The first time I felt my dark skin might be a problem was in Jss2. A boy I had a massive crush on told me I was too dark and I needed to use a bleaching cream to look lighter and prettier. At that moment, I didn’t know if what was more humiliating was the fact that I liked him or that he had told me over 2go and he was my junior –a Jss1 boy.
Before then, I never thought anything about the color of my skin. I didn’t love nor hate my skin, and nor did I have a self-consciousness that I was even dark. I didn’t see any distinction between light-skinned and dark-skinned people – I just saw people as they were (humans). Although when I was younger, my mum would sometimes tease me by calling me Iya Dudu because I was the darkest out of my siblings. But she never called me those words with indignity and malice. It was just a remark casual and safe enough to not trigger insecurities for a young girl about her dark skin. The boy’s statement about my skin and how I should consider bleaching it was an indignity. And the fact that I had a crush on him made me dejected. I do not recall what prompted his outburst nor my reaction to what he said. I was young and oblivious to the fact that I had just experienced colorism and it would affect me for a long time. But I remember that my crush on him still didn’t wither away. And that fills me with annoyance because he wasn’t even that cute and I wish I could go back in time to tell my younger self to get up.
I never had any luck with friendships growing up. So, in JSS3, I had another offensive colorism experience, and it was from a so-called friend. As is common with me, the experience didn’t stop me from being friends with the person. She is a twin and I clicked more with her twin sister than I did with her. Thinking about it now, she was only my friend because I was close to her twin sister. She had an aura about her then, that I believe is now referred to as pick-me. The twins were both light-skinned and their personalities seemed to revolve around that. The pick-me sister was the most extra one and immersed a hatred for dark skin. She would casually throw passive remarks at me:
“See the difference between my skin and yours.”
“One boy said you are fine, just that you are too dark.”
“You better marry a fair husband so that your kids will be safe.”
I didn’t realize her company was toxic, especially when my dark skin was considered. And I humored her excesses because I was such a people pleaser, and I didn’t know any better. The highlight was on a day we spent a long while before we returned to class after break time and by then, the teacher was already in class. So, we had to wait outside with other students for the teacher’s judgment (whether we would be flogged or allowed to join the class.) We were all nervous about what the teacher’s judgment would be. Then, the pick-me twin uttered a ridiculous statement that stuck with me all through the years. She said: “The teacher will probably allow those of us that are light skinned to come inside, while the rest of you blackies will wait outside and get flogged.” I felt my chest drop when she said that, and because I was young and naive, I had no idea her actions could be described as colorism, but I knew something was amiss – whether it was a joke or not. My feelings were hurt because she was my friend, and I couldn’t be one of the blackies that she wished were beaten. So, I asked her: “What about me” and she said something along the lines of: “Oh you can come in with us light-skinned, you know you are a little bit fine.”
Wherever she is now, I hope she is a better person, and that naivety was the cause of her mean attitude in secondary school.
I live in Nigeria, so I have had and still live several experiences where people are colorist to me. But the fact that I had most of my outrightly offensive colorist experiences between the ages of 12-13 made it more unfair. I’m not saying colorism is permissible at certain ages. However, I believe those were crucial ages where a sense of consciousness was pervasive and the effects of puberty came with an impulsive desire to be perfect, especially with girls. Experiencing colorism at those tender ages was traumatic. And it is so sad that it is inevitable for dark-skinned people, especially girls because colorism thrives in its full essence in Nigeria. I didn’t know those experiences were embedded in my subconscious and that they manifested themselves as self-hatred, as I spent too much time looking at myself in the mirror, wondering how better I would look if I was indeed light-skinned. I was referred to as black beauty but I found myself not believing because I thought they were being deceitful. After all, in truth, one had to be light-skinned to be beautiful, I believed.
I started becoming intentional about my looks in SS1 when I stopped moisturizing my skin because I didn’t like the glow it gave my skin. It made my dark skin more obvious. I began using the pound powder at my mom’s dresser in large quantities to make my face brighter. And anytime I came back from school, the first thing I did was to go look at myself in the mirror to see if my skin still looked bright. I was always met with disappointment because I would have darkened because of the glare from the sun and my face would be greasy with sweat. I was not satisfied and that was when I found my remedy –bleaching cream. My mum was light-skinned, and I thought using her skin care products was what I needed. Her moisturizer had the magic words“white, light” inscribed in its bottle. So, I would sneak to use her bathing soap and cream, and because they were heavily scented, I would pray to not be detected. My skin got noticeably lighter in a few days, and I loved my new look. But my mum eventually caught up with me, and I can still remember the knock she gave me in the middle of my head –that was made more painful because I had just plaited my hair– when she realized I was using her skincare products.
But I was already in awe of how lighter I was getting and since my mum’s products were not a choice anymore, I had to look for a means to get products that also have the words that seemed like magic to me “light, white, fair, perfect” labeled on them. My mum had always bought my skincare –Dettol and Vaseline– so I starved myself in school and saved every last kobo of my lunch money. After a whole week of saving, starving, and hoarding the change from errands, I was able to save up to 1,500 by Friday. So, on Saturday, I went to the market, and I didn’t even have to enter the main market before I saw kiosks and shops that sold various bleaching creams that had beautiful faces of light-skinned models (that I now think aren’t even black women). Then it came to my notice that bleaching products were all they all seemed to sell, and that gave me a sense of fulfillment that everyone did what I did after all, and it meant one thing; bleaching was normal. I left the market with Lemon Fresh cream and a brown powder that was shades lighter than my current skin tone, but I knew it would blend in with the new skin color I was about to acquire. I hid the cream from my mum by keeping it in the backyard when I got home because she was going to inspect everything I got in the market.
I became lighter every passing week and I ignored every comment from family and close friends who knew me to be dark-skinned and also protested about how it seemed like I was always on brown powder. Even a boy who had a crush on me then told me: “Hope, you look different, why are you bleaching your skin”. I dismissed him and saw everyone who criticized my new look as an enemy of progress. I even pretended like I didn’t understand what they were saying and valued the compliments I got from strangers about my new look. My obsession with bleaching my skin ensued from there and it became more ignited during my early days in the University, when “organics” became popular. They promised a safe way to “glow” the skin, but they were expensive and I was broke. But that was not a stumbling block for me, as I’d rather starve myself of good food and clothes than rid myself of my next fix of “glow kit”.
The media is a really powerful tool in influencing people’s perception of things. I say this because I will forever adore women like Tems and Ayra Starr who never shied away from basking in the full essence of their black beauty. I admire the way they stun with their looks. Coincidentally, as if the universe were putting signs for me in every way to find myself again, I started seeing numerous posts on social media about the dangers of bleaching the skin, and how the so-called “organics” had negative effects in the longer term. Also, skincare videos started spiraling online too; the right way to take care of the skin and how skin care isn’t about the skin color but skin type. I was uncertain and I let the delusion that I wasn’t part of those bleaching their skin (because I didn’t have damaged skin like the market women I saw) console me. I was not ready to leave the bubble of being light-skinned as I had found my identity in it. And I didn’t know who I was or what I would look like if I were to be dark-skinned and true to myself again. The final straw that made me find and love myself again was the day I was in the same market where I had purchased my first bleaching cream years ago. A woman who was trying to persuade me to buy from her called out to me: “Omo pupa, fine girl, come and buy from me.” I felt a strong sense of discernment at those words: “Omo pupa”. It was like every fiber of me rejected those words and broke the facade that I had perfectly curated around myself over the years. It pricked my consciousness that I had wronged myself –both my inner child and my adult self– and I needed a way to reconnect to that part of myself I had lost years ago. I went home that day, feeling remorseful. I threw away every bleaching product I had on my trolley. I went to the mall the following day and I got Nivea and other products that enhance dark skin.
It has been a bumpy road ever since. People gave unsolicited remarks like: “Why are you this dark, you used to be fair”. To be honest, my skin darkened a lot at the beginning, and it took a lot of determination for me to maintain the zeal to get my skin color back. The journey had me mentally reciting words of reaffirmation to myself every day, “I love being dark and beautiful”. Those days felt like I was stuck in a personal rehab where I would get a strong urge to go back to my fix of bleaching products, but I had to be strong and willful not to give in. And it didn’t help that going to Nigerian markets and malls meant beholding the sight of my fix everywhere. I felt like an addict. My skin fought through it all and now, I have a perfectly dark, radiant, and real skin that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. And I love how I didn’t have to break the bank to maintain it. My mum is the happiest as she does not miss the chance to tell me how her daughter was finally back and that the last time she ever truly saw my dark-skinned beauty (Iya dudu) was when I was in Jss class. Might I add, a few weeks ago, some girls walked up to me, complimented me, and told me they want to have perfect dark skin as I did. They also asked me to share my skincare routine.
It’s crazy how Nigerians harbor hatred for dark skin more than other African countries. And that is wild for a country like Nigeria, where the majority of its population is dark-skinned. Colorism manifests itself in almost every sector, and women are usually the victim of it. Nigeria has the highest rate of people who bleach their skin in the world, with a rate of 77%, according to research. And that statistic makes sense because almost all the girls that I know were dark-skinned in secondary school are now light-skinned. I read somewhere that colorism is one of the colossal effects of colonialism, racism, eurocentrism, and all the other –isms white people are guilty of. On the surface level, I found it to be a lazy opinion and one of the many ways black people get to blame white people, yet again, for their problems. But as I read further and got myself familiar with its origin, I realized there might be some truth in it. Nevertheless, there has to be a conscious effort amongst black people to accept and love us in our true essence. Above all, I hope every Nigerian woman out there who has lost herself in the vicious cycle of bleaching her skin finds herself as I did.
P.S. Also read Not A Badge Of Shame by Munachimso Nwanosike
Hope Olagoke is an ardent storyteller and a lover of art. A writer who finds solace in writing about the things people shy away from in society. She is a womanist but has a special enthusiasm for the liberation of Black women, and never passes an opportunity to idolize Afrocentric beauty.