All Beauty, All the Time—For Everyone.

This Is Exactly Why Representation Matters

Sofia Jasmine Booth

@sofiajasmine

I was 10 years-old when my family moved from Queens, New York, to Long Island. “It’s a fresh start,“ my mom chirped optimistically as I surveyed the foreign suburban sprawl. Long Island looked like nothing I’d seen before—full of meticulously manicured lawns, strip malls, and big yellow school buses. I’d never taken a school bus before. In Queens, we walked.

On the morning of my first day at my new school, I boarded the big yellow school bus. Immediately, I was confronted with navigating the complex politics of a preteen social strata. Feeling the sensation of dozens of eyes burning into me, I lowered my gaze and quickly slid into a seat at the front. As the bus continued its route, my schoolmates’ interest in me, this newcomer, was piqued. “Who is that?” they murmured amongst themselves. There was some jeering, commotion, and balled up looseleaf paper thrown around between seats.

Later that morning in the principal’s office, I was asked to recount what had happened on the bus, as things had erupted into a melee. I didn’t know what to say, except to ask about a word that had been ringing in my ears since the incident. “They called me… a female Vik-vik.”

“Vik-vik?,” she repeated, confused. A wave of recognition washed over her face as she spoke the phrase. “Oh. Vivek. He’s another boy in school.” Vivek was one of only two other Indian students at my new school. I instantly resented him and clung to this feeling for the rest of the year, for absolutely no reason than my young realization our peers had arbitrarily lumped us together because of our Indian-ness (an identity that has never really fit my mixed ethnicity, non-traditional, and native-New Yorker upbringing). 

This was the first time I experienced a feeling I would soon start to recognize, to live and co-exist with, and ultimately, internalize—a forced awareness of the melanin in my skin, a sinking feeling that despite the very American robustness of my identity, I would never have full control over the way people saw me. No matter who I was inside, I was being reduced to a function of my appearance. 

I stayed as far away from Vivek as I possibly could for the rest of my elementary and middle school years. My little heart hoped that this might help people see me—an individual, something more than just an “other.”

And so, I ran the hamster wheel for years, shaving and bleaching and buying anything I could to chase an image of beauty that always seemed to elude me.

When Y2K hit, I was 13. I had become acutely aware of the negative stereotypes conferred upon people who looked like me by my classmates, and by extension, society at large. Compared with Queens, a melting pot of immigrants and opportunity, Long Island was something else altogether. If I were to accidentally forget about this new reality, it would often be thrust in my face. (Like the time I was a classmate’s house for a group project, and I overheard her parents calling me a “dot head” in the other room.)

Puberty did me no favors. My not-so-subtle facial hair and my very conservative wardrobe stood out from the Sun-In highlights and Britney Spears-inspired crop tops of my peers. I did what I could—one particularly embarrassing cliché about “Brown people” was that they often smelled bad, a combination of curry spices and unimpeded body odor. I became fastidiously attuned to my own scent, obsessively covering every inch of my body in scented lotions, floral-fragranced deodorant, and even perfumed hair mist (Thierry Mugler’s Angel’s saccharine notes of chocolate and tart citrus still transport me to my teenhood: languorous dates at the mall and post-dance Applebee’s hangouts.) I was determined to use my own existence to prove the stereotype false—Brown people were just as well-anointed (and thereby, worthy of being desired) as white people. 

As my friends wallpapered their walls with images of Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson and recreated their looks with Bobbi Brown shimmer shadows and outfits from Wet Seal, I struggled quietly. Banned were the cropped tops and spaghetti straps, my mother deeming them “too revealing” for her young daughter. No to bikinis, too. I used facial hair bleach to add highlights to my hair, creating skunk-y orange-hued chunks of strands around my face. The bubblegum pink-colored Lip Glass was too chalky for my skin tone and washed me out, and when I tried to splurge on a fancy Chanel foundation I saw in my friend’s mom’s makeup bag, the lady at the counter informed me dismissively that they did not carry my (very medium) shade.

Where there was turmeric, coconut oil, kohl, and tulsi powder, I found St. Ives Apricot Scrub, Victoria’s Secret body gels, and pricey Sephora baubles to 'whitewash' my bedroom dresser.

I can’t pinpoint the moment I realized aspiring to look like these white pop stars wasn’t going to work for me, but I do remember consciously, (desperately!), searching for a pop culture reference to validate my identity and guide my expression of beauty. There was J Lo, with her relatable Bronx roots and honey-colored glow. And the iconic Mariah Carey, whose Heartbreaker music video set the visual tone for what I wanted my high school existence to look like. These people were “Brown” like me, so it followed, in my adolescent head, that I could definitely rip a page or two out of their beauty playbooks, and in doing so, find the beautiful swan within myself.

Empowered with these non-white pictures, I went to the salon to get my hair frosted. (The photos of my black roots growing in against a melange of caramel and chocolate brown hues haunt me to this day.) I tweezed my thick black eyebrows within an inch of their life, recreating my best Mariah Carey arch, confused as to why the reflection stared back at me looked unnatural, surprised, and (let’s face it) bald-eyed. (Years later, I was fortunate enough to make my first desi friend at NYU. We lived in the same dorm. Freshman year, she staged an eyebrow intervention, forbidding me from tweezing for two months and taking me to a threading salon, where my brows were artfully shaped and trimmed with full respect to their dusky prominence. I thank her to this day for this moment of brown girl grace.)

And body hair! Oh, the struggle of Southeast Asian women and our body hair. J Lo’s plunging necklines and booty shorts revealed a toned body, and tan skin that was absolutely hairless. I had the tan complexion down, but lacked her smooth, hair-free skin. Rotating between Nair, waxing, and shaving, I engineered a weekly routine to hide any traces of my body hair. I told myself as long as I did this, no one could make fun of me. At least, not for being a female Vivek. By (tediously! painstakingly!) emulating the non-white women deemed as desirable, I hoped to propel myself into the same category.

And so, I ran the hamster wheel for years, shaving and bleaching and buying anything I could to chase an image of beauty that always seemed to elude me.

These were the traits I saw in my own visage, that I had mercilessly tried to beat into Anglo submission. Beautiful. Elevated. Celebrated.

While the Kardashians helped me love my dark brown, nearly jet black hair in the late 20-teens, it wasn’t until March 2017 when Vogue.com featured Bollywood in a short YouTube video titled “Beauty Secrets” that the “mental model” of my universe would truly be expanded. 

In her elegant, lilting Indo-Brit accent, Priyanka confidently whips up a concoction of yogurt, lemon, sandalwood powder and turmeric, and applies the paste generously to her skin to visible results. As I watched the video, I think my mouth actually dropped—I’d grown up with these beauty traditions entrenched in Indian culture, but had spent the bulk of my adolescent and teen years hiding any remnants of them. Where there was turmeric, coconut oil, kohl, and tulsi powder, I found St. Ives Apricot Scrub, Victoria’s Secret body gels, and pricey Sephora baubles to “whitewash” my bedroom dresser. Now, here was a gorgeous movie star, not only embracing these traditional, non-Western remedies, but sharing them publicly and proudly. This was an absolutely brand new concept, as foreign to me as the drive-through Dairy Barn in suburbia had once felt.

In December 2018, I had my mind blown once again, when American Vogue featured Priyanka on its cover. Her full lips, thick eyebrows, much more familiar to my appearance than the posters from my past I hopelessly compared myself to, in full Vogue treatment, made me audibly gasp. These were the traits I saw in my own visage, that I had mercilessly tried to beat into Anglo submission. Beautiful. Elevated. Celebrated.

When I think back to this, in my mid-30s, I feel a sense of homecoming. Of belonging. Of pride. To see beauty aficionados of all colors and heritage incorporate these ingredients into their routines and products, to see it becoming mainstream, is to me, the most beautiful thing of all—a symbol of openness, connection, and self-love. At the same time, there’s something bittersweet there—a sense of what could have been, if I’d had similar images around me growing up. If only…

To see beauty aficionados of all colors and heritage incorporate these ingredients into their routines and products, to see it becoming mainstream, is to me, the most beautiful thing of all—a symbol of openness, connection, and self-love.

I chatted with my friend Pooja (the one who saved my eyebrows 12 years ago, now a product marketing manager in D.C.) about her experience as what’s colloquially referred to as an “ABCD” (American-born confused desi) in Houston, Texas. She described a similar sense of otherness: “our home-cooked Indian meals, high-pitched synchronized Bollywood musicals, and hard-to-pronounce names,” creating a disconnect that permeated her my childhood.

This is why representation matters. The simple inclusion of our ethnicities and perspectives mediates the gap—it helps to create more robust worlds and mental models for us to self-actualize. Pooja notes, “Now, in 2020, we’ve had multiple shows on mainstream television with a South Asian-forward cast—Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, about a first generation Indian-American kid (like me!) helped normalize my name through a plot point.” She gushes, “Disney’s Mira, Royal Detective, about a kid-detective in a fictitious Indian city, had a character named Priya - my sister’s name! And, Bravo’s Family Karma, centered around a group of friends living in Florida, showed everyone how we could grow up as Americans, and still love our Bollywood music, colorful clothes, and flavorful desi food.” In short, there’s value in simply reflecting the reality of the blended world we live in, in the stories that we consume. To acknowledge us. 

But, it’s important to note—true representation doesn’t end there. Elizabeth Garcia, digital strategist and yoga instructor living in NYC and a Master's candidate at NYU’s Media, Communication and Culture program adds, “Even the gains that have been made towards a more diverse and accurate portrayal of beauty in media still have some proximity to respectability and whiteness. These browner, darker, more 'exotic' images are still cast under the white gaze, making them more palatable and ultimately commodifiable.”

This is why representation matters. The simple inclusion of our ethnicities and perspectives mediates the gap—it helps to create more robust worlds and mental models for us to self-actualize.

So, how to we create a world, in media, and fashion, and beauty, that gives all of us what we need, extending beyond the trap of tokenism? Elli notes, “Until media brands recognize and acknowledge the breadth and value of Black, Indigenous, and POC audiences, not just as consumers but as valid humans that also 'make up' beauty, I don't think we'll see full actualized representation. It’s about pushing for POCs to be leading decision-making in media outlets and controlling narratives that don't uphold traditional beauty molds.”

The work is in building diverse teams, empowering and amplifying voices of color, and giving space to learn from perspectives outside of your own. It challenges us to expect more of ourselves, the brands we support, and to be thoughtful in the way we allocate our energy, time, and dollars. But if that’s the cost of supporting what’s beautiful in each every us, and helping us reimagine the world as one that’s bigger, better, and more beautiful than us as individuals—isn’t it absolutely the best path forward? 

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