Brown Girl Pretty: Double Edged Compliments

Pretty for a Desi Girl
What is it about my face..
when you can’t pinpoint exactly where I’m from
Put a dot on it and she becomes brown,
take it off and she’s almost like one of us
with that straight cute tiny nose..
Big round eyes
…amber brown with caramel flecks.

I will never forget the first time I recognized a double edged compliment.

“Why are you so pretty, but your sisters are so dark?” I was 13 years old and pretty much speechless. It happened to be said by a then 9-year old, but what she said hit me like a bag of rocks. She just called me pretty, but said my sisters couldn’t possibly be because of the color of their skin.  My sisters looked just like me but had a few more shades of melanin to their skin tone. My sisters are equally beautiful and we are proud Desi’s (someone of Indian, Bangladesh or Pakistan decent).

But in high school, I started hearing from all the boys: “I don’t usually like brown girls but something about you… you’re beautiful.”  One wrote me a poem and said that my eyes reminded him of the ocean. I wondered exactly which one. I met the mother of another white friend who later revealed that his mother said “Oh, she’s pretty for the Mediterranean type.” almost in shock.  Eh? What are they trying to say? At least that’s what I thought at first, until my immature foolishness led me to take the compliments and overlook the underlying racism. Then, I started to get a big head. I’m different. I’m pretty.

 Once I got to college I started to hear the same thing… but from girls. They would even include my sisters sometimes. “You guys are so pretty. You don’t look like the typical brown girls. ” What? Wait a minute – what the hell is happening? This was startling to me because this became a different kind of compliment game. To make me an atypical brown girl – a “token one,” as if I was given permission to be a cool kid. Deeming me acceptable by a set of standards I was immediately held to, just because of where my family is from. Imagine that, being less like the stereotype they had in their mind made me better than the rest of my Desi sisters. I was only pretty as the subject of someone’s objectivity. Given some type of worth that they decided to give me.

People often comment on my big round eyes and my tiny straight nose. These Anglo Saxon features with that perfect tanned skin that sometimes slightly gets browner with the sun. My aura is different even, not being like the rest of “them” or because I do not walk around a certain way or dress a certain way, because my nose isn’t big and long or flatter. My features allow me to mix in freely without getting looks or comments other brown girls, even my sisters, sometimes get. Because I’m not like them. Because I’m different. Because I look like “a doll.” I used to almost revel in this fact and accepted those pointed compliments. I mean it’s not like I could change how I looked anyhow even if I felt guilty. For people to fetish-ize me into being adequate enough to be considered attractive.  Being unique somehow felt like the ultimate ideal even though I felt some inner turmoil over the duplicity of those compliments given. I felt I had achieved another level of privilege.

Unfortunately, this idea was only perpetuated by my own kind. My own kind being Bangladeshi, other Desis, brown Asians.  They’ve always looked at my sisters and me, and wondered exactly where we were from. When I tell them, it’s often a look of surprise. They would mistake me for Spanish or Guyanese; maybe that explains away some of my features. I’ve often felt like an outsider looking in. I didn’t belong with them either. In hindsight, it was probably a two way street. Because I felt different, I also acted differently.

I remember thinking if I got a nose ring that somehow I would be “too brown”. What is that about anyway?  Why should I be made to feel embarrassed of embracing my own culture? We do this to ourselves by trying to emulate the whiteness that we think will somehow redeem us. I mean, think of Fair and Lovely – it is a common product in Desi households. But why?  Even Bollywood highlights their light skinned actresses… the ones who may look more like me. Why are we not showing all the different beautiful women we have? In my own family I have the most beautiful chocolate skinned sisters. I have cousins with flat noses that are perfect for the nose rings that adorn their face. Cousins with almond shaped eyes that make you wonder parts of the Asian continent they have in their genes.

When I was younger, I used to think about my heritage and wonder where exactly these features come from. Where in my history did I have a white ancestor? There is a long history of white people coming and invading the Indian subcontinent, from the Aryans to the British. I’ve considered getting one of those Ancestry DNA kits but then realized I don’t really care. I know better now. I’m proud of my rich melanin filled heritage.  And I have more to offer than just my looks.

Indian women. Brown women. Desi women are beautiful. Every shade, every eye shape, every type of nose or lips or hair type. The spice and variety of life. Beautiful and brown.


From The Mixed Up Files Of An

American Born Confused Desi