“Don’t tell her she is beautiful or she will believe it.”
Those words assaulted my ears as I hid behind the back of the one who had uttered them-my father.
He had been talking to a neighbor from down the street. She was without a doubt the most beautiful women I had ever seen in my 11 years of life. Her golden skin and silky thick hair was brushed out of her face. She wore bright red lipstick and matching red nails. She was the embodiment of femininity and power. Her words dexterous and confident.
When she saw me shyly peeking from behind my father’s back, she stopped with intentional pause. She looked upon me with mascara lengthened eyelashes and expertly applied eyeliner. Then her words made my heart stop for a moment. “Oh my God. She is gorgeous!”
The stunning woman could not be talking about me. The 11 year old with wild blow dried hair too thick and coarse to be tamed, pushed out of my face with a 99 cent black bandana from the beauty supply store down the street. My deep brown skin juxtaposed to hers. My pudgy prepubescent body opposing her petite but shapely frame.
But if she was that jaw dropping and she was calling me gorgeous than maybe I was and just didn’t know it. I hid behind my father’s back mulling the whole possibility of it all over in my mind on the brink of excepting it. I was gorgeous…
My short lived joy as a beautiful brown girl with wild hair and a short plump frame was quickly extinguished by my father’s words: “Don’t tell her that or she will believe it.”
My father broke my heart but I believed him to be right as I ran in the house to my bedroom and cried. Nobody else had ever called me beautiful or gorgeous so it had to be true. I, in my mind, had never been any of those things.
To solidify what my father had said, I had a catalog of memories to confirm it. On the first day of kindergarten a girl I was playing with was approached by another girl in our class who told her, “Don’t play with her. She is too dark to play with us.”
My maternal grandmother came to see me in the hospital on the first day I entered the world. As soon as she looked at me she asked,
“Who ugly baby is that?” She would be sure to remind me constantly as I was growing up that I was “fat and ugly and was never gonna be nothing.” The bullying through 7th grade only reinforced my ugliness.
Later that night my father would offer his version of comfort by telling me, “You will never be the most beautiful girl in the room, but you won’t be the ugliest either”. A staunch daddy’s girl at that point in my life, and at a time when I wanted him to think I was the best girl in the world, he had done the opposite.
14 years of living in this belief, stuck in trying to be the funny fat friend or the helpful nice one or the go-getter successful one, I started working with children through my nonprofit. There were so many girls who struggled with the same issues. They hated their skin, their hair, their wide noses and full lips. And here I was standing in front of them not realizing that subconsciously I was carrying the same hate for my own appearance.
How could I change that in myself so that I could help them change that in themselves?
I went home one night and googled “beautiful black women”. To my surprise they were all so different from skin tone to body type to hair texture. I looked in the mirror and pledged to see the beauty in not only my outward appearance but my inner self too. Instead of straightening my hair, I would wear natural styles when working with the children. I’d wear A-line skirts and cute colorful tops to show them a different version of “beautiful” than media bombarded them with. I’d wear glasses to showcase that I was smart and not afraid to be branded a nerd. I fearlessly shared my ideas and tried new things with the children. I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed when they wanted to touch my hair.
Ironically, it wasn’t just the children I became a mirror of beauty for but the volunteers who were women, too. I’d see more natural hair styles and confidence in more of them whenever I’d show up. I’d give out compliments at every chance I got. And I was getting them left and right in return. To be honest, I probably always had, but just couldn’t accept them because the negative comments were the loudest in my head.
But not anymore. I was the most beautiful woman in every room I walked into because I had brought all of these children and women along with me to be the same. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon because every child and woman deserves to know their beauty inside and out. I hope that you are inspired to see your beauty and help others around you to see theirs, too.