If you look at me from a distance, you might say that I am a young Indian woman. If you talk to me, you might add that I was raised in America. But to tell you the truth, growing up was strange. American TV shows never included characters that looked or thought like me. Indian TV shows never had characters that spoke or dressed like me. Indian-American. I knew I was a misfit from the beginning, conscious of my hybrid status, aware that the hyphen in my identity would haunt me for years to come. And I feared I would be doomed to a lifetime of accommodating two separate, but equally real standards of beauty.
The American media told me that I must be slender because cellulite is forbidden. I realized hair belongs on my scalp and nowhere else, and that my glasses ought to be traded for colored contacts since eye color is only interesting along the blue-green spectrum. My teeth should be porcelain, aligned perfectly with the symmetry of my face.
The Indian media told me I must be fair and lovely with a light, clear complexion and maybe an artfully placed beauty mark. I must avoid tanning at all costs and wear thick sunscreen masks at the beach. My hair ought to be dark and thick, long and luscious. I must have a dainty nose and bee-stung lips.
My reflection taught me that I am petite but with crooked hips, my eyes are light brown but incapable of becoming hazel, that waxing will have to become a permanent fixture in my routine. That my iron deficiency last summer caused hair loss from which I am still recovering, that a legendary bike accident left me with a dented chin, that years of acne left my skin subtly scarred.
This could have been a eulogy for my self-esteem. It could have been a thinly veiled rant against society’s insatiable appetite for perfection. But it is none of these things – it is, above all else, a call to arms!
Neither the American nor the Indian media have any right to say what I should look like. I will never match the ideal set forth by either country’s media industry, and it’s not my responsibility to. This is a complex idea that means accepting that, in the course of being human, there is some assembly required. It means acknowledging that we take time to arrive at a wholeness of character, and appearances will inevitably change. Acne will give way to wrinkles and luscious hair will sprout a few grays.
There is no instruction manual, no universal step-by-step guide to ignoring the faces of Bollywood actresses plastered across Indian grocery stores or muting the TV when Proactiv commercials air their pitch for flawless skin.
So to all the young women who happen to have a hyphen in their identity, I ask: What does that mean to you? How will you move through this world?
I want to know, because in sharing these stories of proudly being fill-in-the-blank-American, we begin bridging cultural gaps and ushering in a new-age butterfly effect, one where young women of hybrid ethnicities realize that challenging the media is simply the adult version of standing up to a bully. And the more of us that stand up, the quicker the bully falls.
As a rising senior who is preparing to enter the “real world” very soon, I recognize the need to present myself in a way that reflects who I am as authentically as possible. Writing has been a part of me for as long as I can remember, a way for me to let people know that while I may be an introvert, I do have a voice and I intend to use it. I will be graduating from The George Washington University in May 2016 with a BA in International Affairs and Journalism/Mass Communication. I can’t wait.