April 25, 2021 / Zayana Uddin
Summer heat radiates through plastic windows, idle minds sit in the last five minutes of class, and my friends and I vegetate at our desks as we decide on a trivial game to play. Someone shouts out to name our celebrity look-alike, and the fun begins. One by one, we go in a circle and spend a few seconds deciding who looks like what member from Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The dreaded moment comes when the focus lands on me, and I already know what’s going to be said. A silent horse that’s been beaten over and over again.
I flashed back to age 13. My older brother was a fresh high school graduate and I, a starry eyed freshman-to-be, obsessed over every high school memento he kept. Flipping through his senior yearbook, I stumbled upon a survey where the editors asked four seniors to choose their celebrity look-alike. I read through painfully quirky, and sometimes surprisingly accurate, answers from 18-year-olds whose printed faces I saw for the first and last time that afternoon. In a moment of retrospect, I asked myself the same question. I cycled through a list of my favorite celebrities at the time: Taylor Swift, Lorde and Avril Lavigne to name a few. As my mind ran over the names floating through my thoughts, I grew increasingly aware of how little I resembled the women I thought to be beautiful. Or rather, how the beauty I admired did little to represent me.
The wormhole continued its downward spiral as I analyzed the “beautiful” and “normal” people the media feeds to us. In childhood, I rarely saw a TV character who wasn’t white, let alone Bengali. Katara from Avatar the Last Airbender became my comfort character with her wits, curly hair and brown skin. None of the media I consumed made me feel normal. I avoided mentioning my ethnicity to any of my classmates until age 12 because I didn’t want to emphasize my physical differences from them. One time my first grade teacher called me up to her desk and asked if my family came from Pakistan. My cheeks grew hot and I felt the embarrassment zip through me. Wanting the conversation to be over as fast as possible, I mumbled a reluctant “yes” without considering correcting her.
If I lost my identity in a sea of white faces, imagine the thoughts of kids who had never seen someone who looked like me. My life in middle school consisted of kids looking at me as if I was a puzzle piece with no space that fit in their idea of the world. Quick to put a label on me, my peers thought I was “mixed” and left it at that. No one bothered to ask, and I didn’t volunteer to fill in the blanks. At that point, the embarrassment of my differing ethnicity hindered me from embracing the body I couldn’t change. I didn’t feel beautiful in the skin I couldn’t change. Why did my skin color have to be the elephant in the room? Why couldn’t my features be considered as normal as everyone else?
Flash forward to age 17 when the doomed game of “Who’s Your Celebrity Look Alike?” lands on me. I marinate in the awkward pause as my friends rack their brains for an acceptable answer. I can see their expressions change as they make the choice I knew they were going to say right from the start - hell, before the game even began. “Priyanka Chopra!” Someone calls out, as others chime in their agreement. They’re proud of an answer that couldn’t be further from the truth. Considering Chopra is of Indian descent and I’m Bengali-American, I can say that my friend’s comparison between us is a total miss.
I have no ill will towards the gorgeous Miss World 2000 winner. Anyone would be honored to resemble her (it would be nice to have her high-arched brows or toothy smile). What I’m tired of is the fact that Chopra has become the blanket South Asian actress for Western media. The perpetuation of referring back to Chopra when prompted about Desi celebrities reveals the lack of nuance in public perception. South Asian women may be cut from the same cloth, but we are far from the one-size-fits-all mold given to us. We are more than a funny side character, a diversity token, or the ethnically ambiguous mystery girl slinking in the corner of the party.
It’s dangerous if we allow Hollywood to continue on with providing no representation of South Asian people outside of an amalgamation of outdated stereotypes (I’m looking at you, Disney, and what you did to Baljeet in Phineas and Ferb). It’s time we celebrate South Asian creators who break the mold and give us their authentic experience. Below I’ve curated a list of Desi women who don’t follow society’s rules on what they should be, and instead embrace who they are:
- Cas Jerome (@casjerome): Model, influencer, and makeup artist whose work focuses on body positivity, funky makeup looks, and embracing one’s individuality.
- Paravi Das (@pxrxvi): UCLA student and honey-voiced singer — stream her songs “Electric Love” and “Godspeed” now!
- Tanya (@tanyaar): Model and influencer with an edgy look that will surely rock your world.
- Joy Crookes (@joycrookes): British singer-songwriter whose neo-soul hits are 100% certified to clear your skin and write your senior thesis.
Social media evolves every day, and kids and teens alike are exposed to ideas they aren’t accustomed to. In this turn of the decade, the progressive leaps we take will result in our society growing to be more inclusive and nuanced. Representation is important when finding a sense of self, especially as a child when you're grasping your perspective of the world. My hope for the future is that 9-year-old Desi girls can find characters they feel comfortable relating to rather than feeling like a caricature. While it would be nice to be Miss World 2000 and marry Joe Jonas, South Asian women can write their own stories and break through distorted molds. ■
Graphics by: Emma Weeden