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Growing up as a first-generation Asian kid in a predominantly Caucasian town, I always craved that big, movie-star worthy transformation scene. Like in The Devil Wears Prada where Anne Hathaway gets a sleek haircut and lived-in smoky eye makeup. Or in The Hunger Games when Jennifer Lawrence has her “girl on fire” scene-stealing moment.
I didn’t necessarily want to turn into a more beautiful version of myself, but into something that bordered on the spectacular.
Unfortunately for me, the only transformation I got was the one that came when I was 12 years old. It was then that I realized that there was a critical difference between me and those fictional women. With those women, the basic parts of them — hair, skin, name — were not in contention.
But for me, they were.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. My mother is Filipina, my dad is Indian. My school, while diverse, only had a handful of Asian girls. All of us were surrounded by inaccessible notions of beauty — blondes with icy hair and snow-sculpted skin whose names sat sweet and light on the tongue like a meringue. Or girls whose skin turned gilded from the sun while girls like me ripened to an umbra deemed “unmarriageable” by many an auntie from the brown-ish community.
My name was unpronounceable. My hair was thick and never had that enviably languid ponytail swing. My skin was neither peerless pale nor fashionably tan.
And I was just … awkward. Like, “why-do-I-have-facial-hair-let’s-try-Nair-and-leave-it-on-too-long-oh-no-now-I-have-a-Groucho-Marx-chemical-burns-moustache” awkward.
Walking into a drugstore was dangerous for me. Every shampoo bottle promising pin-straight, sleek hair made my hands itchy. Anything with the words: “smoothing” or “lightening” would make me salivate. I blame part of this neurotic, death-defying search for products on the images around me.
Bollywood cinema (India’s version of Hollywood) celebrated a specific mold of beauty: light-skinned, with anglo features. (Thanks a lot, colonialism.) Advertising, actresses … it all seemed so unattainable.
Even books — to which I often escaped inside to have adventures and fall in love and become a queen — did not seem as if they had room for me. All I had to do was look at the cover. I had never seen a girl who looked like me on the cover of a book. I had never read about a girl who looked like me having daring adventures.
All of these things contribute to a sense of erasure — and it manifested itself in my own writing. Not once did I ever write a story when I was young about a girl with my kind of name. My protagonists were what what I saw and read around me: pale girls with plain names, girls who I knew would never be fundamentally unattractive, girls who would always be allowed to have an adventure.
Things changed around high school. Is it weird to say how grateful I am that the Kardashians exist? Because I am. They gave a different context for beauty. The tan-skinned, dark-haired and dark-eyed. The surname that forced the mouth into a new shape. It didn’t matter if you were about as similar to a Kardashian as a Styrofoam box. They were mainstream. They were “exotic.” They were beautiful.
Obviously, this opens up an entirely different can of worms when it comes to beauty. Questions of otherness, exoticizement, the offhand “oh, you’re mixed, so of course you’re pretty” as if being fully one or the other race denied you any glamour … but those are things I didn’t learn to unpack until long after I left high school behind.
Now, as an adult and as an author, I think a lot about what I erase and what I highlight in my work. The first time I wrote a South-Asian protagonist, I was told the book would have no audience. That book, The Star-Touched Queen, went on to debut on the New York Times bestselling list. I think about the people who say that a book with a brown girl’s face won’t sell, and look no farther than the glorious cover of The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton or Aru’s glowing face, surrounded by magic, on the cover of Aru Shah and The End of Time.
Beauty is not static. Beauty moves and changes and demands ugly questions. I wish I could have told myself that when I was younger. To just, you know, chill for a second and stop hating what you don’t have and loving what you do. And also, for the love of all that is holy, DO NOT LEAVE NAIR ON YOUR FACE FOR MORE THAN EIGHT MINUTES.
Roshani Chokshi’s latest book, Aru Shah and the End of Time, is now available on Amazon.