I finished rinsing and slowly opened my eyes, looking back at my sixteen-year-old reflection and felt my heart sink.
My dark skin remained unchanged.
Not even scrubbing what felt like nearly three layers of my face had lightened it in the slightest. I sighed, slowly dragging myself back to my room, engulfing myself in a chasm of hate.
I hated myself.
I hated the fact that my skin was almost two shades darker than that of my butterscotch cousins. I feverishly prayed every night to God to slowly lighten my skin.
“Not too white, God.” I would whisper in the darkness of my room. “Just enough to make me pretty.”
I spent hours looking up home recipes, stirring ridiculous potions to apply to my skin in hopes of lightening it. I became religiously obsessed with the idea that if my skin were just a bit lighter I would attain some sort of ethereal beauty. Each day, I descended even deeper into my bottomless abyss of self-hate, feeling ashamed of my dark skin. I felt – no, I knew – that if I was lighter, I would feel better about myself. Perhaps if I was just a few shades lighter brown, I would be more beautiful, and more appealing to the people around me.
I wouldn’t have extended family members constantly reminding me that I was ‘so much lighter when I was younger, and to stay out of the sun’ or that I was ‘cute for a dark skinned girl’.
I vividly remember crying myself to sleep myriad nights, feeling a mixture of shame and resentment for crying over something so seemingly insignificant, but I couldn’t help it.
Everything was wrong. My skin was too dark. My hair was too curly. My hips were too wide.
My mother soon noticed the change in me and continuously reminded me that God had created me perfectly, and beauty had no bounds. I tried to listen, I tried my best to allow her wise words to soak into my mind, to nurture my broken soul, but I couldn’t. She was my mom; she had to say that. My insecurities had built such a bleak bastion in my mind that could no longer be overcome by optimistic anecdotes.
I began to mask my insecurities as best as I could and forced myself to understand that I could not change myself no matter what I did, but inevitably, the seductive voices of hatred came crawling back every night.
I watched as beautiful light-skinned women like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj graced the cover of magazines, commercials, etc., seeming to get lighter as their careers progressed. Although they never came out and said it, I felt it was apparent they were using skin lightening creams, a fad that was becoming very commonplace for a lot of women I knew and heard of, and it was nauseating.
It made me sick because people wanted so desperately to shun their roots and lighten their skin, they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way with these toxic chemicals. I found it so incredibly repellant because I secretly wanted to do the same, but knew I would never possess the impulsivity and, frankly, guts that was required. It was appalling as I slowly began to realize how much we wanted to resemble white people because western media told us this is what beauty was.
Because when you Google ‘Beautiful Women,’ only size 0, white women show up.
As I grew older, I told myself that I just had to get over it.
Instead of loving and accepting myself, I bottled up my insecurities and hate, shoving them as metaphorically back as they would go. I stopped obsessing over my skin tone and focused on feeding my mind with as much knowledge as possible. I thought that if I wasn’t going to be pretty, I was going to be as intimidatingly brilliant as I could. I ignored every man around me both in real life and social media constantly reminding everyone how “bad” and beautiful light skinned – or as they would call it, yellow bone – women were, and how “ghetto” darker skinned girls were. I told myself that I was okay, that I was fine with who I was, but I wasn’t.
I was a hormonal teenager going through the slowest, awkwardest, puberty, and I was burning inside.
And then came Lupita Nyong’o, a Mexican-Kenyan actress whose striking dark melanin took the internet by storm.
I looked at her beautifully sculpted face and chic short hair, overflowing with pride that a dark-skinned woman was being placed next to beauty elites like Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lawrence. Of course, it wasn’t like she was the first dark skin woman to grace our screens or the first black woman to challenge the stigma placed around dark skin, but it was her speech she delivered at the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon that touched something deep inside me, leaving me undeniably transformed. She described her struggle growing up as a dark skin female, and I felt it to be parallel to what I had felt growing up.
Much like how Alek Wek served as a source of inspiration and encouragement for Lupita, she instantly became that for me.
I felt hot tears running down my cheeks as I replayed the video for what may have been the tenth time, feeling an array of emotions I was all too familiar with coursing through me. Guilt, anger, and hate for punishing myself for something I couldn’t control, and refused to love; for being so shallow and ungrateful, and not appreciating how immensely God had blessed me. I was swallowed with happiness and relief to have someone translate the pain that subsisted within me for so many years into such empowering eloquence, broadcasted to the world.
With her beautiful midnight skin gleaming under the stage lights and bright, proud smile, she confidently addressed every individual watching, “…That you will feel the validation of your external beauty, but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”
The sentence resonated with something deep inside of me.
I repeated it to myself, tasting it on my tongue and attempting to wrap myself in it, wielding it as a blanket of protection for myself. Feel the beauty inside, I thought. Let it shine through. You are valid.
I’d love to say that today I fully love and have completely accepted myself, but I’m a nomad on this extended journey of self-love. I have, however, learned to look in the mirror and appreciate the deep richness of my mocha tone, the way it illuminates my dark eyes and how almost any shade of lipstick compliments it wonderfully.
How it is beautiful because it is mine, and because I validate my blackness.