"You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl." That was the comment that defined my early life, to which I would typically reply, "thank you." I offered the reply of “thank you” quite generously up until my mid-twenties.
Growing up, every image depicted around me gave the message that most dark girls were ugly. So, when people would say, "You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl," I took it as a compliment. Why? Because I felt that most people didn't expect to find beauty in dark-skinned black girls, so when they claimed to find beauty in me, I actually felt flattered.
All was well in my little bubble. "I was a prize," I thought, despite being born with dark skin. After all the derogatory comments I heard about my complexion throughout childhood, it felt like a step up from being told by my darker skinned grandfather that I was "nothing but a black bitch." So, I thought, I'll take it.
One day, for what seemed like the umpteenth time, someone granted me the usual back-handed compliment, telling me I was pretty despite being dark-skinned girl, only this time my mom was there to witness it. As I smiled and said, "thank you," my mother became incensed. "Don't you disrespect my child. If you can't simply tell her she is pretty, don't say anything at all." Boy was she furious. At the time I didn't understand why. My mother immediately questioned my decision to say thank you to such a comment. When I explained that I saw it as a compliment, she instantly and quite bluntly corrected me. "No!" she asserted. "That's like saying you're pretty for a monkey, or, that despite your blackness, you're pretty." Do you understand me? Her corrections landed on top of me like a hard thud, and then sank in like a dull stomachache. My response was a sheepish, " I guess so."
At the time I thought she simply didn't understand because she had been born with the privilege of light skin, and never had to face these types of problems. For as long as I could remember, since I was a young girl, everyone has always told my mother how pretty she is. My grandparents' only light-skinned child, she was the golden child in her community.
As time progressed, I built up complexes that I was unaware of on a conscious level. I would never color my hair blonde, for fear that I was too dark and would be laughed at for lightening my hair. I was also convinced that I was too dark to rock some red lipstick and red nails. I had created so many beauty blockers for myself. "Dark-skinned girls can't wear this," and, "Dark-skinned girls can't have that."
Back in my time, we had phone chatrooms that most Generation-X kids will probably remember. You would dial in and speak to people all over the world. You couldn't see each other, so it was just a bunch of voices on the other end of the line, with people flirting and repping where they were from. I remember when I would describe myself, and I would tell people, "I'm really dark." My close friend at the time heard me and questioned why that was one of the first things I defined myself by. "Well, I'm a lot darker than a paper bag, so I must be really dark," I replied. A few months later I was with this same friend and we met a boy through some mutual friends. We were all hanging out and he really vibed with me. At the end of the evening he said to me, "I really like you. I think you're gorgeous, but I can't date you. I prefer light skin." To add insult to injury, he went on… "I'm going to holla at your homegirl, not because I think she's prettier or nicer, but because she has light skin."
At this point in my story, you may have already done a dozen or so eye rolls, face palms and winces on my behalf, marveling at the absurdity and cruelty of it all. If it helps, I've come a long way since then, and I've grown to truly love myself. But I digress…
Flashing forward to my first job after earning my Bachelor's degree, I was working in the field of social services which I felt good about because although my workload was intense, I was doing my part to help my community. I was working on cases to determine people's benefits. One day an older gentlemen in his mid-seventies came in to see me. He laughed with me and was very charming. And then… he said it! It was that phrase that had followed me throughout my life. "You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl." My boss happened to walk into my workspace and overheard the gentleman (who was much darker than me), say those insidious words. And just like my mom, my boss lost it. "Shame on you," my boss said. "You should know better than that. You're too old to be saying ignorant things like that. Just tell her she's beautiful, because she is." The older gentlemen apologized to me and told me he meant no harm. He then explained to me that in his time, it was rare to see that kind of beauty paired with dark skin. That experience was my first inkling that all the people who had ever told me I was pretty for a dark-skinned girl were not consciously trying to hurt or insult me. They were, themselves, victims of colorism. Suddenly, I understood why my mother had been so upset and hurt when she heard her baby girl being subjected to colorism in front of her.
Before I could continue to gather my own thoughts, my boss (who really looked out for his team) called me into his office to apologize to me for having to go through that kind of backwards thinking and the subsequent comments. He explained to me that this ignorance was deeply rooted in the minds of ignorant people. It was an aha moment and a real turning point in my life. That's when I began my journey of self-love. I learned to love everything about my beautiful brown skin, and I love my complexion unapologetically. Since then, I have pushed every limit and tore down those beauty boundaries I had saddled myself with in my twenties.
Although my signature look remains cropped black hair, I now boldly experiment with every hair color including platinum blonde, and yes, I have fun with red lips and red nails. And guess what? It looks good on me. I love a blonde wig and a red lip, and I define my beauty parameters now, not society. It wasn't easy to transcend, but these days, I do not accept the backhanded compliments and micro-aggressions born out of other people's ignorance and colorism.
Fast forward to present day, my husband, whom I love and adore, was himself a victim of colorism and admittedly didn’t date dark-skinned women in his younger years. I’m glad his values and sensibilities changed before we met. If a man ever loved a woman, my husband loves me from the crown of my head to the sole of my feet. My husband is one of my biggest influencers when it comes to my current style and beauty image, and he's been a champion of me expressing my style and beauty as I wish.
My husband and I are intent on flipping the script of that old colorist narrative with our own children. We call our three-year-old son our little chocolate drop. We let him know he is perfect in his beautiful medium brown-toned skin and I wouldn’t change him for the world.
I am now pregnant with our second child, and should I have a girl, I am ready to support her in any way needed to face this world and all its societal complexities. Whether she is dark, light or in between, I will convey to her that she is perfect just as she is.
I love that I've come into my worth as a woman of color, and some if the adversity I faced early on drove me to succeed as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. These experiences fueled my passion for uplifting all women, inclusive of all ethnicities, cultures and, yes, skin tones. I went on to co-own one of New York City's most celebrated recording studios and music production companies, Brook Brovaz. I runCloe's Corner, a storefront co-working community in Brooklyn, New York, and I chair a thriving non-profit organization, Women With Voices, providing community support, practical resources and education for women from all walks of life. My online platform, including a soon-to-be launched mobile app called WUW (We Uplift Women) will provide these services to women digitally. The best part is, I am just getting started
I am Cloé Luv and I am unapologetically a dark-skinned black woman.