Identity without apology: what I wish I had known

Sneh Chachra, Feature Writer

Growing up in Indian culture meant growing up in a Fair and Lovely world: light skin with a body and personality that didn’t take up too much space was what you strove for. Skin bleach (like Fair and Lovely), digestives and unsafe fasting practices dominated the lives of Indian women all around me. 

There was a deep discrepancy between my appearance and the appearances of people I would have preferred to look this — I saw it when I looked at photos of myself and didn’t see the same person I saw in the mirror. Working towards the standard of beauty that dominates today’s media, for many, is a journey that often results in internal battles. 

Senior Ani Pham grew up in Vietnam and shared her struggles adjusting to new standards in the United States. Pham made a lot of her decisions based on how others perceived her. She noticed that this became detrimental to what really mattered: her relationship with herself. 

“I really fell into this trap of what the young, white, skinny, American teen should look like and how they should dress,” Pham said. “It kind of followed me through high school.” 

Her story rings true for so many who sacrifice time, enjoyment and comfort to fit into an impossible standard.

Experiencing such intense detachment from herself at a young age allowed her to improve her relationship with her body by the time she arrived at college. Upon coming to Whitman, though, Pham encountered expectations around physical capability more than physical appearance. Whitman is a primarily white private school with a culture dominated by the outdoors and your ability to hike it, climb it and jump off of it—often in that order. When you get here, it isn’t just about race, gender, sex or class anymore; it’s also about ability.

“My first experience [at Whitman] was a Scramble where people were working their body. It’s all about strength … and that had a big impact on me in terms of accepting my body, as well as seeing how people’s bodies change in college,” Pham said.

To her, taking care of her body started to mean building strength. While she admits to struggling with listening to her body and its limits, focusing on strength has become a source of empowerment for her. 

“You can’t do these things if you’re not taking care of yourself,” Pham said. 

Junior Shola Mau describes her relationship with her appearance as complicated. Mau and I found solace in discussing our relationships with the hair straightener. Many of us have gone through periods of our lives where we straightened our hair every day to better manage it and fit a “cleaner” look — a heavily racialized standard. Those implications become more and more intense for Mau, as a mixed woman with natural hair. 

“No matter how hard you try, some white girl is going to do it better,” Mau said, as she concluded that the effort she had to put into being seen as attractive was disproportionate to those around them. Eventually, she quit the flat iron and turned to box braids. Unfortunately, her dissent from the “clean girl” norm sparked ridicule, with peers calling her hair gross. The racism didn’t end, as peers began asking her to “do the Willow Smith thing,” referring to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” music video. 

Why do beauty norms allow some to roll out of bed and claim the messy hair day as cute, but push others to lose half their days shaving, straightening and covering up just to get a fraction of the validation? Mau found herself overcoming this double standard as she reflected on her relationship with her body and how she represents her sexuality. She enjoys utilizing clothing to express both her feminine side and her masculine side with most of her clothes coming from the men’s section. 

“Being at peace [with myself] would just be like accepting my body for what it is. Not wanting to change it, not being afraid to wear what I want to wear because I think it’ll accentuate something that I don’t particularly like. I still struggle with that,’” Mau said. “I’ve actually found a lot of inspiration through other people, especially plus-size influencers because they look so good. And I think to be at peace would be to be able to do that fully.” 

Senior Xaaran Dolence expressed that the past four years have been some of the most formative for them. College gave them the space to not only explore their gender identity but to find empowerment in their expression of it. 

“I have realized I am both non-binary and trans, or transmasc, and figuring that out has definitely changed my relationship with myself,” Dolence said. “I just feel far more comfortable in my body and just with myself in general.” 

When they entered college, they had the space to recognize that there are options for self-expression that felt more authentic. Dolence began to reflect on what they would say now to the version of themselves at the beginning of college.

“It didn’t even occur to me that there were other options than just being a woman. As soon as I started figuring that out, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I have never been this woman,’” Dolence said. “I’d tell myself what really matters is that I feel comfortable with me, not that I fit into socially prescribed boxes.” 

Dolence made their own freedom that exists outside of the white cis-heteronormative world we live in. Interrogating these expectations paved their path to peace. They’re obscuring their dysphoria by dressing in a more masculine way, as well as telling their story and planning top surgery to reclaim the impact perception has had on them. 

Senior Sofia Solares recognizes that truly internalizing self-worth isn’t as easy as knowing you should love yourself. 

“It’s so easy to be like, ‘just love yourself, [and] just appreciate yourself,’” Solares said. “I mean that, but it also seems like a throwaway answer.” 

Building self-esteem takes work. Some of that includes actively divorcing your decisions and thought patterns from external pressure. The way Solares has been able to balance the pressure of external perception with who she really is has depended mostly on shifting her own self-perception.

Illustration by M Hu.

“[The way I accomplish this] is to perceive myself in a good way and then try to project that onto other people. If I kind of exude that energy, other people will start to see me in that way as well,” Solares said. She recognizes that when we find community in navigating these standards, peace follows. “I’m all about ‘life is a journey’; you’re going to grow and change all the time.” 

The battle between the confines of beauty standards and what makes someone truly feel beautiful isn’t sustainable. We grow, age, droop, gain, lose and scar. We must let go of what we can’t control, and we must realize that the only sense of comfort, perception or beauty that matters is ours.

If I could guide myself through my adolescence and into my college experience, I’d hope to communicate that peace comes from the love I give myself. 

I’d tell myself:

Lay in the sun carelessly, revel in the kisses of heat that make your skin glow and practice gratitude for the melanin that protects you. 

Break your straightener and let your curls halo your head, unruly and fierce. 

Stop hiding behind baggy, dark clothes and dress like you want to be noticed because you deserve to be noticed. 

Feel at peace with yourself from ten years ago, six years ago, four years ago and even today.

The imaginary is a powerful tool that when utilized correctly can help find solidarity and empowerment where there is alienation. Reveling in this community is how I find my peace and make my own freedom, unapologetically.