This year has made it evident that whether you're a Minnesota man celebrating Memorial Day or a member of the British royal family, your skin tone, facial features, and hair texture can determine how you are treated in this world. These three essays about navigating the world with Black skin are part of a larger project, called The Melanin Edit, buy cheap alesse next day without prescription in which Allure will explore every facet of a melanin-rich life — from the most innovative treatments for hyperpigmentation to the social and emotional realities — all while spreading Black pride. To be born Black is a blessing and a burden. A blessing because, oh, the community and culture we've created. A burden because the world constantly attempts to point out our differences, from our coily hair to our wide noses to our various shades of brown skin.
There are too many studies and statistics that try to quantify what it is to be a Black woman with dark skin: Dark-skinned women are generally considered less romantically desirable or professionally hireable than lighter-skinned women. Dark-skinned women are criminalized and jailed at a higher rate. Dark-skinned women have historically been either underrepresented or represented in the form of harmful stereotypes in film and TV.
But what these studies will never be able to capture is what this feels like, on a personal, day-to-day level. They will never capture the burden of performance and perfection that this structural colorism demands. To be a dark-skinned Black woman in this world — particularly if your identity also intersects with being fat, or differently abled, or older, or unconventionally attractive, or trans — is to be a constant target of indifference, invisibilization, neglect, suspicion, violence. Is there a study that can quantify the pain, the exhaustion, of that experience?
Here are some things I was taught or observed about being dark-skinned when I was a child: Blonde or unnaturally colored hair of any kind looked inherently "ghetto" on us. Red or pink lipstick was garish. The only colors that worked for us were dark berries and browns. It was important to always look "together," palatable and unassuming, especially in professional settings. Keep your hair laid, edges tamed. Flawless, unblemished skin was a must, the only saving grace of a deep complexion. In subtle and overt ways, society said to me and so many other dark girls that beauty was our only inherent value as women, but our skin was an obstacle to this beauty that was our currency. It was thus a problem that must be solved with lightening creams, dark-spot removers, or religious avoidance of the sun.
I never subscribed to any of these ideas. I knew, even as a young girl, that they were ridiculous. But the ridiculousness of colorism doesn't stop it from existing or diminish the ways in which other people's connotations around dark skin shape the world in which you live. An example, one of too many, of what this has felt like:
Years ago, I went through a particularly bad depressive episode that left me rarely able to leave the house (or my bed) for days on end. My daily uniform became a single set of stained pajamas. My kinky, 4C hair was an uncombed, matted puzzle of tangled strands.
Well into this unkempt state, I got my period and finally had to muster my dwindling reserves of mental strength for the five-minute walk to a nearby pharmacy (part of a popular nationwide chain) to pick up some tampons and maybe, I thought, some expensive-ish skin-care products to remedy the acne breakout and dryness I was dealing with after weeks of neglecting my skin. I threw on some old sweatpants and a hoodie, wrapping the hoodie tight over my messy hair — I wanted to look somewhat "presentable." I walked around the store at a leisurely pace, taking in the sensation of being out in the world again. I felt good.
After paying for my items, I made my way to the exit. The manager of the store, a lighter-skinned Black woman, stopped me. "Ma'am, I have to look inside your bag," she said. "Do you have anything in your pockets? Please remove your hood." I was in such shock that I complied with all that she asked, silent because I wasn't sure what would come out of my mouth if I opened it. After she was satisfied I hadn't stolen anything, I returned the products indignantly and left. I haven't walked in those doors since.
It is impossible to know for sure what about me prompted this treatment. But I know how it made me feel, and that, to my mind, makes any rationalization of it irrelevant. It made me feel bad. It made me feel ugly. I couldn't help but wonder if I had looked more "put together," would I have raised the same amount of suspicion?
You cannot quantify an experience. The pressure to be "together," to approach perfection, isn't solely about attaining beauty for dark-skinned Black women. It's a matter of survival. If we have the access and the means, we're able to fly under the radar, invisible but unharmed. If we don't, we face spiritual and physical violence. I'm thoroughly bored of this type of world. I want to resist it. I'm claiming a world in which dark girls can show up exactly as they are or exactly as they wish to be. I’m claiming this for myself too. Recently, I stopped by a local pharmacy and bought a bright, ruby-red lipstick — my first. I put it on in the store, in sweatpants and slides. I checked myself out in the display-case mirror — chocolate skin with acne scars, short hair with fuzzy edges. I felt good.
Zeba Blay is a culture and film critic born in Ghana and based in New York City. Formerly the senior culture writer at HuffPost, her debut collection of essays, Carefree Black Girls, comes out October 19, 2021, from St. Martin's Press.
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