have picked up over the years that stems from such insecurities. My brown skin guaranteed taunts, and nicknames, along with free and unwanted advice of ‘helpful’ organic face-packs. I have refused to make tea or coffee an everyday habit because a neighbour once warned me that it will make me darker than I already am. The shades of white or yellow or pink never sit comfortably against my skin because they reveal more than what I prefer to divulge. I have stayed away from make-up because it is next to impossible to find the right shades (unless Casper the ghost was the look I was going for).
“All teenagers struggle with how they look”,” It's normal to hate the way you look”.
The pain was normalized as an essential rite of passage. Isn’t that so incredibly sad? Children are being told that it's okay to hate the way they look. That it is okay for other people to disrespect or devalue an individual because they don’t match up to the euro-centric standard of beauty of white colonizers. Often such anxieties are dismissed as superficial or shallow even though they have real-life consequences. This systemic bias for fair skin was concealed and validated by everyone around me.
The idea of equality is often extended only to the people of the same social group- of the same race, caste, class, religion and colour. It’s hard for people to take us seriously when we exist outside their frameworks of beauty or class. There is a complete dehumanization of the person where you reduce them to nothing but an object for jokes, scorn and contempt.
When your identity isn’t recognized or even humanized, it becomes hard to think of yourself as a living breathing individual. It’s hard to take yourself seriously as a person when people don’t even want to humanize you as an individual. My inferiority complex-shaped my self-perception until I began to accept any discrimination unquestioningly. I worked hard at my studies because I wanted to command respect in some way. As a woman, my face was what determined my worth in society. I convinced myself that what the face doesn’t achieve the brain will, as if I was making up for some deficit femininity. It’s a bit sad to realize that behind the years of hard work is just unresolved insecurities trying to be kept at bay.
When I was 16, I came across Nandita Das’s interview in Tinkle. Nandita Das is this incredible woman who is an actress, director and so much more. I started to keenly follow her work and fell head over heels in love with her. For the first time, I felt seen. It felt like I mattered. She gave me the confidence to recognize colourism and stand up to it.
Standing up to one’s insecurities is tough work. Every day I had to talk myself out of negative thought spirals to value myself a bit more. I was blessed with wonderful friends who made my unlearning process easier.
©Sajjad Hussain / AFP
Having an upper hand over my emotions and decisions is very important to me. Nothing gives me as much pleasure as condensing every anxiety, decision and exercise into a mere number on a list to be struck out. Lists are just one of the many ways in which I attempt to enforce some sort of order out of the chaos. Exercise routines, skin or hair care regimes, journaling, even yoga, everything to help me balance my emotions and to teach me to like myself.
A stray comment, an odd glance or a horrible memory still has the power to bust in through the defence wall around me that forces me to acknowledge that all these routines are mere illusions to pacify myself. And that’s okay.
Illusions are beautiful. And necessary. Life is boring and cruel and I would rather see the world through my rose-tinted glasses. My illusions serve their purpose. They help me recover from a years’ worth of social conditioning that told me I wasn’t enough. When I care for my skin or body or mind, I force myself to pay attention to it. It’s a way of reaching out to those selves of mine that was forced to cower in shame because of my ill-treatment. It’s a way of dismantling the hierarchies of beauty that women are forced to comply to.
When I pay attention to them, I am taking accountability for the damage I inflicted on myself. I am trying to make peace with the parts of myself that have been mocked, devalued and unloved. Using illusions to heal is the kindest thing I have done for myself. Getting past the pain takes time, patience and a whole lot of love. Most importantly, it requires you to show up every day- maybe a bit tired, or unhappy- but you simply have to show up!
Sivakami Prasanna (she/her) is part of تحریر // Tehreer, a 6-month writing group housed within The Rights Collective which supports writers who identify as South Asian to develop their own voices in writing about social justice.