Growing up as a second-generation South Asian in the United States is challenging. It was common for my Indian parents to spew off remarks like, “check out the outfit that moti (Hindi word for ‘fat girl’) is wearing.” I’ll never forget shopping at boutiques in Mumbai where the store representative nonchalantly shouted across the room, Ek moti size! (“one fat girl size”) while I stood there in shock, waiting for my outfit.
Like most teenagers, I suffered from chronic acne. I’d stare at my pock-marked face in the mirror and cry. My grandmother told my parents that I’d never get married with skin like that.
Indian culture’s standard of beauty is mainly driven by the fairness of your skin, which is, in essence, a barometer of how “beautiful” and “lovable” you are. When I entered my 20s, my parents created a “biodata” for me — essentially a one-sheeter that summarized my qualifications as a desirable bridal partner to a male suitor. The headline read, “Fair and Beautiful.” “Dark and Beautiful” wouldn’t fly in Indian culture, “dark” is considered the antithesis of beauty.
It is no surprise that Unilever rebranded their best-selling skin lightening cream “Fair and Lovely” after being scrutinized for promoting colorism and thereby making girls with darker skin feel inadequate. After the deaths of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and other tragedies in 2020 prompted a much-needed re-examination of race in America, the CPG giant took significant steps in the right direction.
Mental illness is beset with a stigma that drives actions and limits beliefs. My cousin from India stated that his daughter would never marry because he suspected bipolar disorder; sadly, instead of opting for treatment, he wrote her off as a “lost cause.”
Twenty years ago, my mother-in-law panicked as my parents pushed for a janampatri (birth chart reading) of my future spouse and me. Perhaps she feared it would uncover generational mental illness within the family?
In addition to hordes of savory spices and the proverbial “8 dollars in their pocket,” my parents brought with them many subconscious biases and limiting viewpoints during their migration to the States. As I raise my teenage daughter in America, she is surrounded by activism, self-love, and female empowerment. It is heartening to see that the “fat-shaming” I’d grown desensitized to is vilified in American culture. There is a dichotomy between how my husband and I were raised and what my children face today. The gap becomes more evident between each proceeding generation.
How do I combat this? I am more aware of the power of my words and how they may impact others for generations to come. I learn by listening to others’ stories with an open mind and heart. I stop judging others and follow the timeless sage advice of Robert Nesta Marley:
Before you point your fingers — make sure your hands are clean.
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