Do they know I had to rock myself to sleep? Like an infant still growing, still seeking lost love, still cradling herself like a fragile mirror, hoping to glue myself together – alone – even if my skin was sheding.
It is tragic that I was the victim of the people I was supposed to call my own family. But this is what brown culture does. We do not normalize support. We do normalize what society says, and society never says good things. It was never easy growing up as a girl with a brown skin-tone, not when a lighter shade was considered a point of pride in our families. It only got worse with time. As a defence mechanism I pointed the finger at myself before anyone else could. It eases the blow, makes it easier to laugh it off casually, relieves the burden of being imperfect. But even so it stung every single time, same as the first, as if small needles were easing into me agonizingly slowly. It was hard to make eye contact.
Maybe I have a thick skull, or experiences that have made me question everything, because I never understood why something – my skin – that I had no part in making should label me so. I never dared to question it. Girls have no voice if have no beauty, not in brown households. I would hesitate, or politely decline, when asked to take pose for a photograph. As time passed, it even felt suffocating to sit with friends. There would be constant noises in my head, harsh whispers of discouragement; a ball of insecurities rolling over my self-worth. I was never taught to feel comfortable in my skin, or to fight back when someone shamed me, or even to stand with my head high. It wasn’t easy to look myself in the mirror.
Why do these beauty standards start and end with women? I couldn’t help but wonder that if I were a man then maybe my skin colour wouldn’t have been much of a concern. But as I am a woman, suddenly my worth is up for debate. I never saw men in our families ridiculed for their colour. But I was mocked by family members. They would say ‘When will your periods start so your skin will clear up?’ or ‘You should use this face pack; it will help.’ Help with what, exactly? Certainly it didn’t help my sanity or my confidence. I never understood why it was okay to treat my wheaten skin as an issue. When did it become okay to criticize someone, and treat them like their future depends on their skin?
It is not easy standing up for myself. Not when all I have ever done is cower away in fear of displeasing others, losing friends, being rejected and unloved. I remember passing by some magazines which featured a beautiful black woman. My friend said ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ with a smirk on her face and a bubbling laugh. Her sarcasm snapped something in me. But I didn’t have the guts to ask ‘Why isn’t she beautiful? She is famous, rich, and has been featured on the cover. What am I missing?’ Instead, I stared blankly. This precise moment was the start of something new for me. I lost friends, but made new ones who taught me that there is more to friendships than looks. I matured, and started accepting myself for who I am. I stopped pitying myself. What still confuses me is how skin colour is a defining character for women but never for men? What is our society saying about men, women, and our skin tones? And why?
I have come a long way, from rocking myself to sleep to get to the point of looking at myself in the mirror with pride. From being vulnerable to breaking the stereotypes. From putting my hands over my ears to silence the taunts to speaking out against bullying. But every day is still a struggle. Healing takes a long time; the scars still feel fresh.