It began with hair
The first time I went to war myself, it was through a mirror. It was hair wash day, a weekly spectacle which saw my mother and I attempt to tame the curls that spilt and leapt from my head to my shoulders. Armed with a wide-tooth comb, a blowdryer and a wish, the night would usually end with both of us in tears. My mum is Indian - meaning her hair flows more than it spills, stands straight where mine coils. In short, the sight of my Afro curls scared the (insert expletive) out of my mum. And so it was, every week she combed her way through the jungle of curls atop my head, attacking each one with a defiance that would leave me wriggling with impatience and wincing at every stroke of the brush.
I had every clip, every scrunchie, every spray, serum, conditioner and shampoo that promised ‘manageability’ and ‘easy detangling’ but none of them could give 7-year-old me what I really wanted, which was straight hair. Barbie straight; the kind of straight I had seen in movies and in magazines; the kind of straight my friends had that looked more Princess Jasmine, less Mowgli. Without fully understanding the weight of my thoughts, I now look back with sadness, realising that what 7-year-old me really wanted was to be was less Black.
What could possibly leave a 7-year-old with such poisonous thoughts about herself? Who was the voice in her head telling her that her nose was too big, her hair ugly? Of course I now realise it wasn’t just a singular thought or voice that led to my self-hatred at such a young age, like most things, it had begun at home. Within my family, it was normal practice for aunties to tell me to stay out of the sun to ensure I didn’t get ‘any darker’. Every time I wore my natural hair, it was often met with comments about ‘neatness’ and desperate pleas to have it straightened, flattened, steamrolled if necessary. Sadly, this is not uncommon. Outdated ideals of beauty permeate Asian culture and Asian households alike, and it is here that the effects are most devastatingly felt. Fair skin, Eurocentric features and straight hair are often heralded as the epitome of beauty - the fairer, the lovelier - and this is reflected on the covers of Asian bridal magazines (which often come under fire for using White models instead of Asian ones), in the faces of Bollywood heroines and on the shelves of beauty stores stocked to ceiling with an overwhelming array of skin lightening creams, a market which in 2017 was thought to be worth almost 270 billion rupees (almost £3 billion).
For me, this meant beauty often felt like a battle against myself, and my journey to self-love is told best through the relationship I have with my hair. As soon as I could I began chemically straightening my hair, scorching my curls into some sense of self-esteem and I was praised by my family for doing so. So it went on, a cycle of me damaging my hair to match the damage I felt inside. That was until I turned 17, left my predominantly White high school and experienced the "dynamic force that is friendship with other Black girls". For the first time, I was made to feel beautiful for having curls, a wide nose and skin that wasn’t fair. Through my friends I learnt to appreciate the history behind my mass of curls, the generations of Black beauty that mapped across my face. I was introduced to the wonders of the natural hair movement - leave in conditioners, silk scarves, castor oil - and through loving my hair I began to love myself. Now when wash day comes along and I look in the mirror, I no longer see that puffy-eyed girl who hated her curls and her nose. The woman staring back at me is empowered in her Blackness, proud of her Indian heritage and assured in her love for herself.
It was an acceptance that wasn’t felt at home, that allowed me to have difficult but much needed conversations about beauty and identity, with not only my family but also myself. Conversations that also need to happen across the beauty industry, which still largely perpetuates Eurocentric ideals of beauty. Now more than ever, we have a duty as relatives and consumers to push for the diversification of how we define beauty, to ensure generations of girls and women after us love themselves without exception or criticism.
Written by Mariah De Silva