How I Learned to Love the Color of My Skin

By Joyline Maenzanise

Last year, Lupita Nyong’o shared publicly that she had been told at an audition that she was "too dark" for television. This hit close to home.

Like Lupita, I grew up in a predominantly Black community. Still, internalized White supremacy saw—and still sees—us using White standards of beauty to gauge attractiveness. It’s no surprise that several folks, including some celebrities, have opted to lighten their skin, or that the market for bleaching products is forecast to reach a whopping $24 billion by 2027 — all despite the known dangers and banning of those products in some countries. 

I was in my preteen years when I had my first brush with colorism. One particular afternoon, I was standing in front of my mother’s garden while she plucked huge-leafed kale with her friend. My mother’s friend, who seemed intent on destroying any budding confidence in me, said I was too dark and ugly to be one of my mother’s daughters, who were light in complexion and attractive. I was stunned; I had no idea where that all came from. My mother tried to salvage my self-esteem by telling her that I was pretty, but her friend wasn’t convinced. Quite frankly, neither was I. 

My mother’s friend wasn’t the only woman to teach me to hate my skin. At some point in high school, I also gave in to the pressure to conform to society’s beauty standards and began bleaching my skin. I did this for a while, even as some people expressed concern that I could end up with ochronosis, a condition caused by prolonged use of hydroquinone, which results in the formation of black patches on the face.

As I continued to battle with low self-esteem, I also developed a love-hate relationship with mirrors and cameras. For years, I avoided looking into the mirror — at home, school or in public spaces. Though it may not be as debilitating as when one is spectrophobic, I have harbored a fear of my reflection in mirrors.

When other folks spend a lengthy time in front of mirrors seeing how they look, if they like their look or if they want to change it, I have found it hard to look into one. For a long time, I’ve believed that I wouldn’t like how I looked and, if I could, I’d want to change my features. 

Looking back on my childhood, I wish I’d been told that I was beautiful and that dark is indeed lovely — and that I didn’t need to alter my appearance to conform to a biased definition of what or who is attractive.

Unlearning years of this deeply ingrained self-loathing doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process, and it isn’t linear. It’s taken me over a decade, and learning to love my image has required that I learn to love my reflection in mirrors. Some days I win, and it helps that society has been having conversations that seek to dismantle the lie I’ve believed for so long. On those days, I look at my reflection long enough to also notice that I  have features I actually love: my luscious lips, cheekbones, full eyebrows, and yes, my sunken eyes. 

Having another person take pictures of me still makes me uncomfortable. In fact, I prefer taking selfies privately. Doing so affords me some power over my looks which I feel I don’t have when someone else is the photographer. While some may view selfies in a negative light, taking them has been an empowering feat for me. I am able to use them as a tool to challenge my long-held distorted perception of my looks. 

I don’t always feel beautiful though. This is why loving my image has had to also mean being comfortable knowing there will be days when I just don’t like my reflection. There are days when I look in the mirror and begin to see the person who was “too dark and ugly to be her mother’s daughter.” On those days, it becomes really important for me to override any negative thoughts about my image with positive affirmations. I drown out those voices from the past by reminding myself I am not a product of other people’s beliefs, which are often a reflection of their own insecurities about their bodies.  I am beautiful!

Joyline Maenzanise is a writer whose work has appeared in Wear Your Voice, Black Youth Project, and HelloGiggles, to name a few publications. View her Contently profile or follow her on Twitter.