Culture //

And so i made myself, in my own image

Suvarna Variyar on representations of people colour in popular media.

I am about eight years old when I make my first alternate me; a dream concoction in the forefront of my brain. Me but better, without the endless bullying and the lunchtimes spent roaming aimlessly around the schoolyard.

She has ivory-white skin and straight, glossy auburn-brown hair.  She was blue-eyed and fought evil with a shining sword.

She is perfect.


Racism is ingrained in the fabric of modern society.  It’s evolved with science and culture; drawing from movements and schools of thought as late as Darwinism.  It entwined with religious prejudice to give us the Holocaust; the rise of Islamophobia.

But perhaps most cruelly, it’s given rise to a generation of people who hate themselves.


The eyes become green, then purple, over six years.  Her hair relaxes into soft curls, darkened into midnight black.  She exchanges the sword for magic, invoked from deep within her soul, and she wreaks havoc with pain that echoes in her dulling eyes.

But though the skin tans – though it gains and loses scars and lines of stress – it takes another two years for it to darken.

I’m nineteen years old, and she’s still only a light mocha to whatever I am.


The population of India accounts for almost 18% of the world population.  Glee, which claims to be a representation of diversity, has not a single person of Indian descent among the eighteen main characters over the first three seasons.  They do, however, have two people of Jewish descent (the Jewish population accounts for 0.2% of the world population).

Even accounting for the fact that the show is American – people of Indian origin form 1% of the American population.  Jewish people form 1.73% of it.


The first time I force myself to bend over and really look at my genital area, I’ve already watched porn (out of curiosity more than anything).

I shudder in disgust and never do it again.

The colours are all wrong, is all I can think, all dirty and gross.

It’s still strange to receive oral.  I feel like I’m waiting for someone to tell me that; that I’m the wrong colour, that I’m half-baked or wrong.


In Wheel of Time, the protagonists fight for the Light against the Dark One to save the world.  I was one of the Aes Sedai in my head, studying in the White Tower to take down the darkness.

In Star Wars, Luke struggles not only to defeat the Dark Side, but to stop himself from turning to it.

All the fictional characters that I fall in and out of love with are beautiful and strong and pale.

I want to be beautiful and strong and pale.

I’m first called “exotic-looking” when I’m fifteen and I wonder why I can’t just be pretty.


I used to love winter, despite the fact that I hate the cold.

In winter, my tan fades away, and I can almost pretend.


It’s a common trend when people see someone who looks different, to base evaluation and opinion on their appearance.

My French teacher suggests I am speaking French with an Indian accent because of the type of “r” I am using. I pointed out that this is a regional idiosyncrasy of the South of France, where I went on exchange.  She blinks in surprise and says “of course,” like she was a fool not to realise.

I tell people my degree and they ask why I’m not doing Law or Medicine.

They exclaim that my parents must be disappointed in me when I say that I want to be a screenwriter.

I shrug and smile and don’t tell them that, despite everything, my parents couldn’t be prouder.


I am in India this January; not in the north with the most popular tourist sites, where a good proportion of the population could be mistaken for Turkish or Italian, where blue and green eyes are a common sight.

Rather, I spend my time in the South, flying between Chennai in Tamil Nadu, and Ponnani/Kochi in Kerala.

I’m pale-skinned for an Indian, and even more so in the south.  Even with a summer tan from a week in Byron Bay, my sister and I still attract stares from people shades and shades darker than us.

On the billboards, they advertise gold jewellery and silk saris. The models are Photoshopped and beautiful.  They are paler than most Caucasians.

They were plastered on dirty buildings over the crowded city streets, and for a moment as I look out the window, I can’t help but feel a sense of unwilling admiration.

Because the British left India in 1947, but colonialism stayed.


In an alternate universe, I’m young and determined.  My hair is waist-length till I cut it short, because it might be pretty but I don’t care.  My eyes are a dark brown, almost black, and I wield words as easily as weapons.

When I glance at myself in the mirror, I don’t know what colour I am.

But I’m working on it.

Illustration by Jennifer Yi.