When you’re a kid, societal divisions and their effect might be difficult to understand, but a simple look around a mainly white classroom is enough to make a child feel less than their peers.
One of my earliest memories is from grade two when one of my classmates refused to share his crayons with me, exclaiming “No! She has brown skin.” At the time, I couldn’t comprehend why someone would say such a thing, but I was old enough to understand that my skin was seen as a weapon that could be used against me.
For myself and many other South Asian youth, growing up in a predominately white town meant always feeling like the black sheep and questioning my intrinsic worth because of this difference.
As time went on, I started experimenting with drugstore makeup and I remember only finding five shades of foundation, and only one with a darker hue — if I was lucky. Not long after, I started using social media and only saw lighter skin, chiseled jaws and thin-nosed models on my screen. These experiences made the subconscious desire to blend in with my surroundings feel inescapable.
This was damaging.
Gen Z, the youngest generation, is the first to have access to social media in their early adolescent years. It is without a doubt that this generation’s perception of self worth and belonging is tied to online representation.
I don’t think companies and agencies should be bashed for not including South Asian models in runways, magazines and other forms of media. Frankly, racial diversity in the Western fashion and beauty industries is at an all-time high.
However, I want to raise awareness for the many South Asian youth who are now in their early adult years that did not grow up with this comfort.
As a result, we face the harsh reality of having to independently unlearn negative perceptions of self-worth that taught us how beauty is defined by skin tone — and that the desired skin tone was not ours.
I also want to bring awareness to the phenomenon that even though representation is growing, it is not necessarily undoing the harms of Western beauty standards. Rather than being celebrated for its own beauty, brown skin is now being tokenized for profit. It has become a box to check off for many corporations that still refuse to acknowledge the years of self-hatred and internalized Eurocentrism they forced on POC.
South Asian youth today deal with a unique identity and self-esteem crisis. Unfortunately, conversations about mental health and belonging are not deemed important in many second-generation immigrant households, leaving the trauma of many children unheard.
Researcher Tony Xing Tans’s 2016 article in the Journal of Affective Disorders, on the topic of depression among first and second-generation immigrants in America, highlights an important phenomenon. His study suggests there is a meaningful connection between the cultural system of a society and the overall psychological well-being of people living within it.
His findings suggest that disconnection from one’s culture as a result of cross-cultural migration might increase one’s mental health risks. Loneliness, social alienation and a lost sense of self are common themes present amongst second-generation immigrant youth.
Throughout my experience, I have learnt that being able to recognize that you are not alone, as well as being able to relate with your peers, alleviates a huge portion of this struggle. Feeling seen and heard is often the first step in healing.
We need to acknowledge the life-long internalized struggles of brown skinned men, women and non-binary folks — many struggles which were caused by damaging Western beauty standards.
I encourage them to speak up about these experiences. It is through the sharing of these stories that we will find unity, be able to heal and redefine beauty.
Graphic: Akshara Dash