As a freshman in high school, I became friends with the group of popular girls. I was not one of them, but I wanted to be. They lived in birkenstocks and Patagonia, and hiked in their spare time. I adored them. (I also most definitely had a crush on at least two of the girls). I wanted to be a part of their group, to be one of the pretty girls that got invited everywhere and that boys liked, because getting a boyfriend would prove that liking girls was really just a phase. As a result, I ignored certain things that now discomfit me.
The girls I was friends with wore mehndi (henna) tattoos to school, and wore Spiritual Awakening Pants, the hippie pants that you find at farmer’s market stalls, or that one place in the mall that reeks of patchouli, and that almost certainly have come from a South Asian country for cheap and have been marked up an insane amount. Nearly every white female tourist I’ve seen in India has a pair of Spiritual Awakening Pants. My mum was bemused when I decided to buy pants not only for my friends but for myself on one of our India trips. “Are you sure? They’re so ugly! So cheap!” When you’re Indian and you wear tacky Indian things, you’re a stereotype. When the popular white girls do it, they’re cool. In my warped 14-year-old logic, it made sense to me that if I wore the pants with them, then I’d be cool too. It wasn’t until I started learning more about intersectional feminism that the guilt kicked in.
What exactly are they appropriating? It appears as if they themselves are unsure.
I personally don’t believe that wearing hippie pants is a form of cultural appropriation. Yet I always feel a little uncomfortable with them, because their whole vibe just seems generically ethnic. They look like an amalgamation of what some white guy in the 80’s would consider to be Indian, commodified for the eat love pray experience. Which, incidentally, is why I don’t consider it to be cultural appropriation. What exactly are they appropriating? It appears as if they themselves are unsure.
Instead, I’m bothered by the way that it implies that this is all India is. A land of incense, elephant patterned pants, and curry. India is chaos, a country that works despite, a country of profanity and profundity. When I see Spiritual Awakening Pants, I cannot help but think of the colonial mindset that drives their production and popularity, that of taking what is good and leaving the rest to rot, that of never really understanding what is good but pretending to anyways.
I cannot, in good conscience, suggest that people stop wearing them. That would be extremely hypocritical of me, because I own a pair of Spiritual Awakening Pants. I like to think that it is an act of reclamation, but I fear that it comes across instead as an implicit endorsement. So much of the guilt I associate with wearing them comes from not just what the pants symbolise, but that I should know better, and yet I still do it. That I should’ve known better in high school, too. I should’ve tried to show my friends how I saw India instead of staying silent and making them believe that what they saw was all there was. Yet despite purchasing the pants in a misguided attempt to fit in, despite the gnawing sense of guilt I feel when I wear them, despite knowing that saris and salwar kameezes make the pants look like cloth someone dug out of the trash, I love them. They’re so comfortable, and they make me feel pretty. There’s a certain power in that, that I crave, after years and years of feeling otherwise.
I faced the brunt of the colourism when we visited India, as most of the white people I knew thought all South Asian people looked the same.
I can’t remember the age I started believing I wasn’t pretty. Maybe 10? Even now, liking the way I look can be a struggle. I thought I was too hairy, for one, but most of all I thought I was too dark. I faced the brunt of the colourism when we visited India, as most of the white people I knew thought all South Asian people looked the same. Small blessings, I guess. My buas used to whisper about how hard it was going to be for me to get married, not knowing that I could hear them. When I was 16, I went to get a passport photo taken, mine was photoshopped several shades lighter. The photographers had thought they were doing me a favour.
My mother and I went to get a facial. They had given us different facials, which I thought nothing of, at the time. Halfway through, something seemed wrong. My face was burning. I dug my nails into my palms and stayed quiet until it was finished, desperately wondering why anyone would want a facial if it felt like this. It wasn’t until it was over, and I opened my eyes to read the label of the box of the chemicals she had used, that I realised what had happened. It was called “tan-clear,” and I had just received my first (and last) skin bleaching treatment. I was furious, but I stayed silent until we left, because God forbid I make a scene. All the while, I wanted to point out that I didn’t have a tan, it was just the colour of my skin. When I later told my mum about it, she expressed her disappointment that no matter how much progress feminism in India had made, these kinds of things lingered. Yet it wasn’t as if it was isolated to Indians living in India. I had friends tell me stories about how their mums would bathe them in milk or tell them to stay indoors so that they would be lighter. It’s everywhere.
What can I do to fight the colourism I see, but love my dark skin and the self it contains?
I searched for an explanation of why a nation that in ancient times had celebrated dark heroes was raising its children on Fair and Lovely, and found colonialism. Specifically, the maddening subconscious tendency to want to emulate our oppressors, because historically, it made it easier to survive. I’m sure there are other complex factors which have led to colourism still being so rampant, even now, but colonialism has played an undeniable role. For me, a lot of the problems that I have with India boil down to the same thing. But thinking about the pervasiveness of it always ends up making me so helplessly outraged that I feel like I’m going to explode with all of my useless emotion. What can I do to fight the colourism I see, but love my dark skin and the self it contains? Sometimes that feels too hard, and other times it feels woefully insufficient.
I can’t remember the age I started believing I was beautiful again. There were big things that happened along the way that helped me feel confident in my body, like accepting my sexuality. I had such a limited understanding of sexuality when I was younger that being bisexual made me feel like a fraud. I did things slightly backwards, in that I came out as a lesbian first, in middle school, because I was impatient and had no sense of self-preservation, and repressed the hell out of liking boys. When I got to high school, where I hardly knew anyone, I seized the opportunity for reinvention by shoving myself back into the closet and repressing the hell out of liking girls.
I stopped lying to myself during my junior year. Even though I had learned more about bisexuality since middle school, I still held myself to a ridiculous double standard that it was okay for other people to be bisexual, because they were actually bisexual, unlike me, who was obviously just being indecisive. I had those double standards for everything, including colourism. The more I learned about intersectional feminism, the more I began to understand that if I wanted to fight against injustice, I had to start being fair to myself. Though I struggle with this, it has recently included allowing myself not to feel as if I have to be perfect all the time.
I wear Spiritual Awakening Pants, because I look good in them and sometimes I crave that feeling.
Now, I love my dark brown skin as an act of defiance, as a way to heal the small everyday wounds colonialism causes me. I wear Spiritual Awakening Pants, because I look good in them and sometimes I crave that feeling. I feel guilty while I do it, like I’m legitimising the remnants of colonialism that I see in the patterns of elephants. I get angry at myself for feeling guilty, because they’re just a pair of pants and my mind says that no one is overthinking it like I am. I feel guilty all over again, because clothes are never just clothes. Then I say fuck it and I wear them anyways, because there’s only so much history you can carry on your back before it breaks.
edited by Yvonne.