Husband is somewhere along the west coast of our African motherland and I find myself looking at his profile picture as we chat during what has become a ritualist nightly call. He has stolen my picture for his own and it features the two of us smiling stupid happy holiday smiles, you know the kind. It’s the kind of smile that will have you wishing you could kick us in the teeth whenever we start talking about how amazing our holiday was. It’s odd to stare at myself in this way and I’m soon distracted by the weird notion that I look nothing like the way I imagine myself to look. “I look like an alien,” I tell Husband, narrowing my eyes and pushing my head forward to be more alien-like. “I mean, have you ever really looked at me?” By now my head movements mimic what I assume an alien surveying it’s reflection must do while Husband happily ignores the sound of my imagination running away with me. He probably throws in the noncommittal “You don’t look like an alien” or “What are you talking about?” but I am persistent, and becoming more convinced of my alien-ness by the second. “Seriously, I think I’m an alien,” A dramatic pause before my transformation is complete,”I look like something Sigourney Weaver gave birth to.” It’s his laughter that distracts me and its only much later that evening I find myself unable to sleep with two thoughts running through my mind- what does it mean to be beautiful and perhaps more pressingly, can I stream any of the Alien movies on Netflix?
Body hang-ups and my naturally tendency to be self-deprecating aside, I’ve never considered myself beautiful. You couldn’t throw that word at me, it wouldn’t stick. It would bounce off my disproportionately large nose, it would be confused by my small eyes and be terrified of my frizzly hair, in much the same way my forehead is. It’s not a word I identify with, but I do identify with it’s absence. With it’s absence in my ordinary brown eyes, it’s absence in the darkness of my skin, its absence in my common features. I remember my first taste of Toni Morrison, a woman whose words would move me and devastate me in equal measure, when I read The Bluest Eye. The poetry in her words, the twisting and intertwining of race and beauty, struck in me a way that I will never forget. The book was published fourteen years before I was born, yet I read it and know that we still hold true, today, notions of white beauty.
I grew up in a community where everyone apart from domestic workers, gardeners and a few people I went to school with, were the same as me in as much as how the South African Government labelled us “Indian”. Who were the pretty girls at school? Who were the ones we called beautiful? They were girls with light skin and every now and again, they were girls who had light skin and had “different colour” eyes. It is with a deep ache that I wonder if we were any different from Pecola Breedlove fervently wanting those blue eyes. To this day it upsets me when I see people mask the true colour of their eyes, there is a desperation in it that I cannot bear. To compare someone to a white person, to mistake someone for a white person was a compliment of unparalleled magnitude. We bestowed a ridiculous degree of value on anyone who did not have typical “Indian” features. We built and continuously reinforced the idea that there was no beauty in what we were born with, or if there was, it was only to be found in the exception. The mirror was your friend if it held the reflection of someone other than you, but perhaps with just the right light you could mask your inherent brownness. The sun was not your friend, after long, salty and satisfying days at the beach people would often look at me disapprovingly and tell me how dark I had gotten. A pretty girl with dark skin- the notion didn’t exist but perhaps you could like her if her parents were rich, you’d never totally think she was good looking but at least she’d throw great parties and buy you awesome birthday presents. I remember the first time I said someone who had dark skin was beautiful, I whispered it. I said it defensively, waiting for someone to disagree with me. My guy friend at the time just looked at me and said “Her?”, as if he didn’t even see her, as if she didn’t even exist to him. But she was beautiful, I bet she still is.
When we got older, the boys would boast about talking to/making out with/pretending to have carnal relationships with white girls. This story was so predictable it almost became boring. No matter what she looked like, she was a conquest, something unattainable, something more valuable than an Indian girl because she chose to bestow her white light on some stupid child dressed up as a man. While the other boys would be in awe of the one who had slayed the white woman, the message to the girls was clear, you’re good but there’ll always be better. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wish all of us married and had babies with people outside of the social construct that we call race. In fact, I think part of the “Indian Problem” is that we did not dilute our bloodlines once we got off the ships all those years ago. So, I don’t take issue with that. What I did take issue with was boys who believed in the inferiority myth that was sold to them the moment they took sight of their brown skin. What I take issue with is that it’s a myth that’s still be traded today.
A young white girl came up to me once and asked me if I was a witch. She just walked up to the table I was sitting at, starred right at me and asked me flat out “Are you a witch?”. I was thrown and secretly excited to be thought of as spellcasting, evil creature until I realised that she may have also associated ugliness with witches. It took me a beat to realise she may have been calling me ugly. Whenever I think too deeply about it, I remember that as a child I believed that an axe murder was waiting outside my second storey bedroom window (he was a crafty murder who carried around a ladder and an axe when he went visiting young girls in the middle of the night). I remember that a child’s mind is rich ground for the invention of stories and I remember that, despite their irrelevance, there are some stories children don’t outgrow. And as much as I wish I could retell those stories, rewrite those stories, I can only retell and rewrite my own. So, while I know I am no witch and I can happily cast aside the title of White Child Thinks I’m A Witch, I need to learn to love who I really am. Even if it is Brown Girl With Ordinary Brown Eyes. But that will come later, for now I’m settling for Alien Birthed From Sigourney Weaver. I mean even she thought her babies were pretty, so I guess that’s as good a starting point as any.