Like most people I have some memories from my school days that I’d rather forget. The ones that have long remained burned on my brain though involve an intense few years of bullying I experienced at primary school, because of my deep olive skin
I grew up in a very white Home Counties commuter town. By contrast, my dad is from an Anglo-Indian background, and spent the first eight years of his life living in the city of Nagpur, before moving to the UK with his family following the Partition in 1947.
When my younger sister and I arrived on the scene, we both shared his warm olive complexion, but the yellow undertone of my skin was unmistakably darker than hers. She was also popular and confident, whilst I was painfully shy, and, in hindsight, an easy target!
The first time I heard the cruel and derogatory phrase ‘Paki’ was in a school PE class. One ringleader began singing nasty songs to me containing the word, and it seemed to catch on. I didn’t really understand what it meant at first, just that it was a label that set me apart from my classmates, but I soon came to loathe the phrase. To this day I still detest it.
Looking back now, the little boy who started the bullying ball rolling, probably had little idea about how poisonous the word was either. It was unmistakably learned behaviour on his part, and now I pity him for what he must have been seeing and hearing at home, but at the time it really stung.
Like many children, I didn’t tell anyone what was happening, I felt too ashamed, but my olive skin had become something I wanted to erase, like pencil markings on an exercise book. I have a vivid memory of locking myself in the bathroom, trying to rub talcum powder into my skin to make it paler.
The worst point was when our class teacher decided to put on a production of the famous poem Hiawatha, about a Native American chief.
With truly inspired casting – sense the sarcasm - I was picked to play Hiawatha’s mother, Wenonah. Apparently I ‘looked the part’.
I begged and pleaded not to have to do it, but to no avail. And, of course, the whole horrible incident only served to underline how olive my skin was, and how much I stood out from the crowd.
Bullying is of course horrendous whenever you experience it, but I think there’s something particularly difficult about being picked on during those last years of primary, when you’re finding your feet in the world. Things that touch a nerve then, tend to stay with you.
For years afterwards I was self-conscious about my olive skin. Instead of wearing it like a badge of honour, it was something I tried to play down.
Being someone who had very sensitive skin and was prone to summer allergy rashes and break outs helped somewhat, as I’d always huddle in the shade on holiday, slathered in factor 50 sunscreen, with a large hat and voluminous sarong completing the look. I certainly wasn’t looking to enhance my olive sheen!
Growing older, into my teens, my darker olive skin naturally began to mellow in hue. And because I now attended a much more ethnically-mixed secondary school, followed by life on a diverse university campus, I no longer felt so much like the ‘odd one out’ with olive skin.
I suppose I’d date starting to come out the other side, with a year I spent studying in North Carolina. Yes, there were many wider issues of race playing out on the campus of UNC that I couldn’t even begin to appreciate and understand, but it was by the most culturally rich and mixed place I’d ever experienced.
Through my twenties I came to love the fact that, unlike many of friends, my olive skin meant I didn’t have to spend hours carefully applying fake tan.
I also came to appreciate how a warm olive skin means you can carry off an array of bright colours. Although the slightly jaundiced look that comes with a hangover was a definite downside!
The real turning point for me in terms of learning to love my skin though has undoubtedly been having my daughter. About to turn 10, she is an olive-skinned mini me in looks, but also as feisty and outspoken as her skin is glowing.
She’s confident, straight talking and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and she wears her skin with pride.
Her dad and I constantly get told how beautiful she is, and we make sure to tell her every day how lovely she is, both inside and out, as well as encouraging her to embrace her natural, olive skin tone.
As for me, I’ve also learned to love my skin. These days I even love the fact that it can set me, slightly, apart from the crowd, or start a chat about where I’m from.
If I could share a conversation with that scared, shy, child who wanted to paint the olive away, I’d tell her that school days aren’t always the happiest of your life, but most people are kind, and things do get easier.Plus, how waking up without your bed sheets coated in fake tan, is also a much underrated added benefit!