My journey with a multicultural identity and body image
Growing up in a predominantly white area it’s easy to feel like your identity is hidden or somehow a detriment. Though I feel very fortunate to have had the childhood I did and I don’t think that anything all that bad happened to me, I recently have remembered a couple memories that I had repressed and that definitely impacted my relationship with my body.
As a second generation American, I would say I rarely noticed the cultural difference between me and my peers. My parents were also not incredibly immersed in their culture so I had considerably less differences to my peers than those who have immigrated to the US more recently.
The first instance of feeling like an other I can remember was in second grade. I sat in my classroom in my pod of four desks. Me, another girl, and two boys. The girl stared at me for a second and said “why is it dark above your lip?” I didn’t know what she was talking about and expressed my confusion. She repeated, “it’s like black.” I started to get embarrassed and panicked. I lied saying my little brother had drawn on me earlier in the day and it probably didn’t all come off. It was just the little bit of hair that everyone has above their lip and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it really isn’t even that dark so I’m not sure what made her point it out. But that’s besides the point. At that moment I felt different and alone. It made me self-conscious about my body and even though as a kid she probably didn’t mean for it to be harmful, I have carried that comment with me for my entire life. It had such an affect on me that I’ve actually never told anyone that story before.
At an age probably not much after that incident I remember being in the car with my mom. Me in the backseat, her driving up front. “Why don’t you have hair on your arms,” I asked. “I do, it’s just lighter than yours,” she replied. I nodded and carried on with my life.
Flash forward to freshman year of high school. I am in a Spanish class with older kids since I am able to understand Spanish and can speak decently. I am already scared to be at a new school and so unsure of who I am or what I am doing. Then I am sat next to one of the most intimidating girls in the class, at least I saw it that way. The darker hair on my arms made me insecure. The whole class I would sit trying to lean away or hide. I began wearing strictly long sleeves.
My whole childhood I was subconsciously focused on fitting the mold of European standards of beauty. No one ever directly told me anything negative or made fun of me for how I looked, but I internalized the expectations by noticing what others were praised for.
After 18 years of subconsciously trying to fit an unstated standard I finally moved away from my hometown to UCLA. Here I was first truly exposed to diversity like I had never seen. I realized that there were other people who shared the cultural practices I had always been alone in. I found that there were people who shared similar experiences to me despite growing up completely differently. It was a comforting but terrifying feeling.
However, this brought about a different struggle with my body image. I found that I had spent so long internalizing others’ standards that I now felt pretty excluded from the new comforting community I had discovered. I grew up with very little cultural immersion and no fluency in either of my ancestors' languages. Meanwhile, it seemed everyone I met was deeply immersed in their culture and when asked about the experiences I shyly and disappointingly had to disclose that I had not experienced or did not know what they were talking about.
In fact, I began to feel invasive in the spaces that were created by people who shared my same culture. I have never been correctly identified as the mix of ethnicities that I am. I know that there is no one way to look for any ethnicity but it can still be difficult to come to terms with not being seen as who I am. To add to that struggle with not fitting the image that people have I did not share most of the experiences with the culture that others did.
Being mixed comes with a struggle of not feeling enough of either culture or like you really belong in either. This has greatly affected the way I see myself and my body image as I struggle to find who I really am. Although it has been a tough journey, I am beginning to realize that no matter how others see me all that matters is if I am happy with myself. My appearance does not give me my worth. I do not need to look a certain way to be appreciated and valued in spaces. And if that space requires that then it’s not something I’m interested in spending my time on.