Every couple of years, I go to India to visit my family. I remember one of the first times I visited, going from house to house to meet relatives and eat sweets and swat away mosquitoes in the sweltering heat, when I heard it for the first time. A relative whose name I can't remember but whose voice remained seared in my mind: "Your skin is so dark. You should use Fair And Lovely."
I didn't understand what she was trying to say, but my elementary school mind pieced together the words the best they could. To be fair was to be lovely, and to be dark was a dreaded curse, a corruption, like rust on a once silver bike. Except, it wasn't rust. I always had this skin — this dark skin.
As the months went by, I began to understand what she wanted to say: to be dark was to be ugly.
People avoid the word with backhanded compliments and well-intended yet all the while misguided comments: "You look nice for a dark girl. You would look better if your skin was lighter, lighter, brighter..." And as the years went by, they didn't have to say these comments anymore; I began to say them myself. "You'd be prettier if you were light" became "I'd be prettier if I were light".
Their voices of "concern" became my voice of insecurity.
I began to see myself by the words of others until eventually, they became my own words — the most toxic poison of them all. You can fight the world, but can you fight yourself?
It's taken me years to forget the colorist notions ingrained into my psyche. I still reflexively choose filters that lighten my skin in pictures before stopping myself, trying to remember that my skin is the color of chocolate and not dirt. I still avoid bright colors in fear that my skin will look darker before reminding myself that darker not does mean uglier, that beauty is multidimensional.
I had to say it multiple times, like Dorothy and her shoes, for it to become real. Darker does not mean uglier, does not mean uglier, does not mean uglier, does not mean uglier.
I had new words seared into my mind — words that finally weren't painful to hear. I began to see my skin as it was, rather than what it "should" be. It may have acne. It may be dark. It may be flawed. It may even be unattractive. But the most important thing is that it is my face, and I'm tired of hating it.
I am the color of chocolate bars that melt in the summer sun and of pure, maple syrup drizzled onto pancakes, not of dirt. It cannot be scrubbed away by Fair and Lovely creams or lightened, and it shouldn't be.
I see myself now, and it's a lovely thing, to be seen.