Tag Archives: self esteem

Throwback Thursday: “You’re Pretty for a Dark-Skinned girl!”

19 Jul

Today, I am revisiting the first blog I wrote for the collective in 2010.  I can’t remember why I wrote about colorism, but it feels as fitting and relevant today as it did two years ago when I first found the words.  I wrote about how “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” is a backwards pseudo-compliment that leaves dark-skinned girls caught up in a conundrum and half-smile, wondering if the two things she is being called (the two things she is) are oxymoronic, canceling each other out—does being pretty make up for being dark-skinned, does being dark-skinned cancel out being pretty?  What the hell?

As I attempted to put a new take on it, my recent reflections remind me of how infrequent I hear a personal compliment or affirmation at all.  Sometimes, not hearing who we are, particularly from the people around us, makes us question it.  Pouring from my own needs I tend to shower people with compliments.  I call my students beauties, just in case no one has (ever) told them they are beautiful.  I want them to know that they are beautiful people—not out of manipulation, but sincerity; and not because of what they look like, but because of who they have the capacity to be.  When I notice something beautiful about a person I tell them, specifically and intentionally, that they have a sweet or calming spirit, a beautiful smile, remarkable eyes.  Beauty, for me, is more than skin deep…it’s not about what people see, it’s about what they can’t see.  This is how I survived my formative years, when people called me what they saw/thought (“ugly”) based on standards I could never meet (“light, bright, damn near white”), and I still had to figure out how to love myself.

When I was younger I thirsted for the words, even if they were empty.  Perhaps that is why I found myself in empty situations with hurt feelings, a battered heart, and a beauty so scarred I couldn’t see it for years!  When someone finally told me I was beautiful they were able to use it against me like a weapon because down deep I never thought I would hear it again.  Once I picked up the pieces and got perspective on the ways that colorism mimics so many other built-in discriminations and privileges (i.e., heterosexism, ageism, sexism, racism, ableism, etc.) I vowed to never be that thirsty for a compliment again… and to actively remind myself, and others, (especially beautifulbrownandblackgirls/women) that beauty ain’t never been stingy and there is enough to go around! This post reminds me that I need to call my damn self pretty…more.  I need to rely less on other people’s opinions, release myself from being bound by other people’s stubbornness (to give a compliment), or opinions, or lack of home training, or insecurity, or down right meanness and love myself… fiercely and unapologetically.  I will look long and deep til I see my own damn pretty, and say it out loud (because sometimes I need to hear it), and if needbe take a picture and keep it on my nightstand.

So this morning, after re-reading the post, I stood in the front of the mirror and stared at a early morning, wild-haired, glassy eyed, bloated bodied me… before I washed my face, brushed my teeth, got in the shower or could even see myself good I decided to love on myself for a moment.  I noticed the moles on my chin, the line that forms on my nose and forehead when I squint, how my teeth and lips hide my gums when I smile, and how dark and brown my eyes are.  I saw my mama’s nose, my daddy’s mouth, and my grandmother’s sass hidden behind too few hours of sleep and puffy eyes.  I saw the imperfections, birth marks, stretch marks, and chocolate dipped exterior and thought to myself, I am pretty…period!

Self-care includes self-love!  Be about it.

Original Post: April 1, 2010, see amended version below

“You’re Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl…”

I have heard this statement many times in my life from well-meaning black women, seemingly surprised peers, family members, and perfect strangers who usually make the statement in response or reply to not having seen me in a while or in genuine wonder and fascination. The words come as somewhat of a shock in the moment, somewhat of a criticism, somewhat of an offense. I don’t know if I should be flattered or insulted… I mean we never say “you’re pretty for a white/light-skinned/skinny/athletic/young/able-bodied/heterosexual girl….” It is always the opposite that deserves comment.  In other words, “you’re pretty to not be normal/what I have come to expect.” (Yeah, folk can pretty much keep those pseudo-compliments to themselves).

The words, “you’re pretty for…” is no different than saying “you’re pretty, but…”  The old-school women in my church would often talk ish while smiling, sandwiching a compliment between critique like meat and bread.  “You putting on some weight?  You look good, but what you doing with your hair?”  Uh…yeah? Or, “She got strong features.  Favor her mama.  Look just like her daddy.”  Uh-huh.

The words would come at me softly, sometimes hard, but mostly behind smiling eyes and perfectly thick lips, insinuating that if it wasn’t for _____ I would be acceptable.  The other implication was that one is either pretty or dark-skinned (not both)…and the tendency to be both simultaneously, is possible, but not likely. So, at best, I am an anomaly.

I believed the either/or myth long enough to be

surprised at lyrics that praised “boricua morenas”

and confused at Lauryn Hill’s sweet lyrics of

the sweetest thing she had ever known

being wrapped in “a precious dark skin tone”

and India Arie’s fascination with “brown skin.”

My skin

left me feeling like if it weren’t for the fact that I was dark-skinned (or simply just a calm shade of brown), perhaps I could be beautiful/loveable/wanted. The internal conflict came at a problematic time because I already often feel like the merge of two impossibilities (undeniably black and possibly beautiful). Those insecurities sometimes continue with me being a black woman academic… something right (smart and successful) coupled with something wrong (black). What does that make me?

The backwards compliments (“You are pretty…to be dark-skinned”) have often fed my colorism, color complex issues and low self esteem as a child and my curiosities as an adult about my attraction to men who pass the paper bag test…

My homegirl and I talked about how these color-issues translate to our lives, how we see ourselves (as beautiful or not) and how we are seen (desired or not). In movies, we (dark skinned black girls) are (usually) not the love interest. My friend sighed in surrender as she shared with me that “dark skinned women, unlike dark-skinned men, were never in style.” This, of course, doesn’t mean that people don’t notice that we are “pretty” (I mean chocolate is sweet)…but their temporary short term longings transition to long term sensibilities that tend to send them on quests to find the most exotic, racially ambiguous person to take home to mama or make babies with. Regardless of my qualities, I often(times) hear words merge with others telling me, I am pretty for a dark-skinned girl, but…

And those words remind me of how many nights I fell asleep on tear-soaked pillows praying to wake up a different me, a light-skinned, long-haired me, thinking and believing that that would somehow make me more…loveable. It was easy to believe that when everyone from my elders to my peers were constantly commenting on my lighter than ebony but darker than chestnut colored exterior and demeaning me (whether they meant to or not and whether they knew it or not) because I was not “white” enough…or “light” enough.

Women of color, black women especially, often struggle with seeing ourselves as beautiful when the epitome of beauty is something like white…

I am far from a Barbie doll—but loving the skin I’m in. Learning to love yourself is a lifelong process and endeavor and I am committed to it and fully aware that in a culture that privileges red bones over big bones I am not sure how beautiful I seem…but I am embracing the mocha in my skin and the mahogany behind my eyes. Even though I have often been told that I am beautiful in spite of, not because of, my “dark-skin” I am dreaming dark and deep.

Ode to Dark (Skinned) Girls

9 Jun

My melanin proficiency has often led to color complex(ion) issues brought on by my country (rural) upbringing in a community (and country) fascinated (via the hegemonic influences of beauty) with my yellow-skinned sister with looooooooooooooooooooong hair and generally ambivalent with me (and my dark skin and short/er hair).  They (the adults and other children in my life) always knew my sister was beautiful but for me it took time, years, deep long looks and depth of consideration to finally determine that I was cute, ish, beautiful even for a dark-skinned girl.  I have often pondered the implications of those terms of my beauty, put on me by society, community, and sometimes my self  (I told you I had color complex, read complexion, issues that resulted from what I was taught to find attractive and desirable).

It is hard to love your black (beauty) when you know Black men who exclusively date nonblack women or who refuse to date dark-skinned Black women because they are not “beautiful.”  The Psychology Today article that accused black women of being ugly hit close to home and pushed me back to so many moments of insecurity that I thought I would explode in rage.  I had thought (read hoped) that we had made strides past the paper bag test and expanded, culturally, what constitutes beauty despite the unspoken preference for red bones.

But this is not a critique of societal hate of black girls (though it could and perhaps should be) but rather a prelude to a preview.  The documentary Dark Girls is directed by Bill Duke and will premiere in October at the International Black Film Festival (check out the trailer below).

When I saw the preview (I wish the title was different, by the way, Dark-Skinned Girls perhaps, but Dark Girls implies something sinister that makes me sad) I sat with my tears and remembered my own sadness and memories of growing up a dark (skinned) girl in a space that prefers something/anything else.  The stories were so resonant with my own memories that I was reminded about how important it is to tell and hear your story in a chorus of others.  I felt validated by the confessions and emotions brought forth by the women included in the showing, many of them unable to recall their feelings of inadequacy and shame without tears.  As I watched and listened I realized that my struggle(s) are not over and that despite my best intentions and awareness, there is still the little dark skinned black girl in me who wishes to be different.  Acceptable. Lovable. Beautiful (as quoted in the introduction to the film).  For so much of my life no one seemed to notice that/if I was beautiful at all.

I have the kind of beauty that moves slowly and sneaks up on you—in those few seconds when you are still trying to decide what you think of my face you realize that the thing that made you unsure was not my features, but my skin.  I know it, I see it, I recognize it in the eyes of women and men 30 seconds before they speak (or don’t speak, depending on the situation).  But I have grown into my beautiful.  After years of looking past my own pretty, I finally found it was there all along.  It is a subtle, disarming, vulnerable, newly-confident beautiful that I inherited from my mama’s cinnamon skin (which she got from my grandmother’s Native American/light as White legacies) and my father’s sepia-shade sprung forth from his light skinned, heavy-tongued mother and pecan skinned and dark eyed father (all of their children were the color of Hennessy).  I used to find solace in knowing that I coulda been light-skinned, and that perhaps I really was on the inside, under the curious layers of dark brown skin that showed on the outside.  As a dark (skinned) girl I spent hours in the mirror imagining how different I would look with light skin (I wonder if light skinned sisters have that same wondering).

This documentary is important because it seems to speak to the silenced (and hurtful) experiences of a group of women who fail to consistently hear their worth (Psychology Today anyone?)  It is time that someone starts telling dark (skinned) girls they are beautiful, because of, not in spite of their skin color.  It has taken me years to combat the colorism in my own life but I think it is time for a shift in the narrative so that little dark (skinned) girls don’t have to wait ‘til they are grown to get self esteem– and so that as they are growing up and dealing with the prejudices of being dark-skinned they do not suffer in silence or isolation.  I wish someone would have been there to tell me it would be all right.  To remind me/show me/tell me I was beautiful.

I am not sure how the documentary ends but I look forward to seeing it.  I imagine (read hope) that it finds a way to affirm and re-imagine beauty for dark (skinned) Black women so they (we) can see themselves (ourselves) as beautiful.

But just in case the documentary fails to affirm dark-skinned girls (it is not clear if it is merely a collection of narratives or a larger commentary on how to re-frame our gaze), I wrote a short poem to celebrate dark skin.  I call it,

Ode to Dark (Skinned) Girls

she waited

patiently

and in silence

never admitting

out loud

that she secretly wanted to be

light

skinned

brown but in a lighter shade

she would say it out loud

but in whispered tones

“make me white-like

damn near transparent

so that these people can see through me

instead of just past me…

make me

beautiful!”

like the color of the earth  I already was

but

this skin,

this house to my soul

is only almost pretty

they say

and if I weren’t so dark

I might be worth

lovingwantingfuckingstayingbeing

but instead I am just

tolerated

in the dark or in secret

or worn on your shoulder

like

an unnecessary accessory

creating your celebrity

because

i

am

dark

er

than

you

teach me how to love

myself

brilliantlyBrownBlackMahoganyEbonyqueen-like

BronzedCocoaButterDreamChild

the color of fire

in the middle of its escape

skin and eyes round

and regal at once

You are beautiful

I am beautiful

the color of coffee with no cream

dark like the bittersweet chocolate of my dreams

caramel-coated coquette

honey dipped and full of vigor

full lipped and full bodied

full

dark-skinned and exquisite

majestic even

with your brown-black self!

Black is beautiful

You are beautiful

I am beautiful

We are beautiful

The Joy(s) of Being A (Black) Woman

18 Apr

I taught a class of Black Women’s Stories this semester and it culminated in a moment of clarity and a recognition of joy. When speaking with a black woman scholar whom I both admire and respect, I shared some of my concerns about the course and how while the stories are certainly powerful, many narratives of black womanhood concentrate on pain, including my own.  I shared that I was excited about the class because it allowed me to collect all of my favorite black girl/woman stories and teach them—teach myself—but that I did not want anyone to walk away feeling like black womanhood is an altogether negative experience/reality.

After acknowledging the importance that such a class exist, particularly in an institution that might otherwise render black womanhood invisible and insignificant, my mentor asked a poignant question: “What about the joy of being a black woman?”  She said, “With all the struggles attached I have never wanted to be anything other than a black woman.  I have never wanted to be a man.  And I have never wanted to be white.”

While I had escaped penis envy all my life, as a child I did wish for whiteness—though my memory does not distinguish if it was the skin or the privilege attached to it that I most longed for. 

My mentor challenged me to have my students read a story about the deliciousness of black womanhood and not just the struggle/s and oppression/s.  When I asked what book she was talking about she had no answer, but I realized that every book written by a black woman about being a black woman contains this bliss—even though it is sometimes hidden and tucked around survival and sacrifice.  I realized that the things and women we read, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Joan Morgan, Cheryl Clarke, Ntozake Shange, Rebecca Walker, Meri Danquah, Patricia Hill Collins, Marita Golden and others, were writing about being (fully feeling/loving/embracing/learning) black and female.  An acknowledgment of the discrimination is not a rejection of all that we are.

While there was a repetition of pain fostered in an inability to not break (resisting or embracing strongblackwomanhood) stereotypes, ambivalence about love/relationships/life, witnessing  loveless partnership, experiencing passionless sex, fearing forced celibacy and loneliness, the inner workings of incest, anger, secrets shared, abandonment, mama and daddy issues, and depression…we read a range of pieces from my life.  “Strongblackwomen” “in search of our mothers’ gardens” with “home girls” fighting “the myth of the superwoman” and declaring “a black feminist statement” while “using anger to respond to racism” and finding the need to face ourselves in our sisters, “eye to eye.”  Dreaming of “blue eyes” and “the days of good looks” when “lesbianism was an act of resistance.” “Lusting for freedom,” pouring balm on “wounds of passion” while the “willow wept for me,”…with me, I found myself in “Sula” because she wanted to make herself, not somebody else, just like me– and fought off “whitegirls” “shifting” through “bone black” ashes on my brown black skin and fighting with and for “endangeredblackmen,” realizing finally that this experience was “For Strong Women” and “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

From Barbara Smith’s Introduction to Home Girls to Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought to Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider to Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost we analyzed black women’s experiences of discrimination but also her experiences of joy.  Pleasure.  Power. Love.

I asked my students to go back to every thing we had read and pull out the joy!  The joy of being a black woman.  And we assembled in a classroom circle calling out how the stories teach black girls to be unapologetically themselves and find joy in friendships and relationships with other black women, even unconventional black women.  How romantic relationships begin with hope and anticipation, anxious waiting and “good love” and good lovin even if it sometimes ends.  About sisterhood and friendship and moments of escape and dreams—finding love, inspiring love, writing love, loving yourself, being erotic in every endeavor and enjoying life. Finding power, yes power, and loving black men (and women) as friends (and lovers) and the good side of mothering—and art as an escape and poetry as a medium and being sexual and sexy “like a grown woman” before you are grown and how blackness defines blackness and there is pride and purpose in being a black woman feminist revolutionary. Being free and beautiful in your own self. Moving to music and making love through song, we found black women to be innovators, spiritual healers, inheriting creativity and security and using tears and each other to move forward and on.

I can borrow their words or use my own but we realized in that moment that all along we had been reading about joy, hidden beneath pain, in the everyday experiences of being a woman of color.  It was beautiful and telling. And above all JOYFUL!

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