Desi Girl

As girl, I loved my collection of Barbies. Playing make believe with a band of long limbed, Bambi-eyed plastic figures was a thrilling reverie. Of course, most of them were blonde and blue eyed, so as much as I loved dreaming up their exciting and perfect lives as explorers, trapeze artists or benevolent rulers of mystical faraway lands, I was very aware that they didn’t represent me (I had stubby limbs and a mop of frizzy hair). Matell’s attempts to reflect the reality of non-Caucasian girls are frankly, underwhelming.

Whenever I did managed to stumble across an Indian Barbie, it was like digging up some unearthly treasure, precious and exotic, too fragile to even be taken out of the box. Only ever to be found in Hamleys or a sari shop in Leicester, they were the gold standard of toys, and I wanted one oh so badly.
Dressed up in traditional bridal, Bharatnatyam or Kathak attire, they stood with the elegance I wish I had, fitting neatly into the pigeonhole a Western company carved out for them. This was lauded as a celebration of indigenous cultures and yet it limited the potential of these dolls and the children who loved them. You would never see an Indian lawyer or teacher, only a dancer or blushing Mrs to be.

The reason for this blatant lack of diversity is simple: We Indian women are so exotic that we are novel, not normal. With our long dark hair, saris and wild cat steeds, we lie so far beyond the stretches of Western femininity that we can only ever be seen as “other”. So as to make up for centuries of imperialism and social exclusion, the West sees all of us non-Caucasians in much the same way. God forbid anyone be left out.

Proof in point — the humble pair of tights. Loyally waiting in our drawers to slip on underneath a skirt or dress on a chilly day, and to faithfully mask our unshaved legs, tights are an integral part of a woman’s arsenal against the rubbish weather and that one person in your open plan office who insists on turning the air conditioning down to temperatures of Arctic levels. Yes. We ❤ tights.

When I was about fourteen, a friend (of Barbadian descent) and I got very excited when we saw a voucher for flesh coloured tights that promised to match our skin tones. We held the swatches up to our legs, and sent off the postal form, ready and waiting for our very own stockings of wonder which would arrive in 3–5 business days.

Alas, reality did not match our expectations.

She complained that the tights made her legs look a sort of rust colour, and mine made my legs look like they were suffering from a particularly rough bout of the flu. Our foray into nude hosiery was cut short, and so we returned glumly to the safe but unexciting shores of black and navy.

Fast forward to 2014, “The Apprentice” finalist Bianca Miller presented her own line of flesh coloured tights for non-Caucasian women.

What an absolute hero! I remember watching the final with my parents, and they looked at me like the massive weirdo I so plainly I am while I sat grinning and clapping for Bianca, but they soon saw that these tights weren’t like any other. They were fancy and long overdue.

Guttingly, Bianca didn’t win for reasons beyond the realms of logic and reason, missing out to the guy with the idea to set up another digital marketing agency.

This is upsetting for another reason. Bianca wanted to fill a gap in the market that should never have existed. The notion that an Indian, Kenyan, Haitian woman might want a pair of tights to match her skin tone to wear under a nice dress on a sunny but mild day shouldn’t be mind blowing, but it apparently it is.

Thankfully, since then the fashion and beauty industries have woken from their slumber and some, albeit depressingly few companies have started creating clothes and makeup which fit more than alabaster and slightly tan.
If you’d like to know where to find these objects of wonder, to satiate your desire for nude lipstick and flesh coloured lingerie, there’s a fantastic website dedicated to sourcing flesh-coloured hosiery, clothing and makeup for non-caucasian women, and it is much needed. Launched by Australia-based Tayo Ade, fleshtone.net is a true cornucopia and I got very excited when I discovered it.

In her words:

“Having danced from a young age, it was always disconcerting when asked to produce or buy costumes, tights and other apparel in ‘skin colour’. Skin colour in that context was a micro-aggression. It was a colour made to approximate all variation of beige, and did not include others. I had to go without or skip the performance.”

Growing tired of the threat of exclusion because her skin didn’t match the norm, Tayo stuck a two-fingered salute to outdated and imperialist beauty norms. And so, fleshtone.net was born.

Tayo and Bianca are nothing short of brilliant. They saw that they weren’t represented and took it upon themselves to make sure they were, and they too had a seat at the table of the fashionable and beautiful. They had gumption enough to fill the gap and they are wonderful for it.

Let’s not forget that this is the gap that should never have existed. Nay, the gaping cavern left by the fashion and beauty industries as they assume that only Caucasian women will wear their clothes. The industry that draws inspiration from indigenous cultures world over and yet ignores the simple fact that women from these cultures wear clothes too. This lack of representation is lazy, and it needs to stop.

I look to my own community. The British Indian population is 1,451,862 strong, so one can hardly ignore us, right?

So as to reassure you, reader that myself and other women of colour are not solely concerned with the nude fashion options available to us, let’s turn to the big guns — silly questions.

Before I continue, let me make one thing clear. The paragraphs that follow are not a sweeping statement against every Caucasian member of Western society. The people in my life are there because we love and respect one another, simple. This applies to my Caucasian friends for they respect my Indianness and all it has given me. They ask intelligent questions, they have listened when I have ranted and raved about the contents of this book. They understand why I, and the rest of us are frustrated.

They know that lazily formulated and insulting perceptions still exist, and that they need to be knocked down.

It goes a little like this.

In the Indian woman, the West has seen something that doesn’t fit snugly into its mould and has categorised it as “other”. We’re “Asian” not Gujarati, Bengali or Tamil. We have brown skin and so we are lazily lumped into one box. The West makes assumptions about our heritage and what we are “allowed” to do, and so we look with perplexed faces at the people who ask “Have your parents lined up a nice Indian doctor for you?”

A friend of mine, a student of medicine retorted to one questioner “No, I’m going to be the Indian doctor.” I love her for her response, and for deftly putting the fool in their place.

The notion that an Indian woman may only have a spouse (cherry picked by her parents, of course) of medical discipline and origins from the sub-continent is frankly ridiculous. This is something I revel in knocking down, and I know others who rock their head in their hands in disbelief as they realise, that yes, these silly people are flesh and blood. If it wasn’t for our ability to have some fun with such encounters, I fear there might soon be millions of tired and pissed off Indian women across the globe either hazy eyed with exhaustion or tearing their hair out with frustrated zeal.

I had an interesting exchange with a man with whom I went on a date. Woe was his, he invited himself to a lesson on gender politics mixed with cultural studies delivered by his sarcastic and self-appointed teacher. The evening was lacklustre, until he turned to me and said:

“So you Indian women aren’t allowed to do anything are you?”

I looked back at him with a dumbfounded and quizzical expression. No, wait, he was being serious.

“I’m out with you and without a chaperone, am I not?” I replied.
“Yeah sure, but that will change when your parents decide to get you married off. They’ll introduce you to a nice Indian boy and then you’ll get married and cook his dinner and have his babies.”

Wanting to reassure him that my future had more in store for me than perfectly round chappatis, Cillit Bang and perfunctory sex, I turned to him and said:

“No, no. That’s not the case at all. In fact my parents know I’m out with you and expect the full debrief tomorrow morning. Don’t worry, I’ll tell them all about you.”

Not latching on to my sarcasm, he continued.

“No, Indian women have arranged marriages and can’t work. I know that for a fact!”

I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes. I took a sip of my cocktail (called Sauvignon Private Ryan because the London Cocktail Trading Company is wonderfully punny). Thus ensued the mother of Feminist Rants.

He retreated into his chair and woefully admitted defeat. The evening drew to a swift close, and we never spoke again.

If it wasn’t for our unrelenting sass, one would think that yet another duty of the tired but resolute Indian woman was to debunk various myths about her ability to work, her autonomy over her reproductive organs and audacity to think.

Excuse me while I burst this stupid bubble.

We can do whatever and whomever we choose. Sorry we didn’t admit it sooner, but we really did have you fooled didn’t we?

It becomes more difficult to laugh when this stupidity becomes insensitivity and our Indianness is fetishised. Saris of the 21st century come with sewn in suspender belts, didn’t you know?

When one’s background is fetishised, the “sexiest” bits are cherry picked to create a weird, distorted and inaccurate version. This serves no purpose other than pleasing the culprit. This is perversion, it’s as damaging as turning deities into fashion statements and it needs to stop. As lazy as it is reckless, it chips away at the integrity of a culture and its people, to the point that these people have to correct their Tinder dates over cocktails and explain how it’s really not okay to make insulting assumptions about someone because of the colour of their skin.

Simultaneously and correctly pissed off with having to deal with this, Jin Hyun hits the nail on the head in her article “White feminists are ruining feminism”:

“Before they see that I am a woman, they see my colour. This is why we have to bridge the gap between white women and minority race women before we can bridge the gap between men and women in general. Before women can be seen as equal to men socially, economically, and politically, we need to start treating another as equals, and stop degrading, patronizing or sexualizing women purely for their looks.”

We Indian women feel it too. They see our skin, and this alone is grounds to conduct a full character analysis.

I have been referred to by one man as his very own “bad little Indian girl”. I’m not sure how he turned the 21 year old version of myself, who lived in a university hoodie and pyjamas into a wanton sex goddess ready to devastate with my looks and wit (no wait, that would require me to think, scrap that), but he did.

This wasn’t the celebration of me as an equal partner I was owed. When things like this are said, the Indian woman’s Indian-ness is not just eroticised but becomes the very weapon used to criticise all that her heritage makes her. It sits the Indian woman down firmly on a naughty step so she is left ready and waiting to fulfil the disappointingly vanilla desires of the culturally inept white male.

So, we are left with two polarised and woefully simple tropes: the submissive and the degenerate. The degenerate is the “bad Indian girl” and the submissive is the benchmark. The beautiful but quiet wall flower who wouldn’t dare transgress the norms set out for her by the Western World’s manual to Being Brown.

Madness!

The Indian woman, like any other, is a complex creature. We have wants, desires, opinions and gumption enough to make them known. We will continue to do as we do, and know full well that we don’t need to excuse ourselves or our supposedly backwards culture in the process.

I love my heritage and all that it has given me. I love my mother tongue. I love the colour of my skin. I love being a British Indian woman but I am sick of having to dispel the myths surrounding my identity and my people. I am tired of being called “exotic”, as if my very Indian-ness were some specimen in a petri dish being poked by a colossal white male psuedo-Scientist clad in a lab coat or lazily dismissed by a fickle industry. I fume at the thought that I have been eroticised, pushed far beyond the narrow parameters of an outdated understanding of womanhood, only to be enjoyed, not respected.

We’re not exotic, and if we’re erotic it certainly isn’t just for you.

We are your equals, not something “other” to be prodded at like an alien race crash landing on St Pauls. Ask questions, seek to learn about our experiences. Appreciate where we’ve come from but don’t dream up limitations our origins may set for us. See for yourselves exactly what we can and will do as we go about our lives, just like you.

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