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Wellness

People Told Me I Had Perfect Skin — But I Could Never See It

by Halleta Alemu

@halleta

• By Halleta Alemu

It is a cruel little game to wish yourself invisible; to long to exist without the weight of being perceived, and to live without the suffering of being Black. It was what I wanted to teach myself the most — how to not suffer. 

As the child of two Ethiopian immigrants, I taught myself how to be invisible. How to be agreeable, how to avoid conflict, and how to not outshine others. How to blend seamlessly in the background but still participate enough to be accepted. I succeeded valiantly in my efforts — I became extremely likable and was always able to make friends. Yet, my skin obstructed the process. It represented the exact opposite of the behavior I was trying to cultivate, glaring in its clarity, deep bronzed hues, and smoothness. It was unashamed. It made me visible. 

Although I never realized this, my parents gave me the genetic gift of perfect skin. I never struggled with acne as a teen and I hardly ever properly washed my face. For all of my life, my skin has been exceptionally good to me.  This goodness, however, was just not enough. The industrial-sized baggage that comes with having Black skin outweighed the gift of having beautiful, clear skin. How could I love and appreciate this attribute that made me feel so other, so different, and so ugly? How could this dark skin be special, if I constantly experienced how colorless skin had every advantage?

As I got older, I fielded an increasing number of people who would approach me because of my skin. Specifically, white women, which always mystified me. They’d gape in awe, figuratively prodding me with a stick “You really use nothing? No foundation?,” they’d ask as their eyes probed my exterior. It was as if they wanted to take their hands to its surface and arch their nail beds into it, just to see for themselves there was truly nothing there. I’d apprehensively take my finger down the side of my cheek then like a dull offering, hold it up to them to prove it was bare. They’d gasp. 

However, I began to notice something peculiar beneath these exchanges. I’d observe these white women, who consistently have privileges I do not have, pine for something that is innately mine. A trait, I for once, did not have to twist myself into. A trait, they for once, could not have. I was so used to contorting the spine of my humanity to crush itself in the irredeemable box of a white-supremacist society, and yet here I was, watching the benefactors of this system want the very thing that strips me from it. In that split second, I experienced their wanting. How they could not sit with it. Knowing full well that if they had my skin their lives would be dramatically altered. With a strained smile they’d tell me, “what I would do to have your skin.” I observed them, knowing the exact reason why they wouldn’t.

How could I love and appreciate this attribute that made me feel so other, so different, and so ugly?

This micro-experience heightened to encapsulate the majority of my relationships with white women. I realized my great skin was a risk because it was something they wanted, and I couldn’t have my place as their coveted Black friend if they were jealous of me. Thus, I had to hide myself to operate next to them. I could never outshine them because if for a brief moment they stopped liking me, that meant all of this work of minimizing myself to fit in would vanish. I could not imagine the weight of visibility because I was petrified of what suffering would emerge with it. If I became small enough, and malleable enough, and invisible enough, for them to love me, then maybe I could live in that love too. 

But that’s not real love. Real love requires seeing and accepting truth. I could not see myself, so I could not feel myself. And, if I could not feel myself, then I could not feel the full scope of my suffering. My brain prevented me from seeing my skin so that I could not feel the damage of being Black. I distanced myself from people who looked like me in favor of being accepted by people who didn’t. At the center of each of my decisions, whether I was aware of it or not, was the thought “How can I become more like them?” 

However, there comes a moment when untouched trauma demands to be felt. As I started the internal work of unlearning the racism within me, I witnessed a growing revolution inside of myself that reverberated throughout my body. Mountains of overwhelming pain, trauma, and grief shot like fiery needles through my interior. My heart was engulfed in flames from all of the rage. With patience and time, these fires died down and a gift remained in the ashes. Boundaries, rules and laws: it was the beginning of a protection towards myself that I had been sorely missing. 

What does it mean to be Black when removed from the context of racism? What lives there? What will grow? That is my new mission and the world I now seek.  If society can’t give me an image of life that is freeing, then I’ll take these hands and build it myself. I can work through the root of my trauma and create something new. I can realign the trajectory of myself. 

I treated myself as invisible, and thus the beauty of my skin was invisible to me. But in my most climactic moment of becoming, ravaged by the pain, I was struck by my appearance in the mirror. I realized that I could look at myself and witness the outline of a real form.

And with such beautiful Black skin, I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it before.