For as long as I could remember, I was black and ugly. So, I’ll never forget when I was offered the chance to model. I was 16 years old, doing some summer window-shopping on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, where all the luxury brand stores are located. Two men approached me, handed me a business card, and mentioned modeling. They “liked my expression and tall frame”. They were dressed well, and one had a large professional camera around his neck. I didn’t recognize the company on the card then, but later research would prove it was a legitimate major agency. I quickly dismissed them, though. I explained that I didn’t want to travel; I was an artist not a model. The reality was that I had been taught for so long that I was black and ugly that I couldn’t possibly fathom being attractive.
Recently, ABC News featured a video of a young Black girl named Janiyah discussing her struggle to love herself against the internalized belief that she was “dark and ugly”, and that ‘light-skinned girls” were pretty. She broke down crying as she shared her pain. In her, I saw my story and the story of so many other “ugly” black boys and girls.
Colorism is strong in the Black community: it’s the idea that beauty and value are dependent on a person’s skin tone. Slavery created a condition where whiteness (or light complexion & European features), are considered superior to dark complexions and African features. Lighter slaves were thought to be better than darker slaves, who were considered ugly. Though physical slavery is over, the mental chains of this philosophy continue today.
At a very early age, my dark brown skin was called ugly, compared to mud or feces. People would poke out their mouth to emulate my thick, protruding lips. My wide nose, my cheek bones, my protruding brow, my coarse “nappy” hair were critiqued. I was called “monkey”, “blackness”, “midnight”, and the most soul-crushing insult ever uttered on the playground: the dreaded “African booty-scratcher”. My looks, born of my Black heritage, were ironically insulted by other Black people.
The programming goes so deep that even global examples to the contrary can’t defeat it. I grew up in the 90s, when Black beauty reigned. Denzel Washington changed the image of the Hollywood leading man. Whitney Houston’s stunning beauty and titanic talent made her the biggest star in the world. Tyson Beckford forged a new standard of Black male beauty. Naomi Campbell became the first Black supermodel on the cover of Time Magazine. Lauryn Hill appeared, with her glistening mahogany skin and dreadlocks. She made it popular to be dark brown and have robust features. She taught us that our skin was not the color of mud, but the hue of the richest soil from which life grew. In her song “The Sweetest Thing” she made us all seem as beautiful as a Sunday evening meditation, with lines like “warm as the sun dipped in Black” and “more valuable than all I own like your precious dark skin tone”.
Yet despite all of that Black beauty, I couldn’t see it in myself. I can still remember my aunt looking at one of my baby pictures and saying to me, “Your hair was so curly then, and you were lighter and so pretty.”
I carried that into my teenage years. By then I’d learned how to photo-shop my pics, and would lighten my skin and edit my features to cartoon-ish levels to fit what I thought was attractive. So, you can imagine my surprise when, while window-shopping that summer day, people approached me offering me the opportunity to represent beauty.
As I walked away from them, I was haunted by their suggestion. I went home and starred in the mirror and played back every negative thing I’d ever heard. I tried to reconcile it with all the affirmations that I heard from Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Lauryn, Erykah, and Black Star. I had to learn to finally believe all those things I had said about being Young, Gifted, and Black. I had to confront all of those destructively toxic things I’d heard from people who were just as conditioned as I was. I had to learn that the dark hue of my skin matched the beginning of time. I had to learn to reject all logic and philosophy that disfigures and insults me, and beats me into limitation.
I wish I could say it happened overnight, but it didn’t. However, it started with the simple acceptance that dark skin is not inherently ugly and that robust African features are not inherently unattractive. That might seem like a simple fact, but with colorism still spreading in the Black community, that affirmation of self-love may be one of the most healing and transformative things a person with skin and features like mine ever hears.
For as long as white supremacy continues to influence us to devalue our very being, we are still in captivity. Black liberation is self-love, no matter how dark your skin, how thick your lips, how wide your nose, how sharp your cheekbones, how heavy your brow, or how nappy your hair.
I still have the card from that modeling agency. I never took the opportunity, but I keep it as a reminder that loving myself as I am, in my Black body and form, is a powerful, blessed, beautiful, and revolutionary act.