There’s a mind block some people have when they describe their teenage years, and my mind block, as is the case with many teenage pangs, started with a teenage boy.
We all know there’s nothing profound about being a teenager. Between weird growth spurts, our voices breaking, or our periods starting, we have to decide who we want to be when we grown up, and on top of that, take exams to charm the world about our capabilities. Sometimes, we don’t even have the luxury of deciding, and who we will become is already preordained by our parents.
Honestly, when I reflect back to that time in my life, I wonder why I let that day, for the longest time, have a grip on my imagination. Perhaps, it is because I wore braces, was so skinny that you could see the veins on my forehead, had glasses and terrible acne. On top of that, I was angry about everything, and took refuge in being a gothic hippie bookworm, religiously antisocial in my behaviour. I was one of those skinny teenagers with the strange dressing sense (or rather, no fashion sense, whatsoever). In my mind’s eye, I was the typical failure at being a human being, a Holden Caulfield with South Asian roots, confused and coherent only in my incoherence.
I did have a few luxuries, but I rarely found solace in them. After all, I had an excellent education, some very decent and loyal friends, and I lucked out in that my parents always gave me free rein over my ambitions, and on a lighter note my mother was forever trying to comb out my unruly curls and make me into a more presentable young lady. A spoilt child, I think you would have called me.
In the midst of all of this, the boy came along. Oh, he was always there through elementary school, but I suddenly noticed him when we were in seventh grade. He had been playing tennis with his brother at the club, and I happened to be eating kababs with my best friend when he sauntered into the restaurant. I don’t know why I noticed him that particular day. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t so blind that I didn’t see him in classes every single day. One of our teachers at school had a habit of reading out our names as he handed out our grades in order of best to worst performances, and this boy’s name would always be towards the end of the list. But despite that, he made some astute observations about our recent school reading of “The Merchant of Venice,” and by doing so, he found an admirer in the restaurant.
He was leaving for India to attend boarding school, and I was going to remain in Bangladesh, and perhaps it was the inspiration of the impending doom, or the fact that he was uber friendly and actually quoted Shakespeare, but I was swayed. In the next few days, going to school gave me slight heart palpitations. I stuttered but made attempts to converse. Usually, he asked me about either my best friend, or about my older sister, but at least we were talking.
Then came the week that everyone who was going off to boarding school started to leave. In a spurt of serious support of our friendships, our parents allowed all of us to host and attend parties all over town, at each friend’s houses.
It was a time of year when the weather was hot, and we had just discovered the joys of Truth and Dare. In answer to a question, we found out the boy thought my older sister was the epitome of beauty. A few more rounds in, I realized I was considered a great friend. Left with this knowledge, my best mate and I grinned all the way on the five minute car ride home. I was armed with the knowledge, after all, that I stood a slim chance.
The next day was also the day of the last party. The boy couldn’t make it. Encouraged by my best friend, I called him and told him all of my heart’s contents. That I really liked him, that I was interested in him, and I was really sorry he was leaving. I don’t think I gave him much chance to talk, but I went on and on about how I knew he crushed on my sister, but then he stopped me. “I hang out with you because I’m in love with your best friend,” he said. “Maybe if you were a bit fairer, you know, or something.”
I was crushed. I cried for about two hours that night, and my mother, upon finding out the reason why, had to reassure me that I was indeed beautiful, even if I was about ten shades darker than my older sister, or my best friend.
In all truthfulness, I did hold a grudge against the boy. I didn’t care that he didn’t like me, because I soon realized that you win some and you lose some, and really, a fish in an aquarium is not representative of all marine life, but I resented him for reinforcing the stereotypes of beauty that transcend so much of Bangladeshi, and indeed, all South Asian culture. Maybe he did not know better than to reduce someone to the color of their skin, but it was a wake up call for me about how pathetic the advertisements of Fair and Lovely, that continue to permeate the city’s billboards, are. I remember looking at those advertisements quizzically for the first time after that memorable night, and being disgusted that a woman’s potential at garnering a job was a direct result of their being lighter in their skin tone. These kinds of advertisements spoke to an already insecure population of teenagers and young adults, telling us we wanted, and indeed, needed to “fix” the way we looked in order to achieve success. The fact that to this day, it is almost impossible to find a cleansing lotion without a whitening agent is symptomatic of how time has brought about little change. Hence, I won’t credit my teenage crush for inciting my passion in women’s rights and human rights, but I continue to give him credit for crushing my already fragile ego at a crucial stage of my personal development, in a manner I have never forgotten.
I saw him again, of course, and sometimes see him still. He’s nice to me nowadays. He’s married to a very fair young woman, who I am sure, possesses many charms, and I would like to think I wish him well. But if the kind of rhetoric he is going to pass on to his child is the same that he confessed to me at the age of 13, then I worry a lot.
The sheer racism that I didn’t understand at that young age, affected me in my interactions with other teenagers for years, hence putting me into hiding about my feelings, and insisting for years that I had none, having panic attacks when I was asked to discuss my emotions. Thankfully I left the country, and realized soon after moving to New York that my skin tone was actually desirable. To think that I had to go to the other side of what I called home to realize this little simple fact of life, is a testament to how prejudice is visceral, and moreover, it is very cruel and very real. It’s a legacy left behind by the memsahib culture of the last century, but I know not everyone has my parents, my support group or the opportunities I have had, to realize and do something to change this belief. It’s a shame that people have to deal with this reality of who they are based on the color of their skin, every day, whilst billboards heathenize them, and products like Fair and Lovely continue to convince them that they can rub away who they are, and recreate Michael Jackson for our “modern” minds.