When I was nine I started growing forests.
I was confused and pleased whenever I found a new grove on my lips, cheeks, chin, under my arms, in a neat line down my stomach, all over my back, on my baby brown legs, and then in that secret place that I had seen on other children but only touched sometimes on myself. I imagined these dark wiry trees hugging me wherever I went and keeping me warm and safe.
Others were not so impressed.
Every family has its dirty words. Ours were sex, divorce, cigarettes and myre. Myre means hair in Tamil. My mother hated our myre. I grew up watching her walk around with a cream white Veet moustache, rubbing my arm hairs in disgust, sitting me on piles of newspaper while she shaved me, dead hair all around my child body.
It became the channel for her rage. It started with cleaning. Everything had to be in its place – there could never be any “clutter”, unless it was hers. There could never be anything in the sink. Every surface had to be hoovered and disinfected everyday. A wash cycle must be run at least once a day, in this family of two. Every sock and dishcloth had to be ironed. And there must never, ever be any myre. When those thick dark snakes were found coiled on our white kitchen tiles, or our green bathroom mat, or our red blue green carpets over the years, it was time to for me to press myself into the corridor walls, still and mute, as if I didn’t exist as much she couldn’t possibly shout for as long.
“I would tear my hands red and raw cleaning and keeping an eye out for the hated myre”
After a few years I learnt that crying didn’t stop anything. So I learnt to count misssissipis instead, while she knelt on all fours, trawling through the sprigs of carpet for my goddamn myre that disgusted her so much, screaming with fury. I learnt to float away from my body while her mouth moved in a big noiseless O, demanding an explanation for the myre, for the uncleanliness, for my existence, for her husband, for her unhappiness.
I learnt to clean, although in retrospect it’s clear that cleaning was not the problem. Even when I learnt to wake at six am to hoover, to come home in my free periods to disinfect, to squeeze in a few hours of schoolwork in between hours of cleaning, to tear my hands red and raw by trawling in the same all fours position, and to always always always keep an eye out for the hated myre she still moved her mouth in her loud red way. Truthfully, she hated herself and me for many reasons, one of them being our brownness.
“Hairiness is undeniably linked to brownness. And darkness is undeniably despised”
She even hated the myre on my head. It was not black or sleek like other Indians. Even though I liked my hair the way it was and didn’t see how its colour could change, she would still insist on sitting me down cross-legged and beating thick greasy coconut oil into it, hard hands punishing my roots. I felt that perhaps she hated me for assimilating too well, with my frizzy brown and strange new British accent. I would protest. I did not like her touching my scalp and neck without my consent. But my feeble “no’s” were not important. My right to my body did not exist.
Hairiness is undeniably linked to brownness. And darkness is undeniably despised. The dark wiry hairs that bedded my lips so naturally at the age of nine only seemed to make the skin underneath darker and uglier. My hair was embarrassing and wrong and people made fun of it and asked why it was there. I did not then understand that whiteness was presumed blank canvas of normality that I stuck out against, in my hairy darkness. But I had a painful, prickling sense that I was not nine anymore. I was being propelled into something else – brown womanhood.
“I have memories of sitting on my dark wooden kitchen table for hours, crying with bewilderment and boredom, as she applied basin to my skin to bleach me whiter and purer and prettier”
When I speak about the pressure I experience as a woman to be beautiful, white women seem to believe we share the same struggle. We don’t. I have memories of sitting on my dark wooden kitchen table for hours, crying with bewilderment and boredom, as she and amma* applied basin to my skin to bleach me whiter and purer and prettier. I was seven. Fair & Lovely adverts played on a loop on every TV channel, educating me daily that I needed to look white to deserve acceptance. These are not isolated incidents that only occur in – as I imagine white people like to believe – ‘backwards’ Calcutta.
I do not know one brown woman who grew up embracing her brownness, who wasn’t told she should stay out of the sun – not for fear of skin damage – but because our soft dark matter is truly hated. We are hated by our mothers, who hate in themselves their appearance and project this onto us; by ourselves, who only want to be loved; and by society, which only loves whiteness. If white women struggle to feel beautiful, that gulf is only greater for women of colour. We are raised to know that only whiteness is pureness, only whiteness is true softness and femininity, only whiteness is goodness and beauty, and our darkness is inherently unwomanly, unforgiveable, and unlovable.
“Society raises women of colour to hate ourselves for our womanhood and non whiteness”
There are many parallels between oppression and abuse. Firstly, abuse does not begin with abuse. For abuse to succeed, the abuser must be able to groom us into believing two things – that the abuse is a form of love, and that there is something inherent to us that is malignant enough to deserve this abusive pseudolove as true love. Society raises women of colour to hate ourselves for our womanhood and non whiteness. Secondly, for abuse to stay sustainable, the abuser must erode our sense of self and self esteem by repeated, unpinnable acts of hatred, until not only is abuse the norm, but it is safe and it is the only option.
This is the significance of microaggressions. As a survivor of child and sexual abuse, I do not believe I am being flippant when I compare oppression to abuse. Society does not love women of colour, full stop. Love and abuse cannot coexist – acts of abuse, however “small”, negate acts of love. Women of colour are continuously institutionally and individually degraded, denied the right to safety, disregarded as invisible, exotified and tokenised as hypervisible, hypersexualised, commodified, and brutalised. We are not afforded humanity. We are never told we deserve better. We have to teach ourselves, treading painfully out of what we know. And coming to terms with the weight of oppression, of being always Other, is a trauma in its own way.
Oppression lays the groundwork for abuse on an intimate level too. We are not able to know what love is in our individual relationships because we have never been loved by society. We are not able to recognise abuse for what it is because we have been raised to believe abuse is what we deserve. I was raised to believe both at home and in the wider world that as a brown woman I was not allowed to take up space, physically, emotionally or vocally. I was raised to believe my place was to be small. My hairs, these eager symbols of growth, were vilified. I supposed to remain hairless and childlike to remain palatable for men. I was not supposed to exist on my own terms.
I repeatedly put my body through destruction in attempts to stay small. There was the scratching and the beating and the cutting and the purging and the overdosing. And then there was of course the hair removal. I do not underestimate the significance of my obsession with removing my hairs. Each bout of removal was another confinement to nothingness. I gained in the process of trying to be palatable for my abusers – permanently scarred ankles, legs sliced to ribbons, labia heavy and bleeding with cuts, a stomach raw from having its hair pulled out with scissors, armpits aching with eczema that I ignored and shaved over for two years, sides that I plucked out only to get infected, and permanent chemical burns on my lips and chin.
“I still want to look feminine, clean, acceptable”
I still remove my facial hairs. I want to pretend it’s a choice I make simply because I love my eyebrows but truthfully I do not enjoy paying a stranger to rip out parts of my face with thread. I still want to look feminine, clean, acceptable. And I fear losing my femme identity. As a queer femme person of colour I have to shout doubly hard for my sexuality to be taken seriously. Apparently, only white people are emotionally intelligent enough to know they are not straight. (Again, this stems from dehumanisation.) But for now, I no longer spend money and time and pain removing my body hair. I am growing forests again. Last month I saw my armpit hair in its full length for the first time – until then, I had been shaving it before it ever had a chance to grow. Soft brown hairs cloak me and I feel powerful.
More recently, I decided to shave my head. A mundan ceremony is a Hindu child’s first haircut. It symbolises the shearing away of past sins and lives. I am coming to terms with the fact that there is something within me that wants to live, so this time round, after another suicide attempt, I chose to have a second mundan, a second rebirth ceremony. It was something that connected me to my heritage but also asserted myself as my own parent. Cutting off my heavy hair, a symbol of my life long unconsensual sexualisation and feminisation has been so liberating for me. My baldness and hairiness are a stand against the lifelong abuse and oppression that have told me my body is not mine. A reclamation of my selfhood and an assertion of love for my brown womanhood. An act of growth. An act of survival. An act of loudness. An act of bigness.
I am taking up space
*amma means mother in Tamil but I have always used it to refer to my grandmother.