What is beauty? What does it mean to be beautiful? Does it depend on the symmetry of one’s face? The size of their nose? Or maybe it’s based on the shape of their face? Throughout my life these questions have continually roamed around my brain and, whether right or wrong, I have often been led back to a disheartening answer: It depends on the color of your skin.
In middle school, I attended a small private school that consisted of predominantly white kids. And in a time as critical to development as middle school, that lack of diversity played a huge role in how my conception of beauty evolved: beginning with every single guy in 6th grade only liking white girls, progressing to my seventh-grade boyfriend of two weeks ‘breaking up’ with me because a white girl liked him and ending with me turning my eighth grade crush down because I just couldn’t fathom the incredulous possibility that he liked me more than any of the white girls. Middle school shaped my idea of the beauty standard; by the end of it, I had come to resent the color of my skin as, in my mind, it prevented me from fulfilling what I had concluded to be the standard’s one condition: whiteness.
Throughout those years, though it is definitely not something I am proud of, I tried my best to mold into this standard. I changed my name at Starbucks to ‘Brooke,’ distanced myself from my Indian culture and took pride when people labeled me as ‘white-washed.’ I made these changes and prioritized these beliefs because I was so instilled with the belief that no one who looks like me could possibly be considered attractive by society’s norms. Though it really saddens me to admit now, there were moments where all I wished for was to be white. It was only as I began to move through high school that my mindset began to change.
For the next four years, I attended Stuyvesant High School. This was a huge adjustment for a few reasons. Not only did I go from a class size of 40 to 800, but I also went from a predominantly white environment to an 80% Asian environment. 80%. Let that sink in for a minute. That means in an average classroom, out of 30 kids, 24 would be Asian. For me, this shift was a complete game-changer. Seeing white boys chase after Asian girls, Asian guys being the objects of obsessions and Asian girls being the cheerleaders at the top of the social pyramid began to slowly wear down my prior assumptions. Over time, even though I didn’t notice it, my definition of beauty began to change.
When I enrolled at the University of Michigan, thoughts about the beauty standard had completely vanished from my mind. Race had completely ceased to be a factor in how I believed society defined beauty. So when a group of my friends and I recently engaged in a conversation about society’s beauty standards, I was shocked by how radically different our perspectives were despite all being people of color. As Michigan residents, a couple of them were convinced that in order for a person of color to be considered pretty, they had to be a model, nothing less. For me, the statement felt like a regression back to my 10-year-old world. It took me so long to accept that my initial conceptions were misguided and to begin believing that as a world we had evolved to see the beauty in everyone. But here I was being told that my optimism had fallen hilariously short and I found the toxic white standard infiltrating my brain once more.
It took me a while to truly comprehend how many white students surround me within Michigan. Within the small groups that are made in my classes, the majority of the time I happen to be the only person of color. Though I acknowledge that the University’s demographic is very normal considering the ethnic breakdown of America as a whole, namely that the majority of citizens are white, going from 80% to almost 18% Asian students has proven to be a culture shock for me. And suddenly, all my growth over the past four years in high school seems tentative as I begin to feel deja vu.
In order to make it through the next four years, all I need to do is remind myself that I don’t have to abide by society’s false standards; just because I am back in a place where beauty and whiteness are correlated, it does not reflect anything about me; it does not reflect anything about us. However, from my personal experience, I have seen how immensely important having a diverse environment is to my psyche and do fear the challenge of staying true to such beliefs. Though, as a country, we have definitely made some very positive strides in working to become a true melting pot, we have a ways to go. Don’t get me wrong, I am so proud of the increasingly positive media representation Asian communities have begun to receive from movies like “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which starred Marvel’s first Asian superhero, and TV shows like “New Girl,” where Cece Parekh, a brown girl, portrays as a hot model. But until kids are able to be in environments where they don’t feel that who they are is innately inferior, we are not accomplishing much.
I have grown in many ways. I have grown to not let the validation of others define me; I have grown to do things solely for myself. Most importantly, I have grown to not let society influence who I am. But one of the perks of being a girl in 21st century America is that it almost always entails insecurities. And with such insecurities come times when I question everything. I really hope that these next four years don’t break me but regardless, no matter what happens, it’s too late to change my fate. Now is the time to start thinking about the next generation. In my heart, I know that every single person is beautiful in their own way, but society has been slow to learn this lesson. The best way to enlighten everyone to such a core truth is through diversity. By giving people the chance to interact with a diverse set of people who don’t look like themselves, they are as a result given the tools to develop a more diverse definition of beauty. Starting at centers of education is a great place to begin.
Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.