Of all the ways in which my physical beauty is “unconventional,” most prominent is my skin tone. I am a dark-skinned Black woman. Undeniably so. Lately, I’ve been pondering this fact more so than usual.
My skin is dark every day of the year. However, under the Southern sun, I’m spending far more time at my deepest hue than I did in my native New York. I didn’t expect this to affect my self-perception in any way. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice I’d taken yet another step away from the most widely held beauty ideals.
It’s not that this bothered me, exactly. Conventional beauty is not a personal goal of mine. It’s just that Eurocentric beauty standards, in particular, are inescapable in the Western world. It’s hard not to notice when you deviate from them.
Just type the word “beauty” into Google Images and scroll for a bit. You’ll see what I mean. Mainstream media will have you think beauty and dark skin are mutually exclusive. It’s just one of many ways that anti-Black racism is enshrined in our culture.
Somehow, this particular bias never managed to fester within me. I’ve actually always loved my skin color. I love its layered richness, its opacity. Its resilience to the sun and the onslaught of time. I love how much makeup it can handle when I’m feeling femme. I love caring for the kinky curls that tend to come with it.
When I was younger, I liked how my appearance set me apart in my predominantly white hometown. I wanted to stand out in the settings I was happiest in: the classroom, the ballet studio, the alt-rock show. This perception has shifted a bit as I’ve gotten older and become more socially conscious. I now prefer the blessings of blending in.
I clearly remember when I first visited Haiti, home to half my family, when I was 21. When I stepped out into the crowded airport plaza, I marveled at the undulating ocean of melanin that awaited me. Never in my life had I been surrounded by strangers who looked like they could be family.
I didn’t know it before that day, but something in me had craved that experience. That acute sense of belonging. I had spent plenty of time in exclusively Black spaces before, but I had never before set foot where the creation of such a space would be superfluous. My skin was temporarily stripped of its social implications, and could merely exist in public as it did in private.
At home in the U.S., my skin tells a specific story. It speaks of my African ancestry and the plight of the countless souls stolen from that land for centuries. My skin links me to others descended from colonized and enslaved peoples, fighting to thrive in a nation that never intended for our self-determination. I can’t unsee these things when I look in a mirror.
My skin is lovely to look at, and I do so often. I actively resist the cultural narrative that my skin’s color makes me less lovable by nourishing my self-image. But beyond my skin’s appearance, I celebrate its significance. As long as I live in a time and place where dark skin is persecuted, appreciating that aspect of myself will always be a radical act of self-love. It’s one I take on with pleasure.
“Look!” squeals some white girl every summer, thrusting a slightly sunkissed forearm up against mine. “I’m almost as dark as you!” Oh, honey. You wish.