The ugly side effects of European beauty standards
By Sonia Bermas
When I was a child, my mother would make me a sandwich every day for lunch. More often than not, it would end up in the trash. I hated the plain food and was tired of the same ham sandwich, wondering why she didn’t make me the dishes we usually had at home, like the chicken biryani, butter chicken, roti and curry. I told my sister how I felt and she sat me down in our small shared room that was so cramped it felt hard to breathe. She told me how she brought my mother’s cooking of traditional Indian food to her elementary school for lunch every day, and how her classmates would make fun of her by calling the food smelly. She broke down one day crying, begging our mom to make her something else so she wouldn’t be made fun of. Our mom listened and gave plain sandwiches for lunch instead. My mom had to give away a piece of her culture for her children to be safe. When my sister told me this, I realized how much of ourselves we lost to assimilate to Canadian life.
My parents immigrated to Canada — one from Persia and the other from India — in the hopes of a better life. I was never taught the languages my parents spoke in their homeland, and as I grew older, I’ve regretted not learning how to. I now wish that I was more connected to the beautiful lands my parents came from. The mountain ranges and lush forests, lands filled with rich vegetation and exotic fruits, streets filled with rich flavours and the smell of strong spices.
My desire to be more attached to my roots wasn’t always the case. There was once a time where I wished I could be something I was not. I wanted to be white. I hated my skin. I hated how I never saw someone that looked like me in magazines and movies. My mom would try to make me see my beauty, and constantly remind me that brown skin is beautiful. I never listened. I wish I was happy with who I was, but I kept denying myself that opportunity because I was trying to be the person I saw in the media. I never felt represented. When I did see someone like myself, often when I watched Bollywood movies as a child, I felt like an outsider — so disconnected from my Indian roots because I could not understand a word of what was said.
Growing up, only a small group of my peers looked like me. I remember the girls who were paler than me and had lighter hair. They were always happier than me, living in a big house surrounded by a white picket fence. They were always favoured by other students — the popular kids with many friends and the types of girls that boys liked, while I felt invisible. I downloaded Instagram when I was a teenager, which made me realize that Eurocentric features were the beauty standard as I scrolled through my feed of popular celebrities — all white or lighter-skinned. I saw what my people were called on social media based on our skin colour: terrorists, cow worshippers or smelly. There was always an underlying tone to these so-called jokes, as if they truly perceived my people to be like that. These “jokes” left deep-rooted scars.
In a world plagued by patriarchy and misogyny, women are often valued by their appearance. It is no surprise that young girls are brought up to aspire to fit society’s standards of beauty — a white standard of beauty. We idolize characters like Barbie who construct this idea that we need to be skinny, have fair skin and straight hair.
I owned two Barbie dolls as a child — one white-skinned and the other brown. I would get mad and pick fights with my sister when she left me to play with the brown doll. When I look back on that memory, I feel disgusted. I am ashamed of myself for the thoughts I had. I looked like that doll, and yet, the doll was ugly to me. I was a child no older than six, and I already felt like my appearance had no worth.
I was taught by society that I needed white beauty to have worth, and for a long time, I was so focused on trying to achieve that goal. I would dwell on things I could never change about myself. I would compare myself to every girl who looked nothing like me. I hated that my skin was brown instead of white, and my eyes were brown instead of blue. Looking back, it breaks my heart to see how I strongly believed I wasn’t beautiful, to remember how I cried myself to sleep every night.
As I grew older, I finally started to see my mother’s beauty. How she gave everything up just to protect her children and how she was still true to herself through it all. I wanted to be strong like her. I forced myself to stop caring about beauty standards because they don’t determine my worth. It was hard at first to give up a version of myself I carried around for so long. I was saying goodbye to a piece of myself. Even now, there are still days where I am consumed by my thoughts and fall back into destructive habits.
When I look in the mirror, I see the face of my mother. My mother, who did everything she could for her children in order for them to have a better life. She endured every rude remark, every judgemental stare and every scar. Yet she faced it all and it somehow made her stronger. She put on a brave face for her children's sake. I see the golden eyes, the raven hair, I see the beauty I deprived myself of for so many years.