These are the words that went through my head for most of my teenage years and early 20s. They sometimes still do, and I have to remember that I am not pathetic because of my thought patterns. I have to remind myself that sharing this level of vulnerability will only irk those who do not matter.
I have never been racially pure enough for any of my claimed communities. I feel like an Indian fraud, desperate for acceptance, with memories of “but she’s not Indian” when I took part in Desi beauty contests (which are another problematic tale). I’m too brown for my white people, who call me exotic and say that I speak surprisingly good Dutch — while I tense up in white stores and feel guilty whenever I have to fish for something in my bag. I am never ever African enough, despite it being the only place three generations of my family have ever been able to call home. All of this is part of a larger pattern that matches the inherent pandemic of “not enough” that plagues the human race.
This photograph is difficult for me to stomach. Even though I took it. Even though I’m in it.
It looks like an image of beauty, but I don’t see that.
I see visual echoes of a moustache that had the Dutch kids taunting me, and caused childhood worries of secretly being a boy without knowing it — despite my 20 year undercover friendship with a shaver and thread.
I see an image that may evoke sexualised feelings that I cannot control. I feel the realisation that strangers will now know the form and view of my naked body — a concept that has been sacred to me for 20 years. I feel the conflict between my Indian desire to hide my skin, and my Westernised logic that I should be able to do whatever I wish with my body without fear. I feel worried “aunty” musings — that my future husband, whoever he is, will lose respect for me because my vessel has now been tainted and corrupted by the filth of the public gaze.
I hear whispers on the internet about my privilege, along with the idea that I don’t have a say in the body positivity conversation — because of my privilege as someone who externally fits into Western beauty standards. Whataboutism disguised as social justice. But that narrative denies the very human concept of body dysmorphia in its various forms. We must be able to create space for all cries of pain caused by social conditioning. I am aware of the thin privilege and pretty privilege that I possess — but, please, allow me to also grieve and mourn my own internal deaths.
On top of all these things, when I see this image, I note the deliberate lack of nipples — Photoshopped out to appease social media censorship — but also, to reflect the fakeness of my silicone breasts. Breasts that the majority of the world think are real. Breasts that have had surgery forum members asking whether this is my “before” picture. Breasts that have me blurt out the truth in a panic during romantic nights, out of fear that I’ll be rejected when a man feels that they aren’t real. Breasts which have had me simultaneously feeling like enough of a woman — but also, like less of a real woman.
But what is a real woman?
If you ask my white side, the answer will differ from my African-Indian side.
We speak about decolonising, but let’s also focus on removing beauty destined for the (predominantly) male gaze from our vocabulary and our ideals of gender — in all our cultural influences. My lack of curves meant that I wasn’t woman enough for my brown side. I wasn’t “well developed” — a disgusting phrase in itself — enough. I was a woman according to archaic white textbooks, hiding my blood-stained clothing during primary school gym class, while simultaneously having to pretend I was ok with being nude as a 10 year old. My white ex-army gym teacher had me do athletic movements for an hour in my underwear — the punishment for forgetting one’s kit — and laughed at me when I tried to cover my nipples. After all — I was 10 and I had no breasts. According to my European textbooks, those would develop at puberty between the age of 13 and 18.
But they never grew.
At 18, I did a classic teenage thing with my “new Dad” — a father who had never been allowed into my life but suddenly had full responsibility, at a distance, over a teenager with trauma. I manipulated him into getting my way. I was so clever, I thought. I would ask him whether I could have a piercing…. or a boob job. No way he’d say no to a piercing now!
Except he did.
And he said he understood if a woman with no breasts felt uncomfortable, or like less of a woman. Like any dad who had never been a dad before, in a time when the conversation on gender was merely a whisper, he reluctantly agreed when my immature self yelled out that I’d do more research on breast surgery — K THANKS BYE! — before I hung up and obsessively did my research.
Oh, how I wish I could time travel back to that girl. How I wish I could tell her that we would reach an age where people would be creating hashtags about small breasts, and that there is such a thing as body positivity. How I’d love to teach her that gender is a spectrum, that your body does not make you more or less feminine, that her standards of what a woman should be — which came from a place of pain — were imprinted on her by boys who didn’t matter anyway. How I wish I could’ve held her hand when she sat with the most beautiful surgeon she had ever met after the first one almost destroyed her, and pointed out that she, too, didn’t have breasts. Most of all, I yearn to let her know that at the lowest point of her depression — the most important thing to cut into was her poor health, deep self-hatred, and low self-esteem — but not her physical form.
Those wishes would be futile. I had zero breast tissue, my first surgeon said, and therefore a drastic enlargement was going to be difficult. He emphasised the zero, which made 18 year old me even more adamant that this was necessary. I would have curves, and I would be a real woman. I would be enough for the male gaze, even if it killed me. I almost got my wish when my first breasts oozed with yellow, deep into my chest.
I distinctly remember weeping after my first surgery, because my breasts were still invisible. I remember looking at curvier women of colour and wondering how I could be enough, just like them. I recall forcing myself to please my man mere days after surgery while still on painkillers, and smiling to myself about how “enough” I now was, praying that this man’s gaze would not turn from me, once my offering of agony and sacrifice didn’t match up to the realness of the women I constantly compared myself to. I remember obsessively spending hours disguising my comparison as “admiration” as I trawled through images of “ideal beauty” on display — much like many of us now do with influencers on Instagram today. The ideals may shift with time — but the disease that rots at the roots of our behaviour does not.
I am now 29, and I love my breasts just as much as every man who has had the honour of witnessing them. They are somehow still members of the itty bitty titty committee after all that agony… but they are a part of me now. They are my first experience with breasts, my only experience with puberty, and a badge I got to wear to prove to myself that I deserved to call myself a woman — back when I had zero awareness that my gender had nothing to do with my physical form. Before I discovered that my beauty had nothing to do with what others thought of me.
But I write this today, despite my discomfort and growing nausea, for others who don’t feel “gender” enough. Colonial beauty standards are a problem, but so are our cultural standards — on all sides — of what is good enough to fit into our idea of what it means to be a certain gender. I write this today, in full discomfort, to let you know that our brown culture, as well as that of the colonisers, should have zero say in whether our physical form matches the form our gender takes. We are not here to please anyone’s gaze but our own. Our bodies match whatever label we identify with (or don’t) from the gender spectrum — regardless of what we change, or don’t change.
Would I have had breast surgery if I had known all this?
That’s a difficult question to unpack. I wouldn’t know a definite answer unless I had a time machine.
But I do know this: I now believe in having surgery for the sole purpose of making myself happy — not because I want to be enough in someone else’s eyes.
Because I was enough all along. Indian enough, feminine enough, white enough, mixed enough, woman enough, beautiful enough, and most importantly — good enough.
I was enough, I will always be enough, and I am enough for every label I identify with, in whatever form my body manifests, through choice or through circumstance.
I. Am. Enough.
And so, dear reader, are you.
I now use my work to help others feel like they’re enough with my photography experiences. To find out more, click here.