At 26, I have drifted in and out of states of unrest regarding my appearance; as seen through the eyes of others, but also as I see myself. There are memories from my childhood wrought with wishes that my skin was lighter, my hair softer, and my eyes a paler brown or hazel hue.
Groupthink is not uncommon among school children—I didn’t want to be the girl rocking plaits with “unruly” hair. I wanted hair that blew in wind, bright eyes that reflected the sun, and skin that was a little more olive than red. So this weekend, when the internet was in an uproar over Lil Kim’s skin-bleached selfies—and after reading about her struggles with low self-esteem—I thought about my own dilemma. I understood, sympathized and ultimately, sided with her.
Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” sampled a quote from a speech by Malcolm X stating: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” In his speech, Malcolm posed the question, “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips?” And at the end of the speech, Malcolm urged Black men to protect Black women.
Thinking in this stream of consciousness, it’s possible that Lil Kim—like so many dark-skinned Black women —felt unprotected by our men. They didn’t help to protect and preserve her sense of self. In a 2000 interview with Newsweek, Lil Kim addressed her ever-changing appearance stating, “I have low self-esteem— I always have. Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the longhair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, how can I compete with that? Being a regular Black girl wasn’t good enough.”
As a “regular Black girl,” I can identify with these sentiments. Assuming that “regular” refers to Black women who don’t have obvious lineage laced with White blood, evident by their caramel or almost ivory skin, and their sometimes softer, looser curls— “yellow bone” girls, as they are most commonly referred. “Regular,” meaning those girls—like myself—who are less likely to pass the brown paper bag test have historically been deemed less attractive. In the 1700s and 1800s, it was at the hand of slave owners who relegated them to the fields and made them bed wenches in secret. Today, it is evident in everything from commercial advertising to movies and music videos where leading roles are seldom reserved for chocolate women. We are constantly viewed as good enough to bed, but never good enough to commit to. History taught us to look at ourselves as lesser than, and somewhere along the way we began to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid.
I drank a cup or two myself, and sometimes I still sip from the pint I inevitably have chilling in the fridge.
As the child of two US military officers, I spent a great deal of my youth overseas; sometimes—often times— I was one of the few Black students in my school. My mom and I were living in Italy the first time someone told me my skin was the color of “caca,” an Italian colloquialism that translates to “poop” in English. My best friend at the time, Alessandra, was an olive-skinned Italian girl that said it to me matter-of-factly as we swung on the monkey bars during recess. What I said in response I have since forgotten, but that comment hung in the air choking me like smoke in a poker room that I still have yet to leave. I fell from the monkey bars and my elementary crush, Marco—who must have over heard the conversation—walked up, took my hand and replied, “Well, I think her skin is like milk chocolate.” Italian men learn the art of charm at a young age.
While bodily waste and chocolate are two vastly different comparisons, the former is still the reference that stuck in my head. Following that incident, I think I learned to accept my skin by default; the topic of skin color never having been an issue before. It is up for debate whether or not I labeled myself as “Black” at the age of 5, but that is certainly when I was introduced to the stigma and the historied “ugliness” so often associated with Blackness. Though I grew up in a very loving home where my mother constantly affirmed my beauty and intelligence, I, in my chocolate skin, still sought validation of my beauty from light-skinned Black men and always considered my light-skinned girlfriends to be prettier than I was. My first boyfriend was Asian-and-Black and I distinctly remember feeling so privelaged to have been chosen by him. But there was still that looming feeling of threat when introduced to his female friends who were lighter than me and had hair that was longer than mine—thus reducing my value to my parts.
While I would not mimic Kim’s cosmetic pursuits, I do understand them. As such, I cannot participate in shaming a woman whose pain and sense of reflection so closely mirrored my own. And, if Malcolm X was right—that Black Women are the most disrespected, neglected and unprotected women in America — then I certainly cannot lend myself to furthering another Black woman’s struggle. We have a responsibility to one another: to protect each other, affirm each other and sharpen each other.
Frida Kahlo famously penned the quote, “Traté de ahogar mis penas, per las condenadas aprendieron a nadar,” it translates to “I tried to drown my sorrows, but the damned things learned to swim.” Issues of body image are much like those sorrows Kahlo referred to—they’re deeply rooted, and while anyone can cosmetically alter their appearance, many of those old sorrows will remain. It is not for us to dismiss someone else’s sorrow or pursuit of happiness— all we can do is encourage their sense of joy and hope that it too learns to swim. So, while I am not siding with her decision to lighten her skin or make her appearance more European, I am choosing to side with her happiness—if she is happier or feels more fulfilled in this form, and she’s not bashing my skin, then I support her decision to be happy.