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On wearing bright colors

2 May

Reading this Persephone Magazine article where a self-professed ‘fat girl’ explained why she likes wearing bright-colored tights despite the stares she gets for showing off her not-skinny legs reminded me of my own hesitation to wear bright colors because of my dark skin.

Most of my work wardrobe is black. Not because of its slimming effect, but because I feel it makes me blend in to the crowd.  Despite the exhortations of friends and my mother to wear jewel tones, which pop against my deep brown skin, I usually resist. My mom bought me a white dress for Easter and even though it looks great on me, I kept staring at the contrast between my dark legs and the white fabric when I tried it on. 

Yes, logically, I know that my skin will look dark no matter what I wear. But I still cling to my neutral tones, believing they somehow make my “otherness” less obvious.  I’ve changed a little, trying on bright camisoles under dark cardigans -inspired by my fashion icon Michelle Obama. She’s not afraid to wear whatever makes her look beautiful, others be damned.

I know this post will sound trivial to some. But I doubt those people have never been the sole brown face in a crowd of white, over and over and over again. It takes its toll…

Images from the Michelle Obama Look Book

Party Hair

2 Apr

The correct way for an Indian woman to wear her hair. Image of Jhumpa Lahiri from bookforum.org

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “Hell-Heaven,” an Indian daughter describes how her mother insisted she have “party hair” when attending a social event. Party hair consisted of pulling a piece of hair from each side to the back of the head and fastening each with a clip. Her mother disapproved of American women who wore their hair loose.

I have never seen my mother wear her hair without pulling it back. Not even in childhood pictures. Though she wore her hair long, in a braid or bun, in pictures from her early married years, she’s worn her hair the same way as far back as I can remember.

She pulls back the top layer and uses a barrette to fasten her thick, shoulder-length hair in the center of her head.  She has a large collection of barrettes in a white plastic basket on her bathroom counter. Fancy clips with fake gems she wears with saris to parties, plain colored ones for everyday. She picks up new ones every trip to India.

I didn’t make the connection that she personally dislikes hair worn loose until a few days ago when I pointed it out to her. She was telling a story about a co-worker’s hair and wrinkled her nose in disgust when describing its “sloppy” appearance. After thoughtfully listening to my explanation, she agreed she’s always preferred clipped back hair.

My mom says pulling your hair back is a part of presenting yourself as well-groomed. Leaving your hair loose is like leaving the house without makeup, something else my mom never does.

I’ve always worn my hair short. I haven’t worn my hair up in a bun since eighth grade when a boy asked me why my hair looked so weird. I only wear a ponytail when I work out. Though I always wear a skin matching shade of foundation, I have to be prodded to wear anything more than Chapstick.

One more difference to separate us. I can’t imagine styling my daughter’s hair (if I ever have a daughter) the way my mom styled mine. Party hair is another “tradition” that will end with me.

Christmas Lights

23 Mar

I love the latest Thuy Lu photo shoot for Brown Girl Magazine, featuring the beautiful Priyanka Patel.

Makes me want to wrap Christmas lights around myself and beg someone to take my picture. My mom has a story she loves to tell around Christmas time (and anytime I’m not doing something she wants me to, actually):

My older brother was a patient, obliging child. Typical for first borns, I think. My mom would ask him to wrap Christmas lights back around the plastic trays they came in at the end of the season. He would also count pennies and put them in those paper tubes to get cash back from the bank. I think this was before Coinstar. I’m still not sure why my mom had so many pennies laying around.

I maybe did each of these things once in my life. Subsequent requests met with my refusal and avoidance. I think the moral of the story is that my laziness and insolence was evident from an early age, and that I am the least favored child.

The Name Game

5 Apr

Destiny's Child: "Say my name!"

Neethi Srinivasan at Brown Girl Magazine just wrote a great article about growing up with an unusual, ethnic name in America.

My first name is Sneha, pronounced Snay-ha.  In terms of difficult Indian names, I know I lucked out.  But growing up, I hated my name. The first day of school or substitute teachers were the worst.  I learned to pre-empt the questions by announcing my name in a clear voice as soon as I saw the first look of confusion on a teacher’s face.  Which backfired the first day of sixth grade when I told my new teacher my name, only to realize she was examining another student’s name, “Shea.”  Oops.

I used to wish for an American name and occasionally tried out what I figured was close: Sarah.  After all, I knew Indians who shortened their names: Jayendra to Jay, Aishwara to Ash, and even nicknames like “Dimple” or “Boo.”  My mom hated the abbreviation game and even though her name could be shortened to Sue, she made it clear she preferred her real name and was patient with new friends and co-workers as they stumbled through the syllables.

Now I love my name.  Let’s face it, no one is going to mistake me for a Sarah when they look at me.  My parents chose the name Sneha for a reason, it means friendship or love.  I plan to name my children traditional Indian names as well, a way to connect them to their culture even though the world is more modern now.  I recently told my book club I will also refuse to accept any Americanized abbreviations!

If you know someone with a unusual name, at least try to pronounce it, even if you feel embarrassed. Chances are, they’ve heard much worse.  Claiming you can’t say the name ever is demeaning.  I’m now proud of my name; anyone from any culture should get the chance to feel accepted too.

Beautiful Brown Girls

2 Apr

As much as I adore reading fashion blogs, expecially the ones where the blogger posts her outfits, I am definitely not cut out to dress nicely every day.  I realized this when I went to Target yesterday wearing a (clean!) t-shirt and jeans out of the pile on my bed.

However! I am always supportive of more diverse models in traditional media.  I loved Brown Girl Magazine‘s latest photo shoot “April Blossoms” featuring Puja Amin.  She looks beautiful – but more importantly, healthy and happy.  I love that the Internet has made seeing different forms of beauty so accessible.

Courtesy of Brown Girl Magazine

Lightening skin color a scary business

16 Jan

Growing up, I hated how dark my skin color was.  The image of East Indians in the West almost never includes deep brown hued skin like mine.  I still remember another Indian girl telling me her skin was lighter than mine because she bathed more.  Even within the Indian community, women (men too, but to a lesser extent) are judged by their “fairness” to determine beauty and intelligence.  

Not that this is anything new.  Since ancient times, laborers who worked in the fields had dark skin while the ruling class was light.  From the Middle East to the Americas, those with darker skin including Native Americans and Africans were discriminated against.

In modern times, such ideals are less rigid, especially in America.  Most of us don’t interact with manual laborers on a daily basis yet we still hold the prejudices of our ancestors.  This has led to self-loathing among those born with dark skin, like myself.

The NY Times reports on how this self-consciousness has resulted in severe problems in our modern age.  My mom tried to lighten her skin with a homemade turmeric powder paste while growing up, but modern medicine and the Internet have made dangerous steroid creams widely available.

Long term use of the these creams, can result in thinning skin, broken capillaries and even backfire with increased darkening.  A dermatologist is needed to fix these problems, an expense some users of these cannot afford or may not be aware of.  The article cites Sammy Sosa, who says a cream he used for a different purpose bleached his skin.

Sammy Sosa, from NY Times

The article currently has 186 comments on the Times website, signifying the topic’s resonance.  I was given hope by one comment:

Things have surely improved because back in the ’90s it was horrible to see so many women whose skin-whitening had gone awry and they had ended up with dark and light patches all over, as well as sickly looks. They regretted but usually by then the damage had already been done. These days, at least for my home country, skin-whitening by women is far less as the concept of black beauty has been well promoted and accepted.

Indians returning to the motherland: Not as Easy as it Sounds?

1 Dec

I read a great article in the NY Times,  “For Indians Trained in the West, It Can Be Hard to Go Home” this weekend, about an issue that has been swirling in my mind for months.

NEW DELHI — When 7-year-old Shiva Ayyadurai left Mumbai with his family nearly 40 years ago, he promised himself he would return to India someday to help his country.  In June, Mr. Ayyadurai, now 45, moved from Boston to New Delhi hoping to make good on that promise.

As Mr. Ayyadurai sees it now, his Western business education met India’s notoriously inefficient, opaque government, and things went downhill from there. Within weeks, he and his boss were at loggerheads. Last month, his job offer was withdrawn. Mr. Ayyadurai has moved back to Boston.

This case is not unusual, as the article goes on to describe, citing several cases similar to Ayyadurai’s above. And the rebuttal by an Indian government official is unsuccesful in repairing the image, even slightly threatening.

No Indian women were profiled for the article, which I consider an egregious oversight.  I have heard from several Indian women about the sexism faced in the workplace though I don’t fully know how I would be affected.  I’ve only been in the workplace for a few months, in a half-female training class at that. 

However, the author also cites a study in which 34% of “repeats,”as they are referred to,  faced difficulty in the workplace upon returning to India.  Are the other 66% happy with their new surroundings? And I wonder if this issue is more prevalent in government/technology fields where the cultural differences are heightened, as opposed to non-profit organizations, where I hope to work.

An interesting issue from all sides. It was even on the most popular tab on the Times website this weekend – this phenomenon is gaining worldwide attention, always a good thing.