I look in my mirror as I do every morning. This morning is no different from any other that has come before. As I moisturize my face and examine the dry and discoloured spots left by the harsh winter a thought comes unbidden.
Wouldn’t it be nice to even out my skin tone and get a nicer shade of brown?
I’m shocked by the thought, and look around me. Surely those words didn’t come from me! The words were not said out loud but they effectively silence everything in me. I move from shock to self- disgust. I hurry through the rest of my morning rituals carefully avoiding the mirror. I can’t look at myself.
Hard as I try I can’t run away from this; where did those words come from? Are those feelings really inside me?
Self-examination can be brutal yet I must. I consider myself a strong and confident black woman. I have worked hard to be where I am, and continue to grow. Do we ever stop growing? I surely hope not.
For those who don’t know me well, strength and confidence came late in the game for me. I was a shy and awkward child. My height often made me a target for bullies, because I was often thought to be older than I was and kids can be cruel. After years of never being defended took to defending myself; I learned early that a good defence is a good offence. I developed a smart mouth and had no problem throwing elbows when the need called. I make no apologies for the noses I bloodied along the way.
Along with the teasing about my height, my skin colour was a constant target for both kids and adults. I’ve been called darkie, blackie, chifita and every other variation of the words more times than I care to count. This was more often than not accompanied with the word U.G.L.Y. Later, the digs were a little more subtle but just as hurtful. “Are you sure you’re Zambian, your skin colour is like that of a foreigner,” “how come your mother is lighter than you?”
In the mid-90s when lightening creams and soaps became more widely available my aunt caught the proverbial bug and started using the products. I watched with morbid fascination as she and the maid shared notes about which blends were said to work best for a nice, even shade and what was to be avoided to prevent dark patches from developing. They excitedly whispered how they’d be more attractive and likely to catch a good man. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to jump into the fray. It would have been so easy to cave in – money and access would not have been a barrier. The products were everywhere and dirt cheap.
However, I had already encountered numerous women with skin damage from the use of skin lightening products, including some girls at school. It didn’t add up for me and at the time was lucky enough to draw closer to an older cousin who validated me in ways I don’t think I’ve ever said to her in person. I had a lot of unresolved aggression which manifested itself in a badass attitude. I learned to temper this and realise now that I’ve never really dealt with the root cause. Yet how does one deal with that without dredging up past hurts, peeling away scabs and bleeding all over again?
I learned really young to hate myself - my height, my hair, my skin, my body. I was ugly; the face only a mother could love. I’ve slowly come to terms with this and let it go little by little. It’s terrifyingly hard but I’ve learned to love myself over time. As I said I’m a continual work in progress and it shouldn’t shock me to know there are lessons from long ago that remain in me still waiting to be purged. Or perhaps they’ll stay with me forever, a constant reminder as to how far I have come.