I've been doing a little digging in my archives lately and came across a post I wrote almost 4 years ago, which I quietly tucked away and was maybe read by 3 people. I wanted to repost it here because I find it relevant over and over again in learning to love oneself. This post is a bit personal, so if you are not interested it's okay to just move on with your day.
But If you happen to know me and would like to get personal, you also know I do not have the kind of relationship with my mother where we understand each other. This post is not meant to maim her, but rather find some way to understand why she must constantly hold on to opinions of others as if there were more important than her own. We no longer live in a world where we can follow such opinions so blindly. We must find a way to be brave and have voices of our own.
In Lupita Nyong’o’s speech at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, she talks of her mother’s words that reminded her to see the beauty within and not to consume what was in the mirror. She speaks of when she was young, praying to wake up with lighter skin so that she could feel accepted by societal norms. She talks of a letter she received from a girl who almost bought skin-lightening cream but then stopped when she saw how beautiful and dark Lupita is.
When I was young, I had no real definition of beauty. I spent most of my time outside in the backyard or riding my bike through the neighborhood with my brother and the boys. I wore whatever was comfortable and things that I wouldn’t be yelled at for getting dirty. There were many summers where I would get lectured about spending too much time outside. Why would anyone want their child to stay indoors? It was out of fear that my skin would get too dark.
Too dark? The part in Lupita’s speech about skin-lightening cream was far too familiar.
To be pale and not stand out in my own skin was more desirable to many of the women in my family and in my culture. To be a child that came home covered in earth and daylight was a problem. My skin was just the beginning. There was also the absurd obsession with presentation. It’s true, I wore many dresses and pretty things like any other little girl. But I wore whatever was bought or gifted to me and made sure to be presentable enough at holiday parties and church. I fought through puberty to not wear makeup or real gold jewelry because I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. When I was in high school, I remember I wasn’t allowed to leave the house one day unless I changed out of the clothes that I was wearing because it was too “boyish” and was an “embarrassment.” The front door was blocked until I came out of my room in something "pretty."
Aside from my skin and the presentation of myself, there was then the physical attributes. Under my mother's orders, I would have to spend hours standing against the wall with books on my head to correct my habit of slouching and sit in bed with my bowed legs bound together in an attempt to straighten them out. After failed attempts, I would have to instead practice how to stand so that my calves gave the illusion of straighter legs. My mother would refuse to take pictures of me until I stood this way. It reminded me of Asian cultures that used to bind their feet and dangerously contort them just for sexual appeal or times in the Victorian era where women wore rib-breaking corsets to have the skinniest waists. Though never that extreme in my case, I did begin to feel the pressure in my head and wondered if the tenacity of my true beauty would hold.
How then, did I see myself as beautiful if my flaws were constantly being pointed out to me and corrected?
I eventually grew to like the idea of accessorizing, but not until I was almost done with college. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I finally started to wear my hair down—which would always be pulled back in ponytails or tightly wound into buns. I started to become interested in wearing makeup on a slightly regular basis at the same time, along with a growing affection for dangling earrings. I could see with great relief to my mother when I would come home for a visit and be standing at the door with my bangs properly cut and color on my lips.
when I was 31, I let her take me to the makeup counter at Macys and let the “beauty advisor” pretty me up. The joy on my mother’s face was arresting. Her smile grew with each product that was presented and painted on, leaving me feel inadequate. I tried to remember in that moment if she had ever told me I was beautiful as my bare self. (The answer was no.) It was only after layers of primer and foundation and lipstick and eyeliner that I felt she could say it. I eventually had to let her down and tell her that it all gave me a terrible allergic reaction later that day. Would it be so bad if I wore my naked face in public?
I don’t blame women, or my mother even, for having this idea of beauty or doing the things they do to achieve it. Standards of beauty have been propagated for each generation to constantly raise the bar on, at any risk. For me, these women wanted me to have this idea too and simply forgot to ask what I thought. To my mother, it was her desire to have her children accepted in America—but that is a much longer story, involving more than looks but the absence of an accent and a higher quality of life.
But it brings me to believe there is something very powerful within that I never truly recognized. That I have always had it in me to be more than skin and eyes and even a shape.
It is exceedingly important to convey this message to young girls who have not yet found that internal beauty yet. Lupita’s speech is extraordinarily beautiful. She reminds young girls and women alike to stop trying to fuel our souls with outer beauty, but to reflect on what makes us beautiful on the inside. Even though every woman's definition of beauty is vastly different, one thing remains the same. If we all consume the richness from within, there is no stopping it from exuding without and beauty will then only have one real meaning.
P.S. Lupita. Please continue to inspire us with your amazing talent and exquisite beauty that seeps from your pores.