There I was, a 21-year-old girl who nursed an unhealthy desire to be light-skinned, because I subconsciously assumed ‘lighter’ meant prettier.
I had just caught my reflection after an emotional breakdown and loathed what I saw. The day before, I’d returned home from university feeling distraught; my melanin came back with infuriating vengeance and this time it introduced discolouration. It was my fault; in a bid to keep my black at bay, I desperately spent all my money on a brightening cream that I subsequently couldn’t afford. Maybe being broke was a blessing in disguise.
The skincare ‘specialist’ tried to sell me the Caucasian dream in a bottle and assured me that my skin would look like it had been manufactured in a ‘white-only’ factory. But, I didn’t want an entire race swap, so I opted for the brightening option.
Still, I was foolish.
Minutes before I caught my reflection in the bedroom mirror, I had emotionally purged myself in my mom’s arms. With teary eyes, I asked her, “Why am I like this, mama? Why do I look like this?”
My mom helplessly began to cry. She watched as my looks broke me and felt somewhat responsible; I am her offspring, after all. But, the fault wasn’t hers; she is beautiful, and so am I. Unfortunately at the time, I couldn’t see past years of harmful societal programming.
Black is beautiful, but it took me a while to see the beauty in my blackness.
You see, I grew up in a society that touts dark skin as dirty and idolizes ‘oyinbo-esque’ skin as the prerequisite for beauty. Our men adore it, while women covet it like it’s a life-transforming trophy to be won. Perhaps, it’s the debris of colonialism (a.k.a. mental slavery). Whatever the reason, my warped mindset was the consequence of society’s shortcoming.
As a teenager, I often found myself at the receiving end of unhealthy comparisons springboard from deeply-rooted colourism. Extended family members, friends and sometimes strangers compared my beauty to my sister’s — who was considerably lighter — and concluded that she was prettier.
For years, this made me feel inadequate, and I blamed my skin colour. That’s why last year when two young girls walked into the local salon I was in to purchase skin bleaching cream, my heart broke.
I watched as my nail technician excused herself to mix the chemicals in a small plastic bag. Curiously, my gaze returned to the girls who stood in the corner, clearly uncomfortable. They were beautiful, and their skin was like dark chocolate enveloped in gloss. I’d never seen skin that flawless all my life.
“So, why would anyone want to get rid of such work of art?” I thought.
Self-loathing; I’d been there. My experience and internal struggles were no different from theirs.
I desperately wanted to stop them and tell them they had beautiful skin. I wanted them to see the women who were comfortably rocking their melanin like queens and how they don’t have to be defined by European beauty standards. Instead, I sat back and watched another transaction aimed at erasing the black in skin take place.
Maybe I wanted the girls to learn from experience as I did. After all, it didn’t matter how many people told me I was beautiful; I never felt beautiful until more women who looked liked me exited their cocoons.
The unceremonial truth is: external validation rescued me and triggered a conscious awakening.
I was used to television ads, music videos, song lyrics, makeup ads, dolls, et cetera, that excluded women with darker skin tones until women like Nyakim Gatwech, Anok Yai, Philomena Kwao, and Khoudia Diop started to emerge. Then, the Eurocentric veil came off, and our skin was seen for what it is — beautiful.
Now more than ever, every African society needs to promote the right message — all black is, in fact, beautiful.