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Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown
Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

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Learning to Love My Brown Skin

As a child, I often asked myself, Did the world think I was ugly?

When I was four years old, I climbed atop our bathroom sink to look in the mirror and see if I was ugly. My uncle had said just said to me, "Ay mija, como estás fea," which, roughly translated, meant, "Oh honey, you’re so ugly."

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What I didn't understand was that he meant it affectionately, that he meant the opposite. He didn't actually think I was ugly; that's just the way Mexicans joke around and show love.

I remember I had my hair in a tight french braid, which was typical throughout my childhood and frequently caused me headaches. I looked at my big nose and lips and wondered if my uncle was right. I was transfixed by my own face for a few minutes.

While I studied myself to confirm my lack of beauty, my mother walked into the bathroom and burst out laughing. She knew exactly what I was doing and reassured me that I was, in fact, pretty, and that my uncle was simply teasing me. My family often reminds me of my cute confusion that day. "Remember that time you thought you were ugly?" We laugh because, of course, I wasn't.

The word 'prieto,' which means 'dark-colored,' can be either affectionate or derogatory, depending on the tone.

Still, I wondered about this throughout my young life. Did the world think I was ugly? What did it mean to be pretty? Who got to decide? The thin white girls on the ’90s sitcoms I loved — Full House, Saved by the Bell, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch — were always lavished with so much attention, and I didn't look like them. For one, I was the wrong color: I was way too brown. And when I watched Beverly Hills, 90210, I was so confused that Donna Martin, played by Tori Spelling, was considered a hot girl. Were all blonde women automatically considered beautiful? Was I missing something? Was it some sort of conspiracy?

It didn’t help that growing up, skin color was the object of much judgment in my family. If I were to use food imagery to describe my skin (which I know is frowned upon), I'm the color of lightly toasted bread or a well-stirred cappuccino — not quite caramel, with strong yellow undertones. This was considered acceptable on my mother’s side of the family, for whom being dark was (and largely continues to be) undesirable. Some family members used the word "indio" as a slur against darker-skinned Mexicans when I was growing up. Even now, members of my family will occasionally say that someone is "dark but pretty." The word "prieto," which means "dark-colored," can be either affectionate or derogatory, depending on the tone.

My maternal grandmother, ironically, was one of the worst perpetrators of this colorism. With brown skin and thick, dark braids, she looked undeniably indigenous. I still wonder, What did she see when she looked in the mirror? Did she have some sort of dysmorphia? Did colonialism burrow that deeply into her psyche?

There was also Spanish-language television, which was abysmal on so many levels. (Unfortunately, it hasn't changed much since then.) I grew up watching telenovelas in which the rich protagonists tended to be light-skinned, while the servants and evil-doers were dark and indigenous-looking. The sexy women on the television program Sábado Gigante, and even on news shows, were always voluptuous, scantily clad, and fair.

In 18th-century Mexico, lower (and darker-skinned) castes were legally barred from becoming priests, attending university, and even wearing silk.

Colorism in Mexican culture has a long history rooted in colonialism. Many people don't know that Mexico had a complicated legal caste system in the 1700s, which continues to influence beauty standards today. To exert control over their colonies, the Spanish commissioned paintings to illustrate different racial distinctions. As the cultural historian John Charles Chasteen describes in his book Born in Blood and Fire, a person's caste was recorded in their baptismal register and those of lower (and darker-skinned) castes were legally barred from, among other things, becoming priests, owning weapons, attending university, and even wearing silk. There were 16 theoretical categories in all, though only six were typically used. Some of the lower castes were derisively given animal names such as Wolf or Coyote. Although the members of these six categories were legally prohibited from mixing, there was a whole lot of boinking and raping going on, so it was inevitable. Ironically, because the Spanish crown was desperate for money, those from lower castes who became successful were allowed to purchase exemptions. You could actually buy your whiteness.

I'd like to say that I've always been above such backwards attitudes about race, but that wouldn’t be true. When I was a kid, I sometimes thought about how much easier life would be if I were white. Those Tanner brats from Full House, for one, seemed to have it made. Everyone thought they were adorable, and their biggest problem was always something stupid, like getting the chickenpox.

Feeling alienated, as a teen, I chose to express myself with styles that consciously pushed back on beauty norms. I went through a disheveled goth phase during which I dyed my hair jet black and wore fishnets, and an ascetic phase that saw me shaving my head and donning threadbare thrift clothes. I was sick of trying to fulfill some impossible ideal, of trying to be seen as "pretty," so instead I gave the world the finger.

One of the most shameful things I've ever done is attempt to lighten my skin. When I was 15, I found some white Halloween liquid makeup in my drawer left over from an old vampire costume and started to add it to my foundation. Though I wasn't quite conscious of it, I thought lighter skin was more attractive. In retrospect, it just made me look like a corpse.

It took years to dismantle the internalized racism that told me my features weren't beautiful.

Looking back, there were other indications that I was internalizing cultural tropes that suggested my features weren’t beautiful. I religiously read Seventeen magazine, and once used one of its makeup tips to try to make my nose look smaller. It involved drawing a line of concealer down the middle and subtly blending it on the sides. (To my disappointment, it didn’t work.) I was also embarrassed of my large mouth and lips, having been teased throughout my childhood for my big ole' kisser. The word "trompa," which means trumpet, was a commonly used word to describe my mouth. My brother once hilariously gave me a ladle when I asked for a spoon. The joking was all in good fun, of course, but it nonetheless helped convince me that I looked clownish.

It has taken me years of work to embrace the way I look. I credit my feminist education for showing me that the world will always attempt to make me feel insecure — capitalism is in fact based on this idea — and that I have to love myself with unwavering conviction. I recognize today the internalized racism that affected me when I was younger. I thought my nose was too wide because it's not the small and pointy nose that Hollywood stars purchase from plastic surgeons. Now I see that being embarrassed by my lips is ridiculous because people actually pay for theirs to look like mine. But, and here comes the racism, society tends to consider those kinds of features special and beautiful only on white women; Kylie Jenner has pretty much made a career out of this. Though all of this is obvious to me now, I was clueless as a teenager. Thank you, bell hooks, Naomi Wolf, and all the feminist godmothers who have helped me dismantle the white patriarchy that I built inside myself.

In the past few years, I’ve often been confused for Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, and all kinds of Latin American. To my chagrin, sometimes people think I'm white. "My name is Sánchez," I tell them frantically. "Sánchez." But it’s not that simple. Earlier this year I took a DNA test to discover my ethnic makeup. Though I had a vague idea of what it may be, I didn't have much information because our lineage records in Mexico are difficult to find. I’ve also asked my grandparents about our ancestry, but our family history is murky.

When I saw my DNA results, I was astonished. I ran around the room in a frenzy. It turns out that I’m compositionally a medley, in part Iberian, Native American, Greek, Italian, and African (North African, Nigerian, Senegalese, and Bantu). This information has profoundly changed the way I perceive myself. Suddenly, the way I look makes perfect sense to me. Of course I still have days in which I look in the mirror and pick myself apart. But mostly, when I look at my face, I understand something I didn’t before. Regardless of what the pervading culture tries to impose on me, I contain the beauty of multitudes.

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet, novelist, and essayist living in Chicago.


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