Last night, I was at the Poets in Autumn tour in Johannesburg. I really enjoy attending Poets in Autumn because the poems and the poets themselves remind me of how deep God’s love is, how real life’s struggles are,and how gracious God to us. But last night, there was something, or should I say someone else that caught my attention – Ezekiel Azonwu, before his first poem, introduced his wife to the audience and mentioned that she teaches African women how to love and grow their hair. Surely, more African women are returning to the beauty of their natural hair and it made me smile to see yet another amazing woman dedicate herself to teaching young women how to love their hair.
It took me down memory lane, to the days when my hair and my skin were my biggest battles. I was born and raised in Nigeria for the first 16 years of my life and during that time, two messages were clearly communicated to me:
1.) Relaxed straight hair made a woman more beautiful and sophisticated while natural hair made her look poor and in distress
2. ) Dark skin on a woman is unattractive. It looks blotchy, does not light up the room and certainly does not attract a successful crop of men. People desire dark, tall and handsome. There was no such thing as dark, tall and beautiful. Well, if there was, it was not mainstream.
For the longest time, these were beliefs that were drummed into me at every family event. My aunts did not hesitate at every opportunity to mention how much I looked like my father and took his complexion. Often times in Yoruba, they would say “wo bo se dudu bi baba e” (look at you, as dark as your father), their facial expressions indicating that they were sad on my behalf. To put things in context, my sister is a lighter complexion and no one ever said “wo bo se pupa bi mummy e“. No one looked sad or worried for her. She was fine and they did not hesitate to praise her beauty. The message was clear – my dark skin was undesirable and well, if I did not like it, it was up to me to change it.
So the experiments began. With my hair straight and relaxed, the only giant left to conquer was my dark skin. I purchased my first two bottles of skin lightening lotion and expected the best. They were serum-free products because I did not want the results to be drastic. As much as many people expected me to fix the problem my God-given skin represented, I wanted to ease them into the transformation. I watched as my skin went from dark to a light brown, with some parts remaining stubbornly dark. I told myself I was not lightening my skin, I was ‘toning’ it, ‘using the lotions to get an even complexion, only lightening areas that were unusually dark like my forehead…. and all those other lies darkskinned women tell themselves when they are unsure of why they are doing what they are doing
Some of my friends praised the transformation. It was a step in the right direction. My foundation was a shade lighter, photos looked ‘better’; if I kept it up, I could be flawlessly light-skinned, attracting the right kinds of people into my life and being noticed in the right spaces. Afterall, in Nigeria, it is hard to find a successful man with a dark skinned wife.
But there was a problem. The lighter my skin became, the more I detested my looks. Everytime I looked in the mirror, I saw more blemishes than I ever did. I saw the areas where the lotions had failed to be effective. I saw the dark spots and lines. It was like slowly peeling off a mask to a new identity, an identity I was beginning to realize I did not want. Even though I was only a shade lighter, I felt like I was no longer me. I craved the shine of my dark skin and how bright it made my eyes every time I smiled, I missed the fact that I could simply put on sunscreen and step out on a beautiful sunny day. Now I had to be careful of green veins popping through my skin and burn patches revealing the harmful effects of the lotions I was using. To make matters worse, the chemical smell of the lotions in spite of how perfumed they were did not give the comforting aroma of attained beauty. The smell stuck to my skin, and sometimes during the night, it felt like my sweat had been contaminated with these toxins. I needed to stop and stop I did.
I had only used one bottle of skin lightening lotion when I quit and told myself that I would never go down that route again. But it would take many more cycles of me trying to attain the light skin standard of beauty and returning to my God-given complexion for me to finally quit. Everytime I went to a family event and was reminded I looked just as dark as my father, I ran back to my lotion. When my friends and acquaintances spoke about how they would bleach their babies if their babies ever came out dark-skinned, I was tempted to attain that level of being one shade lighter than my original complexion. I fought the urge every time and on the occasions when I lost, I did not stay on the skin lightening path for long.
It has been four years since my last attempt and I am happy to say in spite of the many pitiful looks at my dark complexion in social gatherings and the constant reminders of how people are more attracted to light-skinned women, I have grown to love my dark skin even more. I realized through self-reflection that the desire to be light-skinned was never mine to start with. The fear of being unattractive, going unnoticed or being seen as ugly was never mine. The fear of not being pursued by a Nigerian man who wanted to ensure his collection of beautiful things was made complete by a light-skinned wife was never mine. My actions were the product of a society that taught me to criticize the earthen jar in which I existed for the sake of meeting deeply contorted definitions of beauty.
I had never been taught to see beauty in my melanin-endowed skin so I became a fertile soil for the seeds that taught me to fear it. Realizing this made me resolute in my love for my skin. I fell in love with it anew and like lovers dedicate themselves to life-long learning about each other, I have dedicated myself to learning about my skin like I would learn about a lover.
Now I know to use my homemade sugar scrubs during the winter for moisture, to mix my Shea butter with glycerin and bio oil during the summer, to get rid of impurities using a mud mask once a week and to apply that vitamin c mask for a beautiful glow. Learning to love my dark skin has been more difficult than lightening it, but now when I look in the mirror, I no longer see a mask that’s slowly being peeled off. I see me. Just me. Glowing. smiling. complete and secure. The fears that were planted in me have since been uprooted and the smell of chemical sweat is long forgotten and never missed. This melanin jar which encases my bubbly spirit and carries my beautiful soul was given to me because it was perfect for me. I was woven by God, fearfully and wonderfully crafted, and I would not like to look any other way. I see beauty in the dripping perfection of my melanin sauce and I hope you see yours too.