To All the White Boys I’ve Ever Loved Before, Don’t get too cocky — not everything is about you. I am writing this to you because my grievances have everything and, ultimately, nothing to do with you. I mean, you’re a pretty great place to start, if anything, so I’ll give you that. There’s power in inciting a woman to look at herself as a young girl again.
You know, usually I would start with something dramatic. Perhaps a description of myself peering into the mirror, gazing at my own eyebrows, invoking images of my ancestors who flared in North Indian summers with black tendrils on their heads and bodies. But honestly, at the end of the day, this is about keratin cells growing profusely on my body and the other things they have carried. You, and the conceptions of beauty you have been known to prefer, started a battle between me and these things on my body, and have made South Asian girls like me prone to a shortage of self-pride and a greater need for validation, often from people like you. So I think it’s time you face the monsters in our bellies.
By the time that I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, I knew my plight, this horrible condition that my too-rich genes from India had plagued me with: I was hairy. Like, “Hey, what’s that fuzz above your lips?” hairy. You see, I wasn’t self-aware enough to see it on my own — I did have other things to worry about, like doing our math assignment all by myself during class even though we were partners, just to impress you while you goofed around.
But there was something I was prematurely aware of, even without you having to explicitly point it out to me: I was lesser than the girls in class who were your color, at least in your eyes. And you, the very demographic I was trying to draw the gaze of, would never see me like them. Not with my wild, flying-withoutany-wind mane and the “fuzz” on my face. How does an elementary school boy discern these things as dirty already? Your culture must do a very good job of conditioning you. What with the centuries of colonialism and their deeply lasting standards of Eurocentric beauty, I’m hardly surprised that your parents didn’t teach you better. (C’mon, PTA moms.)
So I wore my hot pink Justice tank tops, unmindful of these budding armpits overly-eager for puberty, and you crushed on the next Madison or Jessica. What’s the big tragedy, you little brown snowflake? You’re right — there is no tragedy. You see, I’m a woke young South Asian woman proudly, wildly claiming her identity, who is way, way past concerns of unibrow shadows and unshaved legs almost as hairy as the next dude. I embraced my features long ago, am proud of my hairiness — it’s given me this thick mane that plausibly sheds more than it grows — and I own that.
That is, of course, until I am pointed out. By a male or, especially, by a white male. And when that happens, I realize my pride and self-love has been crafted with some fragility. It is fragile because I still give you the power to make me question it; we, as women of color, tend to hand you the power you expect from us. We have a history of craving your attention, and you have one of subordination and selective attention dispersal (as long as we are somewhat in the background and are “pretty for an Indian,” of course).
It’s ridiculous that I can be reduced to the excessively selfconscious pubescent I was years ago with just a few superficial words from you. It begs the question — what has changed in these last phases of my life if I feel no different at the plight of your casual comments on my face and body than when I was nine years old and helpless? That I go to the neighborhood Indian aunty-run salon every few weeks? Well, duh, but I mean internally.
I’ve seen the latest Instagram posts, those eyebrows painted on so heavy that they threaten to merge with nearby hairlines. Sure, they’ve given me a lot of validation. I was once ashamed of the (occasionally Siamese) twins on my forehead, but seeing Vogue models with fashionable caterpillars adorning their faces have helped me embrace my own. What’s not to love about your features when suddenly everyone wants to rock them? It’s been a joy going from wanting to slash my eyebrows into skinny arches to indulging flattery on how they’re “goals” from my white peers.
No, seriously. It feels good when other people accept you (“you” being your features, when everyone around you sees you for them) when the objects of their flattery have only brought you shame and self-erasure for so long. But it’s just a trend. It’s white girls getting henna at cultural fairs and wearing lehengas and saris in the latest Instagram post from Vogue India. It’s pretty cool that our ethnic paraphernalia is being appreciated by those other than us (cultural appropriation discussion aside for now). Yet when those features are located on us, on our very bodies, trends do nothing. Even if we jump on the bandwagon of the most transient trends in beauty, we aren’t the ones who run it, and once white brands and faces and media are done with us, we South Asian women won’t be carried along — and then where will our absolute source of aesthetic subsistence come from?
Maybe you’ve realized by now: this angstily-penned letter, with 19 years’ worth of pent-up emotions, was never for the white boys, just sparked by them. It’s really for you brown girls. It’s for you beautiful brown girls, naturally hairier than other girls (and sometimes even non-brown guys). I wanted to say this to you because I thought we could sort this out together
The kind of external validation that online trends or cultural spotlights give us are definitely elevating — there’s no doubt about that. But I can’t say this in a less profound or affected way: there is no substance to validation if it doesn’t come from within ourselves first. I know that’s easy to say — I have definitely capitalized upon the (pruned and hand-picked) rage over our features as well. Let’s be honest; when for the first time in your life, (circa 2015) those same people that casually belittled the way you look were suddenly fawning over you and expressing envy of the results from your latest trip to the salon, your first reaction wasn’t anger, it was an exulting flare of the ego. But I’ll warn you — that flare, once you first get a taste of it, can easily become parasitic, feeding on affirmation from others and turning fragile without it.
Once the idea that features like mine and other South Asian girls had a shot at being appreciated by those beside others within our teeming but limited community struck, I felt unhindered. In the world of online presence and celebrities craving eyebrows like mine — I bloomed! I was ethnic and aesthetically allowed to be (in part due to my relatively lighter skin tone). I was fierce and brown but not, you know, barbaric. Other people were spending hours on makeup tutorials to swell their forehead wisps, while our genes had been churning for centuries with these full, binary beauties. And other once-shunned parts of my body were no longer unpresentable: suddenly, Instagram users that documented feminine legs not shaved for years popped up, and I happily hit “follow.” I could really love just being me, naturally, now.
Well, easier said than done.
The problem is that even now if you look for “thick eyebrows” online (yes, I have tried), you’ll find mostly white models or actresses flaunting them, and maybe the occasional lottery-winning brown YouTube makeup artist. The universification of our features has allowed this picking and choosing; sure, it might be easy to warmly tolerate un-bare armpits when they are adorned by Madonna or Miley Cyrus, in the name of edgy white feminism. But most of the fans of these “trends” are not going to fall head over heels when it’s an eastern dark-skinned 12-year-old, yet to pay heed to the lack of emptiness between her eyebrows, or love how our arms look if we’ve never waxed them, and hence, no longer have the just refined enough ethnic look. I mean, when we do the same thing as Madonna and Miley Cyrus, it’s not “edgy.” It’s just that kind of low bar Indian-restaurant-near-a-White-neighborhood smelly, the kind of weird that is just a little gross and oh, you’re so polite for not saying it to our face, but we know you’re thinking it. We’re so hairy and Ethnic and you don’t know what to do with us besides make Baljeet-esque jokes. Well, barely friendly tolerance doesn’t count.
We should not be proud and embrace our features because people like thick-browed Lily Collins or Cara Delevingne told us we can do it if they can, but because we have found love for them within ourselves. I know that’s just a statement, a trying assertion of my evidently flimsy self-worth, but I think it’s the only “solution,” if anyone besides me is looking for one.
To my brown girls — whether you never derail a waxing appointment or couldn’t care less for the societal prerequisites of wearing shorts, or maybe weren’t “cursed” with the best of our exotic gene pool — your features deserve to be appreciated. They’re beautiful, that’s simply it. But just a warning, because I look out for you: whatever category of South Asian female you fall into, you can’t claim self-love or embrace your ethnic features if you shame another one of us for wearing them too “ethnically,” or not “clean” enough. That is, if we choose to not undress our bodies and their hair follicles in the same way as you, we are still just as valid and our brown beauty deserves equal respect. Please do not fall into the snares of the white boy. These are his baseless conceptions, noxiously passed on to us.
Back to you, white boy — thank you for pulling me onto to this journey of your own fragility. I’m not sure if you learned from it, but I sure did. Unfortunately, it’s not over, because I am not always, as asserted, a Woke South Asian Queen. I’d like to be one at all times, if possible, but occasionally, I’m just an elementary school girl conscious of how parts of her may seem too “tainted” to be attractive and it takes time to grow. Anyhow, I think I’m getting pretty close. I see you’re growing too, progressing from just Madison and Jessica to the spare “clean” brown girl. I would say I’m proud of you, but I know better.
To the brown girls, and ultimately, 9-year-old aggressively insecure me — you’re beautiful. It doesn’t matter if they don’t think so. He’s probably going to fail fourth grade math anyway, so what? He can go ask Madison.
You’ll get your first razor at 12. Your first salon appointment at nearly 16. But you deserve much more than his gaze — you deserve your own.
Woke South Asian Queen (WSAQ)
P.S. — If you are a brown girl and are looking for some external validation (we do need it sometimes, as long as it’s of a healthy kind), I’d recommend just some of many Instagram users/artists that might share your experiences and features (not only a constructed version of one or two of them) and are in this to build real self-love, not trends: @artwhoring, @hatecopy, @browngirlgazin, @_keeratkaur and @naqvi_sarah. And of course, mama @rupikaur_ has helped too.