By Sarah Meron
The summer I turned 10 years old, I went on holiday to a beach town somewhere in France with my auntie and uncle. I remember arriving at the beach and plopping myself excitedly on my beach towel, one of those white ones with blue stripes. The sun felt snug and delicious on my back. My auntie pulled out her parasol and carefully adjusted it before quickly hiding under its shade.
She turned to me as I was basking in the sun and asked, a little amused, “What are you doing?” “I’m tanning!” I answered. I was excited. To me, tanning was this cool and cute thing that teenage girls did in the summer, and now I was going to be just like those girls in the very much age-inappropriate magazines I secretly loved to read. They taught me that tanning was desirable in its capacity to make girls prettier. How amazing! I was going to be pretty, and I got to do a grown-up thing.
My auntie looked incredulous. “But why would you want to tan?” she asked. “Tanning is for white people. It makes them more beautiful. But on us, tanning is ugly. It makes us look more Black.”
I don’t think my aunt realised the impact those words would have on me. That day was the last of my short life that I ever actively tried to tan. Since then, every time I (unintentionally) tanned, I genuinely felt hideous. Each summer, I diligently avoided the sun at all costs. During those months, long flowy pants, caps, and 50+ sunscreen lotion were my best friends. I would look for shaded areas to hide away from the sun almost religiously. I hated spending summer days with my white friends because they inevitably wanted to go somewhere to tan.
Yet, through my aunt’s not so subtle warning, I had learned that tanning wasn’t for me. I had understood that as my brown skin became black, so too did my beauty slip away with it.
Colourism is the system whereby people within the same race are considered more beautiful the more their features approximate whiteness and Eurocentricity. For Black people, this usually means that our appearance is increasingly validated by our peers and by society when we have lighter skin, narrower noses, or a looser curl pattern. Colourism exists everywhere in the African Diaspora where slavery or colonisation brought with it the imposition of white supremacy. In the West, colourism is impossible to escape.
Although representation is slowly—very, very slowly—getting better, the majority of successful and famous Black women whom we can look up to are light with Eurocentric features. Yes, I love Beyoncé, and because I’m not blind, I can see that she is an absolute babe. But when I look at her, what I see is a Black woman who clearly has white ancestry. When I look at her, I don’t see me.
When millions of brown or dark-skinned Black women are bombarded with only images of Rihanna or Zendaya, and made to feel as if they depict the epitome of Black female beauty, what we are told is that our Blackness is not valid nor is it appealing unless it is diluted by whiteness (even if the fault is not Rihanna/Zendaya’s). As a result, in a desperate attempt to remain beautiful in the eyes of the world, we shy away from the sun. And we miss out on so many opportunities to be carefree and enjoy ourselves to the fullest.
As I grow more conscious and aware of racism and the pervasiveness of white supremacy in the West, I actively strive to decolonise my mind and my perceptions of beauty. This summer, for the first time since I was a child, I willingly exposed myself to the scorching Portuguese sun in a deliberate attempt to tan. I was determined to genuinely love my beautifully rich, dark complexion. But I’m not going to sit here and pretend like a lifetime of deeply ingrained beliefs are easy to get rid of over the course of one summer.
Decolonising is a long, difficult process that requires patience and perseverance. At times, I would forget my decolonial mission for a split second and feel the familiar panicked pangs of revulsion at the sight of my visibly darkened skin. But those moments have become fewer and further between—and that’s progress. It makes me proud to know that, soon, they will completely disappear. And the day that happens will be one of my biggest personal ‘fuck you’s to white supremacy.
To all my fellow Black women and femmes for whom self-love is not always a given: you are glorious and wonderful and sublime and your beauty is shaped through your Blackness—never despite it.
As we strive to unlearn and reject the toxic, racist beauty standards that we have inherited from a brutal history of white hegemony, we need to start paying attention to the ways in which we in turn perpetuate colourism within our communities. I’m sure that my auntie meant no harm that day on the beach. I know how much she loves me, and I know that her comment came from a lifetime of colourist indoctrination that she had no control over. But that did not diminish the toxic impact her words had on my child brain.
We need to deconstruct the ways in which we make self-love hard to manifest for Black women and girls.
Our girls need to be actively and intentionally validated every single day. We must never stop telling our daughters, sisters and nieces about the beauty that lives within their skin, their lips, their noses and their hair. We must teach them to love and to be proud of every aspect of themselves before society does the exact opposite. We must tell them that Black is beautiful—and mean it. And as we all do this, perhaps then we’ll be able to shape a world in which Black women and girls can enjoy spending a day at the beach whilst being carefree—just like everyone else.
“Hair was a dirty word in my family” – Priyanka Meenakshi, gal-dem (April 22, 2016)
“Let’s be real, we know exactly what happened to Lil Kim’s Face” – Charing Ball, Madamenoire (April 25, 2016)
“Why I stopped dating white men” – Anthony Williams, BGDblog (September 15, 2015)
“Mother tongue: the lost inheritance of diaspora” – Derek Owusu, Media Diversified (November 13, 2017)
“Stop asking me to empathize with the white working class” – Kali Holloway, Raw Story (November 13, 2016)
Sarah Meron is a black feminist activist based in Paris. Interests include Eritrean food, makeup, piercings, and destroying the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Instagram: sarah_mrnn Twitter: pommedepin94