When I was much younger, my grandmother always kept a bottle of Sea Breeze and a can of Comet handy to clean and exfoliate the “huck” off of our joints. My cousins and I crawled around a lot: he with his Tonka trucks and me with my pink Barbie Benz.
“Didn’t I tell y’all to stay off those knees and elbows?” our dark-skinned Grandma would constantly ask us as she dabbed and scrubbed the blackness off of our skin.
Subconsciously, that ritual – combined with witnessing family members swoon over our biracial cousins – caused me to associate black skin with dirtiness and ugliness.
I remember these details as I watched the trailer for Skinned, an upcoming made-for-television film that addresses the issue of colorism. The movie follows a character who bleaches her skin during college to feel more attractive, but the procedure affects her health later in adulthood.
I never tried anything extreme like using Clorox or other flammable household chemicals on my face – not that Comet is safe – but I do recall the little white jar with orangish-reddish letters that I bought from the local pharmacy with my allowance. It was Nadinola skin discoloration cream, and I initially used it to erase the temporary bruising from my knees and elbows.
But one day I decided to use it on my face despite potential side effects of dryness, redness, sunburn, eye irritation, or maybe blindness if I got any remnants of the cream too close to my lash line. But I was most focused on lightening my complexion. I was going to look like my cousins. Or close to it.
I never saw any difference in my skin tone with the Nadinola, though. I looked the same, even months later. Thinking that perhaps Nadinola just wasn’t made for us, I upgraded to tubes of Ambi fade cream. But in retrospect, maybe none of it worked because it was consumer-strength and technically spot treatment. Or maybe because I just wasn’t meant to be a different shade of brown. Nevertheless I convinced myself that it just took longer for the product to make a visible change, and I kept using Ambi back then for about a year or so until I left for college.
I arrived at my new “home by the sea” amidst beautiful rainbows of brownness, where there were no light-skinned versus dark-skinned wars like in School Daze. Everyone seemed to exude confidence in the shade they were in. There was this one dark-skinned young woman in particular who often accentuated her complexion with bold plums and fuchsias. She was simply gorgeous. It was the first time I truly appreciated dark skin.
My much-lighter roommate used Prescriptives and invited me on a makeup run even though I never wore more than $0.99 lipstick. But Prescriptives was hosting a makeover contest, and the winner would receive a small arsenal of cosmetics. I entered partly to double my roommate’s chances because I’d give my prize to her if I happened to win and partly to see how I’d look with pops of hot pinks and purples.
I was skeptical, though, because it was no Fashion Fair, which is what I was familiar with at the time. I reminded my roommate that I can’t wear beige foundation in case she was oblivious to such things.
“Don’t worry about that,” she replies. “They can match the makeup to your skin tone.”
I got the phone call that I had won the contest. My roomie and I arrived at the mall to claim our cosmetic goodies, but before I could reach the counter, I spotted my before-and-after photos on display. I froze. I didn’t see the exact match Prescriptives touted itself for. All I saw was chalk and ash. A black geisha. The consultant had whitewashed my face with a mainstream definition of beauty instead of highlighting mine. And here I was a representative of an illustrious HBCU, where I’m not supposed to feel shame for my hue, but I was standing in the mall too insulted and too embarrassed to acknowledge a reflection of me.
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I stared at the picture as I quietly accepted my prizes from a smiling cashier. Had I been older and wiser, I would’ve demanded they take down my photos and left every lipstick and color palette there. Or at least explained to her how she and her colleagues got the concept of black beauty all wrong. I’d tell her we come in all wondrous shades, and while those pasty and frosty colors may work for them, they diminish our radiance. Still, it took another decade for me to become a vocal advocate of “I Behold my Black” even if majority doesn’t and my grandmother couldn’t.
Years into adulthood, I started using Clinique for skincare because I found it makes my brown skin glow. One day at the counter, the consultant asked me if I wanted to try a product from the “Even Better” line, which includes dark spot correctors and skin tone correcting moisturizer.
“I notice that your face is darker than the rest of your body,” she explains.
Now this is actually a fact. My face is dark while my neck, arms, and chest on down to my toes have more of a brighter, reddish undertone. But despite the validity of her observation, it was still a “Bish, what?” moment.
Yet, I kept it cute. “I’m fine with the color of my face, thank you,” I say to her as she nervously bags my mild facial soap. And I’m extremely proud, too.
When did you begin to appreciate the beautiful color of your skin?