Culture Interviews

This 17-year-old is showcasing the beauty of South Asian heritage

The word “desi” literally means local or indigenous, but in the post-colonial era, this term has described people of South Asian heritage, including from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and the rest of the world where the diaspora community resides. Through complex geopolitical relations and war-torn history, however, Desi heritage and the culture has often gotten lost or been left unappreciated. 

But, a 17-year-old Pakistani-American girl is trying to preserve this heritage with her instagram account “Desi Girl Aesthetic,” a place where she puts South Asian culture in the spotlight and displays its beauty and intricacies. Since 2017 when she started this page, the account has grown to over 60,000 followers from all over the world. I sat down to ask how she got started, the behind the scenes, and what her vision for the future is.

Tell me a bit about your Desi heritage growing up.

I am Pakistani, with both of my parents being from Karachi, so I grew up in a typical Urdu-speaking household. However, with all Desi people, I’d like to argue that we have a more complex history than we give ourselves credit for. My mother’s side of the family is actually South Indian from Chennai, so I grew up eating a lot of idlis and dosas. I think I have the best of both worlds because I have this very unique South Indian side of me but also a very standard Pakistani Karachiite experience.

What inspired you to start Desi Girl Aesthetic? 

I was around 14 when I started the account and I’m 18 now so it’s been a span of nearly 4 years. I’ll be honest, I had deactivated my own personal Instagram account and was trying to figure out a dynamic for social media that was private, true to myself but also felt authentic. So I decided to share my internal thoughts with a group of 60,000 people anonymously through the alias of your typical neighborhood desi girl. The issue with diaspora Desis is that we find ourselves in this weird balance of trying to be as cultural as possible, and sometimes it feels like we’re exploiting our culture where we are not “brown” enough. I’ve talked about how I don’t feel like I’m conventionally Desi and sometimes I feel like I’m kind of a phony for running the page because I’m not the most standard Desi. Then again, the whole definition of a “standard” Desi doesn’t really fit. There’s always people saying “you’re so whitewashed” or “you’re such a fob” and there’s no real middle ground. For me, it was just creating a page to appreciate the vanities of our culture and then it moved on from there as an outlet for me to talk about my experiences as a young south asian woman growing up in the west. 

https://www.instagram.com/p/B_TZWKVlM0n/?igshid=wntp6i54uacb

What’s your goal with the account?

As South Asians, despite our deep-rooted cultural intersects, there has been a long existing struggle to unite diaspora desis, due to the extension of generational sectionalism, and remnants of painful partition and colonialism. So I decided to use this “desi” monolith label to my advantage in bringing together diaspora populations in my vendetta to condemn this mindset.

By no means was the beginning of @desigirlaesthetic in pursuit of this noble social justice cause. In fact it was purely in praise of vanity within our culture. Appreciating the beauty of South Asian women to make up for the years I had spent years shamefully neglecting this allure in desperation to “fit in”. I gained a following under this universally shared experience and going into 2019, felt that I had to address more than the aesthetics of peacocks and draped saris. I broadened my page to serve a dual purpose, covering cultural myths and stereotypes and issues that both burden and embolden us, whilst also making time to appreciate all things South Asian; from Urdu poetry to Nepali textiles. My work focuses on young women in the South Asian diaspora and how the media shapes the ways in which we interact with our culture. I aim to explore the complex relationship between public reclamation and commodification of desi culture – bringing light to the unique experience of being part of a diaspora and existing in between two cultures.

How do you find and curate your content?

A lot of avoiding my school work and college applications. And, not going to lie, a lot of time on Pinterest. In all honesty though, especially recently, my feed has been made itself. I hit 60K recently, so I get tagged in around 300-400 photos a day and always have a hundred DMs a day. It’s very crazy, but I try to answer them all and it has become a very large community. My feed comes together itself at this point, with content coming in from followers at all hours of the day! It’s even more surreal too when they’re like, “oh my God, your feed inspired my wedding theme”. 

https://www.instagram.com/p/B6WvRvsFze3/?igshid=wigsxear3ao4

As the page has picked up popularity, what’s the reaction you’ve gotten?

I get so many DMs which are like, “you created this Gen Z community appreciation of our culture”, which takes after my pursuit for us to not only reclaim our culture but be proud in doing so! I feel like a lot of the Desi communities on the internet are kind of catered to millennials, which I respect  since they were definitely the blueprint for diaspora desis navigating their identity. But I’ve definitely distanced myself from that in being the exact opposite of a perfectly manicured internet persona. One look through my captions and you will see a hyper vulnerable, often at times, bit sarcastic and obnoxious brown girl who clowns way too much for her own sake who doesn’t shy away from politics or culturally stigmatized issues. I’m just a girl trying to understand herself through a cultural scope. A lot of people say they see themselves in me, which is very high praise and I’m so flattered by that. It’s just this universal experience we all have and we can see it on this one page. 

How does your page extend to the greater South Asian community?

I mean I’ve been able to claim empowering brown girls as my brand, which is by far the coolest thing! I help by giving platforms to women adorning themselves in their South Asian culture and empowering young girls like me who are on a binge of embracing their identities. Recently, I started something with my profile picture – which is the first thing people see on my page – where every month I feature different creators as the face of “desigirlaesthetic’. A big way I’ve been able to uplift the South Asian community has been that every time I have a paid post, I’m able to donate 50 percent of it. And I think over the past few years, collectively, I’ve been able to donate at least a few grand. It’s insane because I definitely didn’t think that I would financially have the capacity to be helping out these causes so near to me. One of which that I’ve been able to discuss extensively on my page is South Asian sexual education and health. I’m able to consistently donate to women’s shelters and South Asian women non profits. It’s this insanely amazing cyclical thing where I’m uplifting South Asian women, giving them exposure, and then, in turn, taking the revenue and being able to uplift the most vulnerable women in our community. 

https://www.instagram.com/p/B_33uXVlgz2/?igshid=wuzmw9pbv97z

You recently branched into a new page called Desi Art Aesthetic. Tell me more about the inspiration behind that.

Desi Art Aesthetic is very much my passion project and like the joy of my life at the moment. I spent a lot of time just looking at art on the internet and I took a college art history class, and in the class, I noticed that only one period covered South Asian art which, for a population of around 2 billion people, is a little bit of an injustice to us. I think I had an aesthetic rediscovery where I started off seeing Europe as a standard for beauty with its pretty statues and architecture. But then with Desi Girl Aesthetic I started looking more and more into South Asian art and since I was spending so much time I decided to make a page for it. The page is basically a virtual museum and I’ve categorized the art into the different themes it explores, such as divinity or love. It’s definitely a very nerdy thing, heck even a tad pretentious, but I love it so much. 

Where do you see yourself going in the future? 

I was thinking about branching out into a podcast . I’ve had that idea for the past five months during quarantine and I was really thinking I should do it. But also, I think it is such a self-righteous thing to be like, “hey, I’m starting a podcast because I have this many followers and i think now people care about my internal thoughts”. But I already do a lot of oversharing on @desigirlaesthetic so this just seems to be right in the natural succession of things. I really want to just continue to speak out about issues from this Gen Z perspective on our culture. But like I said, it’s a very beautiful community and the messages I get are really heartwarming because people take the time out of their day to send me their photos and stories. That’s something so intimate and they’re able to express their love for their culture and share that with me, and I get to share it with the world. 

I’m just genuinely proud of my heritage, and every time I scroll through my feed I can’t believe how lucky I was to be born into a South Asian household. The cultures, the movies, the music and everything else is just so beautiful so I hope that attitude continues to carry me forward ! This is my baby and it has evolved with me and you can see a 15 year old girl grow from being so insecure to so emboldened to talk about every issue she can imagine and not being shut down for speaking on it. I hope this page will continue to cater to girls like myself! 

https://www.instagram.com/p/CE5VU3tFyZ3/?igshid=3xbedrs3e709

Anvee Bhutani

Anvee Bhutani is Senior Media Editor of The Oxford Blue and was formerly both News Editor and Events Director. She is a penultimate year student at Magdalen College reading Human Sciences and is originally from San Francisco, California.