Indian culture

How I celebrate my Indian culture alongside my alternative beauty identity

I always imagined that I would be well equipped for my 20th birthday: to party, to meet new people, to travel, to work. I’m slowly learning that not knowing what you’re doing is a big part of life, but the pandemic has shattered my coming-of-age fantasy. Like everyone else, I tried to bide my time in lockdown with Zoom quizzes and making banana bread – but to no avail. Instead, I found solace in the unusual and immersed myself in my one true love: alternative culture, especially emo.

I finally had time to nurture my obsession with music and all things dark and scary, which became a form of self-expression at a time when many of us felt like we had lost a large part of our identity. But as I delved into alternative culture, I discovered a deep history of cultural appropriation, particularly how traditions — such as clothing, makeup, and jewelry — are often taken over by the alternative community. It sparked something in me, which later helped me to appreciate and protect my Indian heritage in ways I never expected.

I felt like a cultural escape. I wasn’t Indian enough because I was half-breed; I was afraid to openly embrace my culture. I was into alternative beauty, fashion and music – a landscape where desi people are rare.

My dad emigrated from India to the UK in the late 60s and met my bright eyed, pale skinned Welsh mother in the 80s. They had three little brown babies. To most people, it’s obvious that I’m of South Asian descent because I have almost all of my father’s characteristics: curly black hair, a large nose, a deep complexion, and almond eyes. I am a desi baby through and through. But I’ve always been told that I “don’t look South Asian”. Why? Because I have never worn jewelry and traditional clothing or spoken Punjabi and, perhaps most telling of all, because I love alternative fashion and beauty: colored hair, eye makeup bold, tattoos and clothing encapsulating my alternative style.

I’ve never been ashamed of my South Asian heritage – and never will be – but I confess to being afraid to flaunt it, given my father’s experience. The word “struggle” does not go far enough to describe the inhumane treatment he endured. Its youth was eaten away by “P*ki-bashing”, where South Asians were driven from their homes, beaten, their possessions stolen and, in some cases, murdered. As an aspiring engineer in his teens and early twenties, he pushed himself to exhaustion in an effort to prove his worth to his white British colleagues, and was routinely turned down at interviews due to of his skin color. He was always a proud Indian, but like many immigrants who moved here during intensely patriotic times and who have since fought to be seen as more than second-class citizens, our family was instilled in our family to give priority to British culture over our own. It is a means of survival. For years, I experienced a simmering internal conflict. I felt like a cultural escape. I wasn’t Indian enough because I was half-breed; I was afraid to openly embrace my culture. I was into alternative beauty, fashion and music – a landscape where desi people are rare.

I thought, If people can get thousands of likes for draping themselves in my culture the wrong way, might as well show them how it’s done..

Almost a decade after I bought my first Pierce The Veil t-shirt and started straightening and sweeping my emo bangs, it’s fair to say that alternative culture has given me comfort. During my teenage years, it was easier to express my emotions by shouting “I’m Not Okay” by My Chemical Romance than to talk about them. And despite the South Asian stereotype of strict helicopter parenting dictating how you look and what you do, my dad came to appreciate and celebrate my interest in alternative culture, especially my fashion and beauty choices. The reason I felt disassociated from my Indian heritage was actually the idea that alternative culture is a “white thing”.

I’m so frustrated with this notion and have written about it many times before, especially the emphasis on creepy straight Caucasian hair and pale features. Rock music was born with black musicians in the 1920s, and there’s no textbook that says being brown and alt are mutually exclusive. Yet any Google search or Pinterest scroll for “alternative girl” and “emo boy” is flooded with blank faces. It’s hard to imagine yourself in a space where you can’t be seen.

As I scrolled through these painfully pale hashtags, a questionable trend began to emerge. People wore “gothic bindis” and “punk naths” (or nose rings). To me, these are just traditional bindis and naths, appropriated with black spray paint and kitschy or spooky patterns. It’s ironic that the alternative community — which preaches acceptance and acceptance of your differences — has a belly of cultural leeches and praise of white beauty standards. It has become so deeply rooted in alternative ideology that it is essentially the norm. Of course, I want everyone to understand and appreciate Indian and South Asian fashion and beauty – but is it appreciation if it has been rebranded and its rich cultural history erased? It didn’t sit well with me to see all the things I was made fun of or forced to be ashamed of in the past become eccentric tendencies. Granted, efforts are being made to eradicate this from alternative spaces in the future, but rather than sit back and boil, I felt an overwhelming urge to start wearing all of these items the right way.

I thought, If people can get thousands of likes for draping themselves in my culture the wrong way, might as well show them how it’s done.. I started making daily trips to South Asian boutiques in my area to find accessories for my alternative outfits. The Asian ladies running the stores loved it, and I started building a following on TikTok, where people appreciated how I integrated my Indian culture into my alternative style. It started by creating desi versions of hair and makeup trends, such as bold, black, and winged eyeliner for desi faces, which are barely represented in alternative beauty. Soon I started letting my natural hair show and incorporating traditional Indian jewelry and clothing like bindis or nath nose jewelry into my look. It shows that I recognize and embrace my culture, but I’m not afraid to be different and express my alternative personality alongside it. Before, I felt like I had to westernize myself because that’s what my father had to do when he left India to come here. Now I feel empowered to claim my culture and proudly wear these looks and items.

On TikTok, #altdesi has amassed 3.8 million views and counts, and there are many content creators sharing alt desi makeup tutorials and generating alt beauty trends, from colored eyebrows to smoky eyeshadows to suit any brown skin and eyes.

Many South Asian alternative people have reached out in the comments of my TikTok videos or via DM to express how happy they are to see people like them in the alternative space. That’s all I could wish for. In addition, we have created a community on TikTok: #altdesi has amassed 3.8 million views and counts, and many content creators are sharing alt desi makeup tutorials and generating alt beauty trends, from colored eyebrows to blush. smoky eyelids to suit brown skin and eyes. #Altpoc also has 73 million views, and across both hashtags you’ll find people embracing and celebrating their race and ethnicity alongside their alternative style and beauty choices. It serves as an inspiration — and a reminder — to alternative people of color who may feel like they don’t fit in that we belong here as much as anyone else.

I may have considered myself a cultural escape in the past, but in the past 18 months I have never felt more authentically myself. I’ve always been afraid of leaning too heavily on my white heritage and throwing away the other half of my identity that makes me whole. Stepping into an online space — where I felt compelled to claim my culture through my appearance — was an education. TikTok is a crucial part of that and I don’t think I would be as comfortable with my cultural identity if I hadn’t discovered the app and found a community of people willing to embrace me rather than force me to change to fit distorted and racist ideals of beauty. Now I am explaining the importance of jewelry such as naths and bindis and in doing so I am enjoying wearing them more and more. Seeing other South Asian alternative creators like me helped boost my confidence when I felt hopeless and alone. I also spend a lot of time researching aspects of my culture, calling my family members and asking questions to try to understand better.

As a child, everything my family taught me about my Métis identity overwhelmed me; it still felt like a conference. But I no longer take my Indian roots for granted. By openly accepting myself and accepting myself through my fashion and beauty choices, I have reclaimed my history and my legacy – and it intersects perfectly with my alternate identity.

This story originally appeared on Refinery29 UK.

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