How Living in Hawaii Shattered my Standards of Beauty
by Erin Bagwell, 26 Brooklyn NY
Growing up an army brat, I have gotten the opportunity to live all over the United States. One of the most challenging places I have ever lived was Honolulu, Hawaii. I know- this place is gorgeous, some people even call it paradise. However for an awkward eleven year old girl, it was anything but. Growing up on the mainland, I never thought too much about being accepted for my general appearance. I worried about things like clothes and hair cuts but I never questioned whether or not I was beautiful. I was white, I was blonde, I had blue eyes. I knew the mainstream media accepted me, and I felt no shame for the color of my skin or the color of my hair. And then we moved.
We moved across an ocean, to an island where the darker your skin is, the more beautiful you are. Where the girls had cascading brown locks to match their beautiful brown eyes, and to me they all looked like Polynesian princesses. Suddenly I was on the outside of what was considered beautiful. I was bullied and called names. I was expected to modify my behavior to fall back, stay out of the way, and socialize only with the other white girls. I felt alone, isolated, and confused about who I was supposed to be.
Wanting to shed some of my whiteness, I begged my mother to let me dye my hair brown. She wouldn't allow it. My Irish, Scottish, and Swedish genes dashed any hope of ever having dark or tan skin. I was stuck being me. It hurt me to know there was something about my appearance that wasn't 'right', something I could never fix. It was a painful first year but eventually it got better. I learned to surf, hung out with the skateboarders on the army base where I lived, and even got my first kiss. However, in the back of my mind I was terrified. Maybe it wasn’t just Hawaii. Maybe my adolescent stage had reverse ugly-ducklinged me and I was just not going to be seen as beautiful anymore. I prayed that when we moved, the mainland culture would take me back and make me beautiful again.
Three years later when we moved from Hawaii to Buffalo, New York the cultural norms of American society prevailed. I was once again thrust back into the popular social scene of student council and after school parties. However, my experience in Hawaii drastically changed my views and expectations of beauty. What the individual intrinsically believes to be beautiful is often trumped by cultural norms. It doesn’t make these conventions right, but it doesn't make them less powerful.
It took a lot of tears to get through Hawaii. Despite all the hardship and pre-teen angst, I would never change or alter that experience in any way. I understand the privileges of being a white girl and how unrealistic standards of beauty can create a painful emotion experience and drive your self-esteem to all-time lows. I also am aware that while I only dealt with three years of pain, people can live their whole lives under an umbrella of discrimination and negative judgement. We need to be aware of the unrealistic standards of beauty society perpetuates, and push ourselves and others to see past them. Who we are as individuals is so much more interesting and powerful than the color of our hair or the complexion of our skin.