“Pick the person in the room you find the most attractive.”
Club initiations can range from truly terrifying to truly weird. After interview questions about my qualifications for joining the board of the club, I was told I had received the position. However, before I could truly celebrate, I discovered that there was one more thing I had to do and that it would be the most challenging demand of all: determining who was the fairest one of them all.
Are there any women of color in the room? Should I pick someone I know? Why did I choose the white woman, even if her makeup really was that perfect?
When I think of beauty, my first thought goes to race. My history of associating beauty with whiteness has been complicated and negative.
The problem started with being one of exactly three non-white people in my high school, which was more Mean Girls than High School Musical. Except there weren’t so many cliques. There was just one: the blonde volleyball girls.
Being the 5-foot-1-inch, size 8, Indian-American girl I was, let’s just say that would have been a difficult clique for me to join. Although I couldn’t grow a few inches overnight (and blonde would clash terribly with my skin tone), I realized that there was one thing I could do: excel in makeup.
The summer before my junior year, I replaced my glasses and natural look with contacts and makeup.
My armor was long eyelashes and clear skin. To this day, I can put on liquid eyeliner with both my eyes closed. I sauntered into my first class ready to have all eyes on me, ready for my Mia Thermapolis Princess Diaries moment.
Unfortunately, though, my life isn’t a movie. No one seemed to notice the change, and no one fell to their knees in acknowledgment of my newfound beauty.
I can’t really explain why I took this so personally. I think it’s because I consider myself to be hard-working. I liked the idea of working toward being the most beautiful version of myself. But no amount of work I put into my beauty routine—no amount of winged eyeliner, glittering eyeshadow, or NYX lipstick—could make me the epitome of beauty because no amount of makeup could make me white.
Maybe the reason I felt like people weren’t attracted to me wasn’t directly tied to my race. It’s nice to know that people judged me the same, with or without makeup. But even so, the unyielding truth of white beauty had been solidified for me simply because I didn’t look like my school’s ultimate standard of beauty, or anyone else at my school at all.
In my junior year, after dealing with the stress of SATs and the inauguration of a new president, my AP Language class did a segment on beauty. I was asked to bring in pictures of people I believed were beautiful. I chose photos of Matt Bomer, Ian Somerhalder, and Taylor Swift. Besides all being mediocre singers, they had one thing in common: pale skin and blue eyes.
As beautiful as they all are, I finally realized that seeing “white” as the ideal in every movie I saw, every book I read, and every musician I listened to was taking a toll that was more than skin-deep.
I think it’s important to note, however, the degree of privilege I have for the ways my appearance does correspond to Eurocentric beauty standards. My hair is soft and wavy, my skin tone just light enough to be considered “worthy” of foundation products. The journey to seeing my beauty was easier than it may be for some—but that doesn’t mean my insecurities don’t reflect a larger cultural problem.
In India, a popular cream called “Fair and Lovely” has only one purpose: lightening skin. When I first heard about that concept, I was shocked and saddened by the immense social pressures young women felt that compelled them to alter their skin. When I recognized how un-ideal my beauty was compared to global Western standards, I started to understand why. If I had lived in India, where such a practice is more widely accepted, I’m almost certain I would’ve caved.
Fixing beauty standards is not going to stop hiring discrimination or hate crimes. Fixing beauty standards is not going to solve mass incarceration of people of color. Fixing beauty standards won’t prevent me from being stopped at TSA for the fiftieth time. But I don’t think I would be able to talk about how race has impacted my life without acknowledging how societal expectations of beauty have changed the way I see myself. They force a perception of inferiority onto me by the person whose opinion matters most: myself.
College has allowed me to change some of those toxic messages, little by little. It’s not hard to watch the student-run Diamante fashion show and be completely in awe of the models’ dark beauty. Living in the Justice & Diversity in Action Living Learning Community, which is majority women of color, it’s impossible not to recognize my floormates’ inner and outer beauty. Being surrounded by the beauty I never seemed to see in myself showed me that beauty really could be in the eye of the beholder—and that I could be a sight to behold myself.
When I painted a portrait of myself during Shades of Saxa, a retreat for women of color, I saw that my skin color was not that of dirt and sadness. It was magic. It was chocolate and caramel, sunsets and warmth. There was no need for me to add another dash of white paint, no reason to feel like I was any less beautiful of a painting.
There is also more to being beautiful than being attractive. I’ve realized I will never be beautiful to some, but also I’ve come to see how much the other parts of me matter: my creativity, my curiosity, my compassion. I don’t need a Western-centric ideal of beauty to tell me whether or not I am worth loving—when I am able to see it in myself, every other part of me becomes more beautiful. Maybe I’ll even take up volleyball.
“Pick the person in the room you find most attractive.” Even if I have lots of conditioning to undo, even though my type of beauty may never be conventional, I know that, at least someday, I’ll pick myself.