Growing up in a small South Asian community while being someone who was born in the states was an interesting experience for many reasons. I'd like to write about a very specific one for this post: beauty standards. When it comes to the way I look I don't fit the look of the standard beautiful brown woman. I'm dark skinned (in Bangla known as Kalo), very thin, and much taller than the average Bengali woman. These three qualities have defined my appearance very much as I was growing up and even today.
Let's start with the first one: being Kalo. If you are from the South Asian community you know that being light skinned is considered the most beautiful. The lighter you are, the more beautiful. The darker you are, the more hideous. It has always been marketed this way in the South Asian media (anyone ever hear of Fair and Lovely?) I remember constantly being teased for my dark skin by Bengali girls I went to school with and even by extended family members. My parents always told me I was beautiful and it had nothing do with my skin color. I was always thankful for that. But constantly being shamed for being Kalo ruined my self esteem growing up. I remember one time in middle school I was coming home on the train with a few of the Bengali girls I then considered my friends. They saw a cute guy on the train and I was confused as to who they were talking about because I didn't see any guy on the train that I found attractive. When I asked who they were talking about one of the girls made a comment I will never forget: "why do you care who the guy is? It's not like a guy will ever think you're cute." While this wasn't a direct comment towards my dark skin I couldn't help but feel that it might have been connected to it. A more direct example I remember happened on a hot summer day when me and same girls were walking home from school. I've always been the tallest kid in my class. I remember them hiding behind me because they didn't want to get darkened by the sun. They said if they hide behind my tall figure they can protect themselves from the sun and it didn't matter if the sun touched my skin...I am already dark. Seriously I can't make this stuff up.
Next, being thin. To be fair, I haven't always been thin. I was born chubby, as a little girl, I was chubby. I slowly started to lose that baby fat when I was turning in to a young woman. I never developed big breasts or curvy hips. By the time I was in high school and I was a dancer for four years I was very thin. In college, I stopped dancing and for a brief period of time when I also stopped my yoga practice and before I found my martial arts practice, I was starting to lose weight to the point that it was unhealthy. My stress and anxiety suppressed my appetite. Even my doctor told me that I had to make a change, as being underweight could be dangerous to my health. That was one of the things that made me want to make changes to my body. But there was another reason too. A reason that in hindsight shouldn't have contributed to my weight gaining goals. You see before anxiety took so much control of my life before I was actually dangerously underweight I was already shamed for being thin. Sometimes by people at school but mostly by people in the brown community. I would be told things like: “you need to eat, you are too skinny”. Or "if you don't gain weight people will think you are not well fed". "If you’re this thin you won't be able to bear children and if somehow you do you will be too weak to take care of them." These were comments I got mostly from brown uncles and aunties. In the brown culture, anyone who is in your parents' generation is considered an “uncle” or “auntie” even if they are not related to you by blood. I always wondered why these people were so concerned with my weight. I can't even begin to describe how I felt when I continued getting these comments as a college freshman who was constantly anxious and depressed about way more than the way I looked. The more I thought about it, I realized that while being fat is also not considered a standard in South Asian beauty, that perhaps being (too) thin is frowned upon because in a third world country the poor are looked down on even more. There's a stigma against people who don't have money and power and that don't have enough control over their lives all over the world. But in Bangladesh, there is a huge gap between people with money and people who really don't have much. While Bangladesh is a gorgeous country with beautiful people there's a sadness that lingers in me when I go there. The people in the lowest class have almost nothing and make the best of the little they do have. And some people (not all) look down on them as if it's their fault. And most of the time poverty-stricken people are extremely thin, most likely because they don't have the privilege of eating food whenever they want. So I believe that when someone who grew up with as much privilege I have that also looks "too thin" it can make people uncomfortable. Like how dare my body be too thin. I am not these pathetic people who live in bamboo huts, who have to walk miles to get clean water, who have to work so hard just to survive into the next day. It's possible there are other reasons for the constant thin shaming in the Bengali community but I firmly believe that this could be at least a small part of the reason why.
And finally my height. According to this wiki page, the average height of a Bengali woman is 4 ft 11.5 inches while the average height for a Bengali man is N/A. However, in my experience, most Bengali men I have met are not more than 5 feet 8 to 9 inches tall. This means I am exceptionally tall for a Bengali woman. I am taller than both my parents (my mother is 5'6 and my father is 5'8) and I have yet to meet a Bengali woman taller than me. I can also count on one hand how many Bengali men I have met that are taller than me. In my experience, my height never hindered me. In fact, I always felt it was a great blessing. Even today, my martial arts teachers teach me how to use my long arms and legs to my advantage when I fight. So why did I get shamed for it by people of the very same community that frowned upon my skin color and weight?
This next story might sum it up. When I was 17 I went on a three-month summer vacation to Bangladesh with my parents and sisters to visit the rest of our relatives. In the time we spent in Kurigram (my mother's hometown) my mother had run into a childhood friend that she lost touch with once she moved to the states. She, of course, invited her back to my grandma's house where we were staying so this friend can meet my mother's family. When it was my turn to get introduced my mother had told her friend that this is my middle daughter Shukie. I gave Salaam (how Muslims greet each other) and bowed my head with respect. And this woman who has just seen me for the first time (probably any girl this tall for the first time) immediately looked back at my mother and said: "Hai Allah (a Bengali expression equivalent to oh my God) she is so overwhelmingly tall! How will you ever get her married?!" My mother who took that statement as a joke said she's not worried about that. Of course, I was absolutely fuming. How dare this woman who I have just met for the first time be so uncomfortable with my exceptionally tall height? Why is the possibility that I might marry a Bengali man shorter than make her so concerned? You see in Bangladesh when people get married (especially through arranged marriage) it's frowned upon when a woman is taller than her husband. And something else that is important in this culture: actually getting married. But let's save that discussion for another post.
Nowadays I am no longer phased by all the shaming I went through growing up. Most of the time I feel I am beautiful inside and out. I have fallen in love with my dark skin, my body which is still very thin but healthy, not underweight, and a tad more muscular (probably from training at my dojo almost every day), and my height is something I have always loved about myself. I no longer think skin color defines my beauty because one day it hit me that I have met so many people with so many different skin tones that I think are all beautiful. Why shouldn't my dark brown skin be beautiful too? I also distanced myself from parts of the brown community I always found myself in. I don't really hang out with the Bengali girls I grew up with, I don't live among the Bengali community I grew up in, and besides my grandmother, I am not very close to my relatives or anyone else in Bangladesh. While this did help me have better self-esteem I think it was mostly my internal acceptance of my appearance that made me feel less insecure. When we truly believe ourselves to be beautiful suddenly what other people think of the way we look doesn't really matter. I'm not saying I never care what people might think of me. I am a human being after all. I think it's very natural to care sometimes even if it is minimal. But believing ourselves to be beautiful is an act of self-love. When we love ourselves truly we attract people that truly love us. Not everyone in my community has shamed me and perhaps the ones who did not know any better at the time. After all, these standards have been ingrained into our society for years. But somehow when I truly took a stand for myself I really didn't feel ashamed anymore. That cliche saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” could never have been truer. Because the most important beholder is ourselves.