This is a bit longer than I would normally post but I thought I’d include it. It’s an assignment I submitted for my Writing the Zeitgeist unit last study period. They wanted us to explore something that connected with the spirit of the times and, for me, one of those experiences has been about how looking ‘different’ from everyone else has affected me. I got a Credit for it so it’s definitely not perfect but I’ve decided not to edit it, even though I can see places where it could be improved.
Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always been different. As an Australian-Puerto-Rican growing up in Australia, I was often referred to as ‘black’. When I moved to Jamaica at age ten, I magically became ‘white’. My olive complexion has often been a talking point. People are forever trying to place me. ‘Where are you from? What natio’ are you?’ I’ve been asked these questions my whole life.
In Jamaica, my skin colour made me privileged. Light brown skin was considered desirable, more attractive. It was supposed to be a compliment to have neighbourhood boys eye you on the street and yell, ‘Pssst browning!’ Jamaican dancehall artists penned songs to women ‘of a fairer complexion’. I remember one particularly popular song by Buju Banton featured the chorus, “Me love me car, me love me bike, me love me money and t’ing. But most of all, me love me browning.”
But there is a dark side. A Google search reveals many articles on the privilege experienced by lighter skinned people in Jamaica. It’s said they get better jobs, better wages. They’re seen in the music videos, the ads and the front of house jobs. For me, it meant that, for once, I saw people that looked like me in magazines and on TV. When this happens, you start to think maybe I can be pretty, which can be a comfort during the intense self-consciousness of your teenage years.
If you want to see how the media influences how we think about things like race, gender and sexuality, check out The Critical Media Project website. It features a library of video clips curated to make viewers start thinking about media representation. When the media continually represents a particular race or gender in a certain way, stereotypes can be made. When one type of beauty is promoted above all others, inferiority is bred. When you don’t see ‘yourself’ pictured favourably in the media you watch, you begin to feel like you don’t matter, aren’t important.
I may have been fortunate enough to see people that looked like me on TV but what about the girls who had darker skin? In a majority black country, they had the numbers yet still found themselves somehow marginalised. How did the idolisation of ‘brownings’ affect them? The popularity of skin bleaching creams in Jamaica provides some insight. In 2007, the Jamaican Ministry of Health launched a campaign against the dangers of skin bleaching but it had little effect. The campaign (and practice) continues today.
For all my brownness, I failed in other areas. For many, the ‘perfect’ woman in Jamaica has brown to light brown skin and is curvy with a big ‘bumper’ or bum. I had the skin but not the curves. At least, not as a teenager. I was skinny as a rake, what Jamaicans call ‘maga’, a not-too-nice variation on the word meagre. I hated my bony chest, my knobby knees. For years, I would swim at the beach with a huge t-shirt over my swimsuit (not that it hid much once I got wet) but these are the things you do when you’re ashamed of your body. It doesn’t necessarily make any sense.
At age eighteen, I moved to Sydney to finish my studies. One weekend, I agreed to attend a house party and one of the girls from my new high school picked me up from my grandparents’ house.
‘You’re so skinny!’ she said.
I was momentarily stopped in my tracks. My heart paused and I felt like I’d been punched in the throat.
“I wish I was that skinny,” she continued, oblivious to the confusion erupting inside me.
It took me a second to realise she meant it as a compliment. After years of having words like skinny and maga thrown at me like rocks, it’s hard to believe these can be good things. People want to be skinny here? I filed it away as something to overthink later but the message stuck; skinny is beautiful.
Skip forward fourteen years and, even though I’m in my thirties, I still want to be pretty. I no longer want it with the desperation of the teenage me but it’s still there, a soft tugging at an always moody self-esteem. And it seems like there are always new ways to feel inadequate.
Sad but true fact: according to Facebook figures released in 2011, the first thing 48% of 18 – 34 years olds do in the morning is check their Facebook account. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m a statistic. After rolling over and taming my alarm, the first thing I do is scroll through my feed. What’s happened overnight? Who’s liked my posts? What funny dog videos can I watch while still in bed?
But social media is also where I start feeling insecure again. I’m what you’d call relatively skinny but, as time has passed, my youthful metabolism has deserted me. Slimness is no longer a given. I now have to work at it and with my penchant for sweets and comfort food… Well, let’s just say things aren’t what they used to be and it doesn’t help that I don’t jump with joy at the chance to exercise.
In the past, I’ve tried to use social media to motivate myself into exercising more and eating better. Instead, I find it confronting, de-motivating. I see pictures of tiny, ‘healthy’ meals that don’t look like they could sustain a three year old and I don’t want any part of it. How can they survive on a diet of kale, activated almonds and green juice? I need real food. Occasionally, this may or may not include mac and cheese, a definite skinny person no-no.
A study conducted by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt found that, thanks to social media, we now have even more people to compare ourselves to and feel lacking: our friends. Yes, the worlds of fashion and fitness have long been holding up models and celebrities as paragons of beauty but we expect them to be Photoshopped. We know they have specialist pit crews on hand to make them look spectacular. When we see a fitness model or celebrity on Instagram, we may wish we looked more like them, had their legs or their stomach, but our friends are just ordinary people like us. When we compare ourselves to them – how they look in a bikini, what they eat – the inadequacy somehow feels more real.
Perhaps I’m unlucky to have so many conventionally good looking friends. I see the constant stream of taut, ‘perfect’ women with their straight up and down, almost boyish bodies and I’m so different from them. I look at myself in the mirror and I have curves. I have an ass. I could work out for hours in the gym every day and never look like them. Thank god, butts are popular nowadays. I count this as a definite win.
It’s a constant battle, the one we wage with ourselves. I’m not skinny enough. I’m not fit enough, too brown, not brown enough. I don’t look like everyone else. We start to fight it as soon as we start to notice ourselves, to look at the kid next to us and think, ‘hang on, I don’t have X…’ and X is different for each of us. It’s such an intensely personal struggle because no one else can truly understand the sometimes seemingly minor things you can hate about yourself.
As an adult with somewhat more confidence, I find I can enjoy my ‘exoticness’. I can revel in my quick-tan brown skin and my every-day’s-a-different-hairstyle curls and, yes, on some days, even my curves. The things that make me different, that I once hated and was self-conscious about, are now points of pride. Most of the time.
Image credit: Picture Quotes