I looked in the mirror. I saw a chocolate-colored girl with thick, two-toned lips, and curls that grew up towards the sun, and were slightly crazy because no one really knew how to look after them. I looked at my mother, a woman the color of milky-coffee, with thin, pink lips, and relaxed hair. She was so beautiful, and I wasn’t.
I was given a sliced lemon to rub on my skin every day; the natural bleach in it would eventually lighten my skin. My relatives complained in the summer because of how they’d get darker, and recommended bleaching creams to each other, the way I’d recommend a perfume, or mascara to my friends.
My mother tried to talk me into bleaching my skin too: “You know, Aaishia? Remember how dark she used to be? She used the cream, look how beautiful and light she is now!” This would start a long, downward spiral of self-hatred for me. I wasn’t beautiful, and I couldn’t really do anything about it. That’s how it started.
A girl once told me she didn’t want to play with me because “I don’t like people with muddy skin.” After that, I decided, “I’m not different to them, I’m going to be just like them. No one’s going to be able to say anything about me again.” I completely disconnected myself from my mother-tongue, my culture, my blackness. They were just burdens I was weighed down with, and I didn’t want them to be a part of me. The world had always shown me that lighter was better and more beautiful.
I was born and grew up in the U.K. At school, my friends would carry tangle teasers, and brush their hair in the mirror. My hair was to be strictly kept in braids to stop it from getting frizzy, and tangle teasers couldn’t even fit through my hair. Even if they could, brushing my hair dry would leave it looking like a lion’s mane.
I’d stand in my brightly-lit room, the bright light making my skin appear lighter, while pulling my curls to make them look straight. When playing a computer game, I had to make an animated avatar of myself, and I would always choose to look like a white girl with green eyes and freckles. That’s who I desperately wanted to be.
When we learnt about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, I’d shrink back, embarrassed as my white friends rolled their eyes. I was almost apologetic to them. “I’m sorry for being Black, if no one like me existed, we wouldn’t have to be doing these stupid lessons.” When we watched Hairspray, I covered my face, ashamed at the protest scenes. To me, racism was a thing that should just be ignored; it was in the past, so let it stay there.
I then transferred schools to a school where there were 98% Muslims, and most were Black. Being Black here was a good thing; it was something to be proud of. There was a sense of community in this school. Other kids would talk about the food their mum’s cooked, or their visits to their home country, their Blackness. And my Blackness? It was long ago forgotten. To them, I was a white-wannabe, an “Oreo” (black on the outside white on the inside). The personality I set up for my old self wouldn’t work for me here. It was as if when I could finally be myself, but I didn’t know how, because I didn’t even know who I was. It looked like I’d have to set up this fake persona of myself to fit in all over again. But what did I have to do to fit in?
Love myself. My chocolate-colored skin, my thick, two-toned lips, and my curls that grew up towards the sun.
I cut the heat damage from years of blow drying, and straightening my hair. I watched videos on protective styles for curls, and how to look after them. I bought the right products so that my curls would fall bouncy and shiny past my shoulders. I loved them, and I’d constantly get complimented on my hair. I loved having curls.
At this time, #BlackGirlMagic was trending on the web. I remember going on Instagram and scrolling through through the hashtag; “Black girls are made of cocoa butter, honey, and brown sugar.” There were pictures of beautiful women, and they weren’t just light-skinned, with delicate curls either. Ebony-colored women with afro puffs were abundant. I noticed how my skin would glow, deep and gold, when taking photos in the sunlight. I loved having chocolate-colored skin.
I’d overhear white girls talking about Kylie Jenner and her lip fillers, how pretty she looked as they took lip liner out of their bags, and watched Youtube tutorials on how to over-line their lips. As I walked into the room, they’d tell me how lucky I was because my lips were beautiful and plump, and how they wished they had lips like mine. As I applied lip gloss, my lips glimmered, each one a slightly different tone. When I smiled, they looked beautiful. I loved having thick, two-toned lips.
I loved being Black.
I wanted to love everything that made me Black. My culture, my heritage, everything.
Although my mother-tongue was a difficult language, when speaking it, it sounded like a song. My home country was beautiful, and it hurt me to see the destruction that had been brought to it. I was proud of being Black.
I also learnt, as I got older, that racism wasn’t in the past. It was very, very present. I got to notice how people would look at me differently on the streets, or how security would watch me in stores. I ached for the lessons on racism I used to hate so much. I spent so much time educating myself, and others, on the issues Black people face every day.
Sometimes, even to this day, the self-hatred does creep up on me, a shadowy figure covering my eyes from all the love I have managed to build for myself. I look in the mirror and think, “am I too dark?” or, “does my hair look messy, will everyone think I’ve made no effort?”
These wounds take time to heal. But on the good days, where my skin glows in the sunlight, I feel beautiful. Black and beautiful. Everything I went through to get here is so, so worth it.