I feel ugly in India.
It’s not that I’m entirely lacking in self-esteem. While I’ve never been comfortable stepping out of my house without eyeliner, I never actually craved a mask either. I am only as insecure as the next person. I had never feared mirrors or hated photographs. But I feel ugly in India, in the last few months and the winter before and the summers before that. I hunch more. I avoid more. I don’t even have the motivation to wear eyeliner. I rarely seek reflections along the roads I walk through.
In my head, I try to find justifications. It’s probably the churidars, mostly picked out by well-meaning aunties in all the wrong cuts and colors. Or perhaps their alterations. No matter how many times I return to the same dingy alley in Thiruvalla, whose half-rude, half-apathetic and wholly incompetent tailors measure you seven hundred times over, the fabric hangs awkwardly around my stomach. I swear mine is not this bloated and if I try hard enough in front of a mirror, I can almost trace the infamous six-pack. I was never before obsessed with bikini bodies.
Perhaps it’s the heat and humidity. I sweat so much that any make-up I could choose is entirely useless. Waterproof mascara is never sweat-proof, and I’m pretty sure the tip of my nose is a showerhead. All I can do with my frizzy, curly hair is leave it in a pathetic side braid that is barely as thick as two of my fingers. I’m pretty sure I’m going bald.
Or perhaps it’s the air. Most houses I consider homes, with their closed windows and scarcely open doors, suffocate me. Allergies puff my eyes, redden my skin and remove all hints of kohl. So I tell myself I’m a woman of the wind, and that’s somewhat poetic enough to be comforting.
But, maybe it’s none of this.
“You’re a below average to average girl,” my new male colleague was telling me, “there’s nothing special about the way you look. You might be pretty there but here? Eh, tharakedilla.” Tharakedilla (roughly translated to without damage, like not bad, like so whatever). He didn’t call me an eyesore, at least. I shrugged, smiled, laughed, continued the conversation, unsure of what to make of this new ranking. On one hand, I appreciated the frankness. The usual me was pleasantly surprised to meet someone so disinterested in flattering me. The usual me had enough of herself in mind that this could be considered a rational observation. The other me was pricked. (The other other me, the one in retrospect, is angry that she was even placed on a scale to begin with. wtf, bro. your thala = kedundu.)
It reminded me of old car rides. Of parents claiming stakes on each part of my sister’s face while avoiding me from Guess the Genes games. No one particularly wanted my nose or my chin or my forehead to be theirs. Of a pretty young friend who constantly compared her wrist with mine and lamented that she was so much darker and that much uglier – and of the guilt I felt then. Of a third grade oppana performance, where my best friend was chosen to be the bride and I was to be the old grandmother, even though all we both wanted to do was dance. Her light skin and soft hair made her too pretty to be one of the dancers and I, apparently, knew too much Malayalam. The excuse the dance teacher gave landed bitterly on my chest. I just felt insufficient, too ugly to be even a dancer.
It reminded me of all the times I hurt because I thought someone didn’t think I was beautiful enough and of all the times I actually thought that was relevant.
“You’ve gotten so tan!” two friends and my sister separately had the same decidedly-diplomatic reaction to seeing me for the first time in a few months. One further extrapolated: kolam kettu poyallo (even more roughly translated to babe lost her swag).
I think of the last few summers and smile; summers that were spectacularly spent outdoors. It started with the simple realization that aunties and uncles with their ever-necessary chatter and unfailingly critical eyes will point out how I’m so much darker than the rest of my family whether I get any darker or not. So I took the wager. After months of dull winter, the sun is too much of an addictive. I refuse to hold an umbrella with no rain. I refuse to look down if I can look up. I love getting darker. Of all the “honest remarks” thrown at me by caring and uncaring eyes, this is probably the one I love the most- the accidental compliment. When I say to this to a milkish, sandish, fair-and-lovely-ad-if-there-was-no-photoshop-ish friend, she comforts me: but you’re not THAT dark. I sigh. That’s not the point. I simply don’t care if my fingers and my toes become six layers darker than my sternum, if my face becomes dusk or dust or dirt, even. This is my latent teenage rebellion; loving my dark skin is my bedroom-mirror revolution.
For a while after I started to become conscious of my body (roughly first or second grade, roughly when standing naked in line for the shower in my boarding school and wondering why my body had no curves while the older girls did, roughly when the dark Tamil woman who took care of me made me apply a cream a light-skinned Punjabi girl used after telling me to become more like her), I used to wish for lighter skin. I distinctly remember justifying why I should have “fairer” skin, even. I had severe childhood eczema that left dark brown scars, and I was constantly told by those attempting to compliment me that I was meant to be lighter (and thus, meant to be better). This left the impression that I was severely wronged by not just the itching and the bleeding and the oozing and the sticking that defined elementary school years but also, by the alteration of what would have been my perfect natural skin tone. Secondly, I subscribed to the same television, the same movies and media, the same church aunties and uncles, the same matrimony classifieds and neighborhood gossip, and why-is-the-bride-darker-than-her-groom (must be the dowry, must be a Benz) conversations of the world around me.
Thankfully, the single most positive contribution emigration gave me was the perspective required to come back to the same, almost-unchanged world and find humor in its insistence of fair skin.
At a home that is almost mine, a caring hand picks out colors I should wear. Bright might not be a good idea, she says. So the next day, I buy myself a yolk-yellow churidar, and a bright yellow and blue kurta. The same male colleague tells me I don’t look good in white so I choose white tops for every day I have to see him. Unlike the confidence that hearing I’m beautiful would have given me, the confidence that stems from my “ugliness” seems to come from deeper within me. It is an angry, aggressive way of keeping my head up.
In the evening, the male voice on television – with the large, almost-poetic sounding words and a tone that aims for dramatic and falls at desperate- advertises a serial called Karuthamuthu (translated to Black Pearl, further translated to racism-is-racism-even-if-she’s-the-heroine), in which the actress is deliberately made darker with make-up. I almost choke on my dinner. How is blackfacing on mainstream television okay? In the next room, the post-mortem of a recent wedding has gone beyond the bride’s gown and diamond set: “But she isn’t as dark as I thought. Must be the make-up!” The discussion moves on to compare the skin tones of the recent brides we know. On a matrimony site a brother recently signed up on, the options for complexion are a bit perplexing: extremely fair, fair, moderately fair. By some saving grace, it didn’t specify a way of measuring skin tones. Thank goodness.
I speak to a new friend about all of this and add that I hope that it will change soon- if not in my generation, for the next. He shakes his head, I don’t think so. There will always be people who are more beautiful than others. People will always be judged by appearances, regardless of all that we say about inner beauty. For a few minutes, I’m confused by his reply, by what he omitted to think about. But I simply shrug and relent. I feel no need to allege or prove that dark can be beautiful to people who cannot see it.
After a quick visit and before finishing the four steps required to the safety of the car, an aunt holds my wrist and pulls me back. “Your face. It has gotten so long! All the flesh has left and your cheeks are so hollowed. Moley, other people only tell you the good things but I am so honest that I say everything! It looks soooo bad.” I smile and nod, feeling myself lost somewhere at the crossroads of rage and shame and etiquette. I want to tell her that my post-puberty, post-five-years-of-braces face is not entirely the result of losing weight but that of genetics. When no one was looking, my jaw had become a man’s, my mother’s. (Maybe it was penance for all the years of wishing I was born a boy in Kerala, if I had to be born in Kerala at all).
My art teacher pointed out the lines on the day we were assigned self-portraits in high school; I also have a masculine jaw, the teacher’s smile grew brighter. She was my favorite that year. She held my sketch up above her head and showed the class the lines. At the end of the year, as I lugged my art pieces home, the girls in my last-period Biology class oohed and aahed – it looks exactly like you, like a photograph. I don’t find it necessary to justify the shape of my face to my aunt because the memory, lined with the sweetness of charcoal pencils, is enough to make me smile. I simply touch my jawbones and roll up the window.
Every bone in my body feels crushed into a wooden Ayurveda table as I lie stark naked for yet another round of treatment. I flinch as the therapists break my layer of trust to comment on how my ribs are visible, how my hip bones jut out, how I need to eat more. On days with morning massages, they make me report the number of appams or dosas I managed to eat. On a day with an afternoon massage, I joke that I can’t count the number of rice I had for lunch. They shake their heads, click their tongues, and rub their fingers against my bones. When I tell the doctor that his treatment plan has given me more aches and pains than I started with, he tells me the same thing. It’s because you’re so skinny; lying on the bare wooden table must be hard for you. I half-smile and nod, as usual. Could they press softer at least? Is this treatment really necessary? I don’t even understand the connection between harsh, full-body massages and headaches. Is there something else that can be done? Like every good doctor in Kerala, he doesn’t address my questions.
In my head, I ask him why a holistic alternate healthcare system doesn’t seem to have a plan to suit my body, why it doesn’t seem to allow for its normalization.
I hear how skinny I am every time I come home, to any home. But this time around, it’s different. Each of my medical problems are attributed to how thin I am. Other physiological causes sit on the sideline as family members swear on their non-existent medical degrees that all I need to do to find a cure is eat more. While the concern is endearing, the trivialization is not.
I can think of highly sexualized women between Shakeela and Silk Smitha to Sunny Leone, and understand why the heterosexual Indian male would find me unattractive. But there is no logic I could use to justify people who think it’s appropriate to judge every aspect of my life on the basis of my weight.
To be constantly told that your body is not “normal” is not fun and for me, entirely new. In the other world I belong to, I had never had to think about my weight. Skinny-shaming is not a thing. Thin privilege meant I could demand two bags of chocolate and a pint of ice cream once a month, and not get lectured by anyone. It means being able to go into almost any store without thinking about sizing availabilities first. In a busy semester when I actually did lose a lot of weight to a significantly unhealthy level, the most anyone ever came to noticing was to compliment how good I looked. What have you been doing, they asked. You look so great in that dress, they said. Though poisonous, it was also positive – almost, too normally so – and I never gave it a second thought. Even when I spoke against body shaming, I didn’t actually know what it feels like.
I still can’t ever say I know enough about the experience. The billboards and magazines in this country too exclusively feature girls with their collarbones out. With the exception of one or two major actresses, the weight game among the pretty and the popular is active on this side of the world too. Unfortunately, this is where I get my validation from. Unfortunately, in the midst of this discomfort, in the misery they call a mirror, in all the ways I’m made to feel inferior, I comfort myself by thinking back to the same beauty standards I supposedly hate. At least I fit those, I think. At least some people think I look good in size 2 dresses and bodycons, I think. At least some people, I think. Fuck. In order to make myself feel better, I choose increasingly disturbing thoughts. In order to run away from a standard that rejects me, I tell myself I comfortably fit into another equally potent, equally useless, equally degrading one.
I let another new friend read a draft and he stops midway: but you are beautiful! He says it with absolute anguish, as if he has to convince me to not self-destruct. I shrug. Flattered but, it doesn’t make these clashing of beauty standards from my two worlds any less real. It doesn’t make the discomfort any less real. I can love myself and at the same time, feel ugly within the constraints of these standards. But then, the smart smart kid says, that’s because you’re choosing to leave yourself there. Truth.
I should stop making smart friends.