S: Hey there, I’m Sharon.

U: And I’m Umi.

S: And welcome to The Round Table.

U: This is a space dedicated to young women of the pacific who are trying to figure out life just like we are.

S: And we are going to ask questions that you always wanted to ask, to a new guest every episode and lift the veil on unspoken topics

U: We talk about everything from personal image and relationships to everything in between. Come and join us.

S & U: Ale yumi storian

S: This project is made possible with the support of the We Rise Coalition and ABC ID

S: Our topic today is about embracing our natural beauty and the impacts of western influence. So for those listening, we are recording from Vanuatu in the South Pacific made up of 83 islands and we are colonized by the British and French who have had a major western influence in Melanesia

U: This discussion will be based on how much we are influenced by Western culture and how we can begin to embrace natural Melanesian beauty and appreciate how unique our features are and where we come from

S: And what we mean by natural beauty is our hair, skin tone, the size and structure of our bodies, and every other little unique features that we possess.

U: So we have here today with us Irene Ann Marie /. She is from Paama island and Nguna island. She is a Year 13 graduate from Malapoa College and she is now working here at Sista as the Progam and Finance Manager. We chose her for this particular topic because we believe she is a Melanesian woman who flaunts her Melanesian features proudly.

S: Thank you Irene for joining us

U: So Irene, we’re just gonna get straight into it. Have you ever felt, maybe even without knowing that you have been swayed to say present yourself in a particular way? Maybe to like fit in with a certain group of people.

I: I guess as you go and as you grow, you’ve developed mentally and physically and also the environment that you’re in. So, I change every now and then when I’m moving and navigating between different people and different environments. But one thing that I remain the same is the way that I present myself to people. So, I’m not sure if I’m answering your question correctly

U: No, you’re kind of answering it in a way. So I guess what you’re saying is you adapt to your environment. I can totally relate to you on that.

S: Alright so Irene, so I’m not sure about your experience but I know the influence of the Western culture has also impacted the generations before us. And I remember my mother straightening my hair with Africa’s Best when I was nine. I look back now and I remember feeling that I was not myself. Have you ever felt uncomfortable with the way you looked and felt the need to change it?

I: Yes and to add to that, it started when I hit high school, my teen days. Where I started to add all these types of products to my skin and my hair instead of actually focusing on my studies. I feel that the look to gain some sort of respect and visibility in a certain group in school that that’s my entry point, was to change the way I looked and so, I did straighten my hair and I damaged it badly and I regretted it so much after Year 13. I had this thing where I shaved my arms. Just because I felt that it makes my skin look smoother, it makes my skin look lighter, because of the hair there, it made my skin look darker. And all of that is some sort of influence from both the movies that I watched, especially inspired by American movies in particular. And so when I see the reaction of the public, of the students around my school back in the days, I’m not sure if their reaction was positive but to me its some sort of visibility to say that oh my god you know I’m different but not really saying that in particular. I’m just trying to fit in and so I had to do what I had to do then. Another thing is also my teeth, I have a gap in my front teeth, and that was one thing that I started to create the habit of not smiling and showing my teeth in front of the camera because I don’t think that was cool and I feel that all straight teeth no gaps was the thing back then in the early 2000s. But today’s world, people overseas, I guess they can speak for themselves then but they get operations done to have these gap teeth and that’s one thing that if someone had told me then that “you’re beautiful the way you are” and that “you’re unique”, that would’ve been my confidence then.

U: What about you Sharon? I’m wondering now because it was interesting hearing what you said about your mum straightening your hair when you were nine. So, like in high school, how did you present yourself. And was any of it an attempt, like what Irene was saying, of presenting herself in a certain way.

S: Yeah, you know, I’ve gone through the same experience as well, I’ve had like my mum would always want me to straighten my hair. It feels good but now I’m also trying to encourage and loving my natural hair as well now.

I: Even to relax it, the maintenance of having to go through and the expense-wise is another story in itself. And to put yourself into that emotional toll. Looking at yourself in the morning in front of the mirror and you’re like “ah I don’t have this hair cream, I don’t have that. Now I need to go and buy the product again, and oh my god my natural hair roots are growing out”. It’s more damage done than actually seen.

U: I’ve seen so many girls in high school with their hair breaking off because of Africa’s Best. Even some going to the point where they would grow their natural hair out again only to do it again. But I don’t blame them I really don’t blame them. For those who are listening and don’t know, I am Polynesian and I have Polynesian hair, but even I wanted to straighten it at one point. I wanted my hair to be straight as well. Because watching movies, you see how those girls just brush their fingers through their hair. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that either so I wanted to straighten it.

S: I’ve actually had one experience where I’ve used Africa’s Best and I had hair breakage. And I’m thankful for that because now I am embracing my natural hair and I love it the way it is and I love to tie it up, put it down, put it in braids.

U: Your hair is beautiful

I: And I think one thing in terms of styles, when you straighten your hair, it becomes a standard one way, two, three-way max kind of style. And that would fit with what you’ve seen in front of you on television, to have a smooth bun with that line in between half of your head,  I don’t know what you call it. But when you have natural hair, there is no limit to what styles you can come up and be creative with. And that’s the thing that we do not see or distinguish in between, because so when you have straightened hair then you relax it with some sort of product, it actually limits the creative styles that you can wear with your hair

U: That’s interesting, it’s surprising how much of a discussion came out with just hair. So, now I’d like to move on to say skin tone. A lot of people here in Vanuatu and I’m sure in other Melanesian countries as well. And I’m not in any way saying that dark skin is not beautiful because it is. But from growing up here, what I noticed is lighter-skinned people were deemed more beautiful. You know, they were favored because of the color of their skin over darker-skinned ones. Like siblings for example, so I just want to know what your opinions are on that

I: I could not agree with you more. And we’ve come to a point now where we can laugh about it as a family in my household. Where the eldest is lighter and there’s me a llittle darker. And then we have my younger sister, she’s more fair and so yeah we can go like “ah beh hem hemi black weh, beh mi skin blong mi i no black tumas”. Like we tease each other. Like you in the future you’re going to be with this man because he’s that black so you both match

U: Yeah that whole I’m better than you

S: I’ve had that same experience with my siblings as well

I: And so now we can laugh about it, but back then when I was also in my teen and adolescent days, when I was experiencing about my physical appearance and my growth, mentally also. At one point, I lost myself in between, I did not know who I was but I know what I want and that is not to feel like I’m that black or dark

S: I actually wanted to add on to that as well how you were talking about your siblings with different skin tones, I experience that as well. And the thing that gets me is I am light skinned and I am also from Paama and I know where I come from in my village and all of my relatives. But then, I get people approaching me and saying “hey yu laetskin tumas” like “are you really from that place”. And I think that is part of me wanting to change the way I look or how I speak, or my appearance to people because you know I feel like mi no wan man ples because you tell me that I am like that but also part of it is like I am embracing it as well like I know little bits of my language, I know the kastom, the culture and the tradition. It’s just these little things, like how people approach me telling me that “I think you’re a bit too light”

U: It’s like they favor you for being lightskin but at the same time they’re like yeah but you’re not really one of us. You know like “we’re black and you’re not”

S: But also, even though that happens I always encourage myself to love myself, to embrace my skin tone, my hair and how I look and all that

I: And you know  when we do go to the beach and we swim in the ocean, we come out darker. So, our skin tone varies either way. You’re not light like forever. And that’s the thing, when I have that tan there, I actually admire it. When I look at that tan, and that’s a different kind of black and I’m loving that look, I look solid, you know I’m shining so there you go

U: I actually love that, I love seeing my Ni-Van girlfriends whenever they’ve gone to the beach and come back and their skins darker. Because, all of a sudden it’s like they just show up with a different skin. I get excited because I have a lot of friends who got to the beach and get tanned

S: Okay Irene, what is one trait or feature that you love about yourself.

I: One trait that I’ve started to embrace about myself, growing up now, hitting my early thirties is my teeth. Because I have this gap in my front teeth and growing up it was not easy because I got teased a lot about it and when I get teased about it especially around my family, people try to relate me back to the island where I come from which is Paama that is known to be the rat island or aelan blong rat. And rats have big front teeth. And so, at first I had all these mixed emotions where I’m not sure how I felt about it. But coming from my uncles and my cousins yeah we have good laughs. But as soon as I started going to school meeting all these other student from different islands and I get teased about where I’m from and they’re from different islands and to say that it’s the way I look, it’s a bit discriminating and I feel shameful about it so then after understanding that Vanuatu in itself we are known as one of the most happiest country on Earth or the third ranked, it’s because of our smiles, everywhere you go you’ll see a Ni-Van out there smiling and yes I take everything back, I really am proud of how I look and my teeth to say the least because with this new world that we are in, we have people out there overseas that are dying and would spend millions of dollars to actually get gaps in front of their teeth

U: On that note, that brings me to our next point which is facial features, Melanesian facial features. What you said about people getting surgery done to have gapped teeth. There’s also white girls getting shots in their lips to make them more plump. Yet Melanesian girls sometimes have a hard time embracing their features. When you look on social media, these white women are trying to look like you, they’re trying to get more plumper lips, a bigger butt, thicker eyebrows, higher cheekbones. So, what are your thoughts on this?

I: I would say that it’s all a concept of how we frame and how we envision ourselves to be and our human nature where if you see one starts to react or you know their appearance being said this way and how they want to be, then the rest of the world follows but that would have to be from America and then the chain starts to follow downwards to the third-world countries. But here we are all with our natural beauty, we have all of that and we don’t need the first-world country to establish that it is beautiful. We need to accept ourselves and that is what I am finding now in my thirties and having a daughter too and seeing her beauty, she’s pretty much a mimic of myself too, very close to my features, and I look at her and I’m like “you are so beautiful”. And that is breathless, that is a whole thing to itself and for that I’m so grateful because I found that.

S: We’re talking about this and I’m already having a good feeling about this how we’re talking about embracing your natural beauty especially for like Melanesian women, I know we struggle a lot to love ourselves

U: I honestly do not think a lot of, especially Ni-Vanuatu girls, I do not think they know just how beautiful they are. I admire so many, but then when we get to talking, you start to realize that no they actually don’t see what I see, they actually don’t see it. And sometimes it makes me sad, I even get emotional. I have this friend, she comes over to my house a lot for hang outs and she always tells me I’m beautiful but everytime I say it back to her, it’s almost like she crawls into a shell, she thinks I’m just saying it to be nice. And it made me sad because I really wish that she knew that afro girl it’s fire, those cheekbones you have, that jawline, your nose, your eyes, you are so beautiful. Yeah so that’s all I have to say about that, that really touched my heart.

I: And one thing is to have our other wantoks like PNG and Fiji, the more that we start to embrace that Melanesian brotherhood, sisterhood and seeing their beauty and reflecting it on ours, we feel belonged, we feel the ownership of this beautiness.

U: So Irene, I’m interested to know, what part of your face did you used to not like before maybe in your teens, that you have learned to embrace now?

I: My eyebrows. Back then I would pluck everything out until I have just a line there. And when it starts to grow back then yeah it’s like plucking chicken feathers

U: So you had thick eyebrows and instead of just maybe embracing the shape of it or plucking it just a little bit, why do you think you went so hard out that you took all of them out?

I: Because one technically I do not know how to use eyebrow pluckers. Finding that mechanism in between, how to do that and in a timely manner before my dad starts the vehicle to take me to school is another story. So if I ruin it I’m just going to take everything out. And then i start getting used to that look without actually looking at what I envisioned myself to look and it’s an emotional rollercoaster in itself

U: And were other girls in school, did they have like super thin eyebrows as well?

I: We have different groups of girls. So, the church girls would not give two thoughts about it. But then you’ll have the other girls, these girls that are more into sassiness. They blend in with the LGBTQ and I’m in between and so yeah I navigate from left to right every now and then. But when I go to the right, the girls that are more into fashion they would give me all these compliments like “you need to get some eye pencils and darken that because it doesn’t look good, I’m not sure what look you’re trying to get out here”

U: Thank you Irene. So this is the last question that we would like to ask you. I’m pretty sure you’ve sort of answered it already, but in a nutshell how did you manage your journey how did you manage to realise and embrace your natural features. And what advice would you give other young women and girls in the Pacific about appreciating and owning their own unique beauties

I: When I started to have a serious relationship with this boy after Year 13, he took my hand and walked me through it and that’s when I started to calm down. He did not care about anything about my hair, or my brows or whatever and all he cared about is nurturing the love and the relationship that we had and so that’s when I did the big chop on my hair and my natural hair start to grow back again and I was feeling that maybe it’s just experiencing all these you know the peer pressure that I have around me, my hormones and trying to figure out that we’re still figuring things out as we go in life but I was figuring a lot out back then too and so when my natural hair started to grow back, everything started to flow, I started to find myself and I started to feel pretty and naturally I started to look pretty.

S: That’s so beautiful. I actually just want to throw this in there and I think maybe we should settle this because I know this has been happening a lot. So everytime I hang out with my friends and then we start complimenting each other one of us is either going to say “eh mi no likem emia about mi” or “I don’t think this is nice”. Like girl you have to stop that, you have to love yourself okay like if I say that you look beautiful, you have to see yourself in like what I see. I just wanted to say this because I know a lot of girls are going to listen to this. Our Melanesian sisters, our Polynesian sisters. If you get a compliment from somebody, appreciate it, appreciate yourself. Actually be thankful that actually someone is looking at you and is seeing that beautiful feature, that beautiful part of you that you can’t see. But yeah I just wanted to throw that in there. Keep embracing yourself ladies, love yourself and yeah thank you so much Irene.

I: Honestly, powerful talk Sharon I’ll give you that. It’s just it started with a mind concept and that’s where I also figured out for myself I connected my mind, my heart and I was like “I am beautiful. I am beautiful in every way, in every form that God and the universe itself has blessed me with”. And that transition of energy just flows. And every day, the food I consume, I drink a lot of water too, that supplement in itself was what I needed to make all these changes physically happen.

U: Thank you so much Irene. So guys to summarise the topic we’ve just discussed today it’s very clear that embracing one’s natural beauty is quite a journey and it’’s not so easy, especially if you are Melanesian because the outside world is so big and Melanesia is small. So whatever is trending, whatever is beautiful, that’s how we will all feel like oh that looks better, this looks better. But it is time for us to start looking at ourselves. Put that phone down, don’t listen to whoever, to your friends at school, don’t listen to the haters. You are beautiful. That round nose, that wide nose, that textured hair, that black skin

S: That plump lip

U: Yes. Those gap teeth. It is all beautiful. Thank you so much for joining us here today Irene. And before we close this off, I would just like to ask you guys listening in to check us out on Facebook, Instagram and our TikTok @sista_vanuatu as well as on our website sista.com.vu 

S: Also by following our website, you can also listen to more Round Table podcasts that are already on there including the upcoming episodes. This is Sharon.

U: And I’m Umi

S: From The Round Table

S & U: Ale lukim yu.