Two weeks ago I watched an Oprah episode titled “Children Ashamed of the Way They Look,” which also launched a new campaign to promote self-esteem for younger girls, O Girl, O Beautiful.
Oprah’s guests — celebs and a few regular people — talked about their experiences with beauty and self-esteem within their various cultures.
The story of two of the guests, Tangela and her son Najee, resonated with me, and here’s a copy from the Oprah Website:
As a child, Tangela says she was teased and tormented by other African-Americans because of her dark complexion. Then, when she was 19 years old, Tangela found out she was pregnant with her first child. While most expectant mothers just hope for a healthy child, Tangela prayed for something more.
“I would just say to God, ‘Please don’t make my son dark. Please don’t make my child dark,'” she says. “I didn’t want him to experience what I experienced … being called names, being talked about.”
When Tangela’s son, Najee, was born with dark skin, she says her heart ached for his future. “I saw people looking at him as if something was wrong with him,” she says. “That’s the pain that I really felt, more so than my own darkness.”
When Najee was 5 years old, children started teasing him about his complexion. In kindergarten, he says a female classmate, who was also African-American, made a hurtful remark that he remembers to this day. “The negative comment was, ‘Oh, you’re so black,” he says.
As Najee grew older, the insults continued. “I’ve been called names like darkie, dark chocolate, blackie,” he says. “Most of my negative comments do come from other blacks, and it’s extremely painful.”
Najee says he tries to hide his deep-seated insecurities from his friends and family by pretending to be happy. But deep down, a lifetime of low self-esteem is starting to take a toll on him. “Sometimes I have felt that I didn’t even want to be on this earth,” he says. “Sometimes I wish that God didn’t make me this way.”
His mother says her biggest regret is not understanding how much pain Najee has been feeling over the years. Tangela says she tried asking Najee if anyone teased him, but he never wanted to discuss it.
“I tried to give him books and encouragement and let him know he was beautiful. He had beautiful teeth,” she says. “It almost didn’t matter how much I told him because I didn’t know what was going on.”
Tangela and Najee’s story made me think of how skin color is treated within my culture. I’m Filipino, and my experience with dark skin color sounds a little like theirs. Most Filipinos consider lighter brown skin more attractive. If you’re a young Filipino girl running around outside you usually have an aunt, grandmother or an older family friend yelling at you to get inside “before you get too dark.” And if you do tan somebody is going to make a comment about it; note: it’s never positive.
My regular skin color is on the darker side, but since I love the sun and being outdoors, I’m apt to get even darker with a tan. Several of my close Filipino friends and family constantly comment on the state of my browness: “Karen’s too dark,” “Karen, your skin is sooooooo dark,” and “It’s too bad you’re dark like me.” I can’t lie — it bothered me for a really long time. I would usually just shrug and try to say something to play it off like, “Oh, well, what can ya do?”
Last year a close Filipino friend of 20 years made a comment a few days before my wedding. I don’t know if it my was pre-wedding insanity, but I just snapped. I told her very matter of factly that, yes, I was pretty damn brown, but that’s just how I was and that I LOVED MY SKIN COLOR and that BEING DARK WAS THE SHIZZ.
I’ve decided to celebrate my tan fabulousness but still get a touch angry when a friend or loved one makes one of those comments. Instead of shrugging it off I’ve decided to try to engage them (the ones who deserve the time) in discussion: Why do you think it’s okay to make that comment? Have you noticed that I never frown and say “You’re so pale”? Did you ever think that repeatedly saying something like “You’re too brown” to another Filipino might be hurtful?
I know that talking about it with my friends and family won’t revolutionize negative cultural stereotypes anytime soon, but it feels like the right thing to do.
Your friendly neighborhood beauty addict,