My sister and I are like ebony and ivory. I have olive toned skin, meaning that I have brownish, but not very dark, toned coloring. My sister takes after my mother and has much fairer skin. This seemingly small difference between us has secretly become one of the foundations of my low self-esteem. My sister was always the cuter baby. She was fairer, had dimples and a big smile. By contrast, I looked like a boy, had tan skin and had a chipped tooth from when I fell on my face months before.
I can remember the first incident – we were both fairly young and my mother took us to visit a friend of hers. The friend was complimenting my mother on her daughters, but I only overheard the following:
Friend: “Little Sister is really cute. She’s got that wonderful smile with the dimples. And look at that skin! So white!”
Mother: “Thank you, I’m lucky to have my daughters”.
Friend: “Well, the elder sister is nice looking too. But her skin is so dark. It’s not like Little Sister. That’s ok, she can be a black beauty when she grows up!”
After we left, I innocently asked my mother what she meant by black beauty. I knew that my little sister didn’t look exactly like me, but I never thought there was any issue with it. However, at that moment, I felt like something was wrong. Little Sister was being praised for being light. There was a negative tone about being “dark”. Which, by the way, I never thought I was dark. Sure, I was a little brown, but I didn’t think I was too far down the spectrum. It also wasn’t any consolation to me that I was going to be called after a horse when I grew up. My mother told me to ignore the conversation, and that some people just didn’t know what they were talking about.
There other seemingly innocent incidents, all which later proved to have some impact. I remember the time my parents joked about how much I easily tanned, especially at the beach. I was so dark, they said, they didn’t even recognize me and thought they brought the wrong child home. Or, the times when my mother would call us in during the daytime, saying that we couldn’t play outside because “we’d get dark”. Of course, this is all cultural. They were brought up in a time where being light-skinned in their country meant something better.
Years later, I still see the effects of this. Whenever I buy makeup, they tell me that I’m further down the spectrum and not the middle of it like I had hoped. Each time, I feel a little sad. Every time one of us in the family gets tan, we talk about how dark we are. I look at my arms and hands, and see the distinct contrast between myself and the lighter toned clothing. I wonder what my mother would have said.
My son has inherited my olive skin tone. When he was born, I remember people commenting on how dark he was. I didn’t see that. I saw a normal baby. He looked pale and innocent. I just smiled, and always replied with, “he’s not dark”. As the months went by, his olive tones were more prominent, but not overbearing. The comments would still come every now and then. It wasn’t until he took a picture next to a fairer skinned baby that I realized what people were talking about. That photo was just ebony and ivory all over again.
I held back and thought about the whole situation. I thought about the impact these same thoughts and comments had on my own body image. How ugly I felt at times for being just me and the skin I was born with. How uncomfortable I felt whenever someone would talk about my skin tone (good or bad). I felt wronged. I felt less than others. So, I came to an important conclusion.
My son is an adorable and happy baby. His skin is beautiful. That olive tone can go with anything. Oranges, marigolds, greens, you name it. The colors are only more vibrant against an olive skin tone. Regardless of what he looks like, the fact is that he has brought some much joy in our lives, and has changed me in so many ways than I can ever imagine. All these things had nothing to do with the color of his skin.
I can’t bear the thought of my son feeling less about himself because of how he was born. I can’t imagine how he might think when he realizes what they really mean. No. I will never let my son feel the way I did about the colors of our skin. There is nothing negative about it, and nothing to be ashamed of.
My decision was clear. The next time someone brings up how “dark” his skin is, I’ll happily smile and say “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”