after years of white-washing, fariha róisín finally feels free to be herself
The 27-year-old writer opens up about her lifelong body image battle, and how she overcame it.
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As a self-described thick-framed brown girl, growing up in a country that lauds a very specific type of beauty, one that’s defined by white skin, blonde hair and a tall, slim frame, 27-year Australian writer and activist Fariha Róisín felt ugly for most of her life. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel beautiful, it was that this specific type of beauty could never be available to her. After years of experimenting with diets, skin lightening creams, Tomboy clothes, razors and a smattering of tattoos, Fariha finally feels emboldened in her own skin. Here she shares her story.
“I grew up in Australia, where white women were put on pedestals, and where a specific kind of beauty is commodified: this beachy aesthetic of a tall, tanned, blonde-haired, thin-legged woman. These were all things that were glorified, and they also happened to be things that I wasn’t, and could never be, so as a result I assumed I’d never have access to being beautiful.
I felt horrendously ugly up until my mid-teens, and even after, but maybe I stopped caring as much after 15. Before that, as I said, I felt as though my body and beauty had no validity because I wasn’t white. I was also a hairy kid, I had a moustache and was chubby and wasn’t allowed to shave my legs, so I just became a Tomboy. That was easier. I’ve also always been thick. I always had thick thighs and a big ass, but because the only references I had to that were via pop culture, i.e. black women in music, I felt alienated in my body, in my reality, because I was geographically surrounded by white women. Which is why, when my parents (stupidly) bought me Fair and Lovely cream, I put it on religiously. When my maternal grandmother would squeeze my nose so it would grow narrower, I believed it was for my own good. I would watch Bollywood films and think, “This is the closest I’ll ever get to being beautiful, so I should emulate them.” I started “dieting” at 12. I was obsessed with white-washing myself.
Around 10 I got really into sports. I would wear jerseys everywhere as that was the only time I was allowed to experience my body without constantly shaming it. My dad would buy me fake Nike knockoffs and adidas tracksuits like I was a Tenenbaum kid, and it became this blanket, this armour. I wasn’t a girl under there; I was a shapeless thing. Then, around 14, I noticed people were starting to look at me differently. I would get stopped on the street a lot more, girls at school were responding to me. I can distinctly remember someone I really admired telling me that she thought I was beautiful.
I felt really gay for most of my teens because I was surrounded by girls and attracted to them constantly, and slowly I started feeling seen, and that really changed the way I engaged with myself, with my sexuality. Women seeing me has always meant more to me than men seeing me. Though, I was boy crazy, too. FYI… I was just all raging hormones.
My earliest beauty-related memory was when I was four, and putting on my mother’s make-up for the first time in secrecy while she was out shopping. I started wearing make-up properly around 14. It was a kajal eyeliner that I was obsessed with, because all of the Bollywood stars wore kajal. I would experiment with that a lot. There were literally years that I thought I would not be able to go outside if I didn’t wear eyeliner. I considered getting it permanently tattooed because I couldn’t conceive my future partner ever having to look at my face without it on.
Over the years, my relationship with my body has changed; it’s been a downright revolution. I get really emotional because I never thought I’d get here. I’ve had many stages of my life where I’ve been deeply suicidal, and I was convinced when I was 16, and cutting myself into unconscious states, that I’d never survive the trauma of my life. I’m so grateful that I’m alive, that I overcame so much of this self-hate. There were many sleepless nights when I was younger that I would look at myself in the mirror, pushing my fat on my thighs, hips and telling myself repetitively that I was ugly, punching myself to sleep. Telling myself that that I was useless. That I would never be loved.
These days, I look at myself and I’m happy. I not only think I’m beautiful, I’ve accepted that I am. Sometimes it’s wild that I ever got here. People want to put narratives on you, people project their preconceived notions of who they think you are, or what you’ve been through. In a lot of ways it’s healing for me to remember that I got here. I did that. I love myself for surviving.
Recently an old "friend" of mine said that my selfies were a sign of my narcissism. It was so heartbreaking to process that because she knows -- at least to some extent -- what it took to get here, breaking away from the learnt negativity, or unlearning the body dysmorphia. I think it's really unfortunate that a lot of the time we can't look at femmes and be happy with how they feel about themselves, I think, because it circles back to an idea that we've been bred with: that there can only be one beautiful woman in the room, so we diminish them when really it's an insecurity on our part, not theirs. It takes a lot to put yourself out there when you've been conditioned to feel undesirable your whole life. Another friend called this person's actions "anti-femme." I see this anti-femme idea a lot, i.e. that we refuse to engage how for some selfies are a survival tactic.
I think social media is a powerful tool. Although I couldn’t post a selfie up until 2016, it’s really helped me personally feel more beautiful. I love how marginalised femmes have a platform to express their beauty, and have access to feeling beautiful. And sure, I think a lot of people co-opt this platform, without acknowledging that, i.e. if you’re a brown girl who is light-skinned cis/het and you’re conventionally attractive, taking up space isn’t a radical action anymore. Hopefully we’ve had our rudimentary understanding of how social media has helped these voices and faces get out, but now we’ve got think of the conversations we’re going to have around actually dismantling conventional beauty standards. Otherwise it loses its meaning. But, I'm never be there to judge someone for doing that, it's everyone's journey. I just think it's time to really do something about the industry, and make space for others
Today, I feel most beautiful when I am happy with myself. Beauty is about feeling comfortable with who I am holistically. I still feel insecure, but to my credit, less and less. It’s hard to not feel insecure online when you’re a femme and men want to openly discredit you for your perspectives. Or when you’re sent hate mail for speaking out as a Muslim, or what have you. But these days I get emboldened by this as opposed to sad, feeling bolder has led me to feel that in every part of myself, and less and less insecure.”