When Will The Pressure Of The ‘Brown Girl Glow Up’ End?

“Why are your arms so hairy?”
I vividly remember when a boy asked me this question at school, when we were in the third grade. I didn’t know how to respond except to burst into tears, which didn’t stop until I got home and convinced my mother to let me wax my arms and legs. 
Growing up as one of the few South Asian children in my primary school, I couldn’t help but feel a little different, and having internalised euro-centric beauty standards, I figured that I was a bad different. 
Digital creator Ruchi Page says that she too has felt the sting of trying to live up to these beauty standards, which was particularly apparent when shopping for makeup.
“When the only available ‘bronzer’ shade is lighter than your actual skin tone, you start to question your place in the beauty realm," she tells Refinery29. "I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve wished to have white skin.”
I've often felt that it would have been easier for me to fit in at school if I were white. With arms that were too hairy, a nose that was too big, and a name that was too bizarre, I learned to attribute the bullying I faced and the self-contempt I felt to my brownness, thus resenting my Pakistani heritage. 
I was ugly because I was brown, and that was my unbreakable curse… or so I thought.
Enter: The Brown Girl Glow up. The concept of a “glow-up” isn't new, but the brown girl iteration tends to look a singular way: emerging from the chrysalis of monobrows and dark peach fuzz into shiny-haired butterflies.

the do guttan tho😩😩😩👧🏽 #foryou #punjabi #glowup #foryoupage #brown

♬ Chammak challo glo uo by prettyboyk - Prettyboyk1

#glowup #browngirl #momtok #marriedyoung #relatable

♬ Careless Whisper - George Michael
TikTok trends perpetuate this concept, with hundreds of videos captioned with some variation of “brown girls have the best glow-ups” and “brown girls always turn out to be baddies”. These videos usually feature images of the creator’s younger self juxtaposed with their current more ‘attractive’ self, to whom monobrows and frizzy hair are now a laughable embarrassment of the past. 
These videos have helped normalise brown women being appreciated for their beauty in a society with narrow, euro-centric beauty standards. But this extreme focus on brown women’s appearance and how ethereal they are has orientalist connotations. Brown women are othered and fetishised on the basis of their “exotic” beauty — a beauty that serves as currency for women of colour’s worth and acceptance within society. South Asian women are grouped together and treated as a monolith, held to the same standard of ‘brown beauty’ that is considered acceptable by white people. 
In an article published in 5XFest, Jeevan Sangha says that ‘brown glow up’ TikToks often present an 'after' that is more befitting to euro-centric beauty ideals. The subjects’ skin tone is often lighter and their facial and body hair is gone. Sangha goes on to say that many South Asian creators aestheticise their culture and simmer it down to a state that is “palatable to white people”. This doesn’t just apply to food, cultural customs and clothing, but also to physical manifestations of their brownness; a conformation to euro-centric beauty standards that is evident in the expected ‘after’ of this so-called ‘glow-up’. 
This ‘glow up’ doesn’t come entirely naturally. Eyebrow threading, laser hair removal and keratin treatments are common beauty regimens among the South Asian community. There’s also no shortage of more harmful means to attain this prescribed standard of beauty, including skin lightening and restrictive eating. In order to fit into the cookie cutter ‘beautiful brown woman’ standard, only the South Asian features that are considered desirable (long eyelashes, thick hair, nose rings, and brightly coloured clothes) are retained — while the rest are discarded.

I was ugly because I was brown, and that was my unbreakable curse… or so I thought.

Once I was exposed to the appreciation of South Asian women’s beauty I thought that maybe my self-proclaimed ancestral curse had a cure. This ‘glow up’ would be my rite of passage from ugly brown duckling to beautiful swan. 
But while I grew up, I’m not sure that I ever ‘glowed up’. I never felt that I'd had that jaw-dropping transformation I had dreamed of, à la Mia Thermopolis. So what happens to the women who, by society’s standards, don’t go through said ‘glow-up’?
In my experience, this fosters feelings of low self-esteem driven by the belief that you didn’t successfully become the epitome of brown girl beauty you envisioned. Even now, I find it difficult to accept compliments on my appearance, because I was teased for my looks throughout my childhood and teenage years. This alienation is also compounded by the undue pressure for South Asian women to be beautiful, whether that's linked to exoticism or feeling like we don't fit into the fabricated 'beautiful brown girl' mould.
Decolonising beauty standards is crucial, particularly within our own communities. Praising people of colour for their proximity to whiteness is damaging as it implies that the opposite of these features are less desirable and inherently a barrier to being beautiful. Although our countries gained independence decades ago, South Asian mindsets are yet to be completely free from the effects of British colonialism. Why should we feel ashamed to carry the faces and genes of our ancestors? 
“We have been held to a standard within our own ethnicity by mostly white people and it is incredibly confusing,” Page shares, who admits that at a certain point in her life, she didn’t want to look Indian.
“Contorting my own self-worth in order to fit into the 'white' standard of beauty was a mere nudge into deeper insecurities. I am still working through...[my] pre-conceived ideas about beauty standards, but it takes time.” One of the steps that Page made to make peace with her South Asian features was dyeing her hair back to her natural colour in 2020.
We should be confident in our appearances as South Asian women without criticising our monobrowed childhood selves. Whenever I feel the urge to berate myself for my looks, I think about how my younger self would feel if the same was said to her. Children aren’t meant to be attractive, and a monobrow never hurt anyone. Brown women are beautiful, and beauty doesn't come in a single package. As Page says, "It's the [beauty] standards that need updating, not us."
Note: Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series