Social media offers us the possibility of liberation, to transcend hardship and affirm our beauty by letting us control our own self-presentation. This is especially true for people from marginalized groups, who have to deal with a society that can’t help but co-opt our lives for their own purposes. But only for a precious few does social media actually connect us to opportunities beyond our wildest dreams.
Sanam is one of those people. The 24-year-old writer and artist turned to posting selfies during a rough period in her life, combating depression with what she’s described as “investing in self-love.” Her idiosyncratic look, which draws from a mix of American street style and classic South Asian fashion, has garnered her a large number of Instagram followers. But after Rihanna contacted her via that platform a few months ago Sanam’s life took a dramatic turn.
Significant bits of that story—how Rihanna dug her style, how she was eventually featured as one of RiRi’s accomplices in the revenge epic video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” and how she became e-famous—are already well-known. Sanam, like Rihanna, has become a sort of figurehead for creative and stylistic autonomy—a woman of color, proud of her body and fashion choices in the face of a world that can’t decide whether to revile or commodify her look (but thinks it’s entitled to either).
So when Sanam announced that she’d be a new beauty contributor for Refinery29, one of the few fashion-focused sites to regularly feature people of color, we had to speak with her. Here, Sanam, discusses Desi street style, social media for the millennial generation, and why cultural appropriation’s just the worst.
Idk why the hell I’m up so early on a Sunday morning but before I go back to sleep I just wanted to let yall know that I’m now a regular contributor at Refinery29.com and u can read my first ~*painfully honest and revealing*~ piece now (link in bio) my future columns will be about self-love, self-care, beauty, and other womyn who inspire me :~) ok sorry for being so deep this early I’m going back to sleep I hope all of u have glo’d up by the time I wake up again
Colorlines: You described it a little bit in your first post, but how did you get involved with Refinery29 as a contributor?
Sanam: They interviewed me after the [Rihanna] video came out and Megan McIntyre, the beauty director, reached out to me. She liked what I had to say about cultural appropriation and beauty standards in general and asked me if I’d be interested in writing for them.
You’ve had an interesting path, and your sense of style and use of social media has led to a number of awesome opportunities. Did you have ambitions of writing before this position?
I wrote a lot when I was a teenager and thought I might pursue it as a career one day, but it’s something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It’s nice because this opportunity has kind of pushed me to get back into it and rediscover something I used to be really passionate about.
Refinery29 is interesting in that it seems, more than other fashion-focused sites, to center and empower the voices of women of color. Will you focus on anything besides fashion and beauty?
I’ll be talking about beauty mostly, and some, if not most, of the stuff will definitely focus on Desi women and other women of color since there’s a severe lack of that for us in the beauty world. Refinery29 gave me a lot of freedom as far as what I can write about, so I’m still working on figuring it out myself and feeling it out as I go.
In your opinion/understanding, is there such a thing as a cohesive Desi street style in the United States?
I honestly think Desi street style in the U.S. is just now starting to emerge and really come into its own. Growing up, every South Asian person I knew was, understandably, more concerned with assimilating and not with representing their culture. I think there’s been a collective resurgence of pride in my generation when it comes to our culture and heritage, and it’s been amazing to watch so many of my peers embrace it on such a broad spectrum. I don’t think people understand how significant even something so small, like proudly wearing a kalava, is. And it definitely feels like we’re also getting more recognition in the fashion world—sometimes in very problematic ways, but it’s very empowering to watch South Asian designers become more prominent.
You’ve written about growing up being made fun of for the way you look and dress. You now have the experience of seeing Desi fashion staples appropriated by others. Was fashion something you cared about during your youth?
I cared about fashion in the sense that I’ve always cared about my appearance and the way I dressed, but I didn’t always necessarily understand the dynamics of cultural appropriation. There’s a great article in xoJane by Nikita Redkar that really resonated with me about how our generation’s parents see cultural appropriation as acceptance, while for us, it’s thievery. It’s really strange growing up and being told that your culture is ugly, being so ashamed of it, and then, for a fleeting moment, feeling sort of excited and proud when it starts to become a fashion statement by your oppressors. But then you very quickly realize that it’s actually incredibly fucking insulting. Like, as much as part of me wants to be able to share my culture with others, the other part of me can’t and won’t.
Your style, to many, is very idiosyncratic. Do you have style icons, here or abroad?
I’m honestly just so lazy and everyone thinks it’s me being fashionable. Fashion has been really boring to me lately, so I just wear variations of the same outfit over and over again. But I’m always inspired by my friends. Old Bollywood is very inspiring to me, obviously, especially Rekha and Sharmila Tagore. I love Ashish, one of my favorite designers. M.I.A., Rihanna, Afro-futurism, Adivasis, teenage boys, Darlene and Lizzy Okpo of William Okpo, and Grace Wales Bonner is absolutely incredible.
I love your perspective on things like selfies and style as part of affirming one’s identity and prioritizing self-care and confidence-building. Do you see your own social media as a place of healing and personal transformation?
Sort of, yeah, but it’s also more of a platform to share my process of healing and transformation. But it’s weird to me that people are so in denial of how powerful social media really is or so opposed to things like “Internet activism” and culture. It’s 2015. Yes, people are going to have their phones with them all the time and take pictures of everything and want to document their thoughts and ideas because that’s how fucking evolution works. We’ve always done all of those things, but now they can be done faster, in more convenient ways and on a global scale. It’s petty and insulting to imply that young people shouldn’t be allowed to use the Internet to change the world and grow as human beings, because you think that doing that on Twitter or Instagram makes the validity of it questionable? Like, hey, hi, it is completely possible to invest time and energy into social media while also enjoying the real world and intersecting those two things to make for an enriching human experience. And, I mean, taking a good selfie is oddly therapeutic and empowering, let’s be real.