Tall, Dark, and Nappy This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

June 11, 2009
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“Ugh, she's so ugly. She's as black as the street,” my mother commented with disdain. The woman she was talking about was Alek Wek, a Sudanese model on “The Tyra Banks Show.” My mother was right: Alek was very dark. But where my mother saw ugliness, I saw beauty.

Seated side by side, Alek and Tyra epitomized the contrast between mainstream American beauty and black African beauty. Alek's hair reached the nape of her neck, and it was jelled down flat. Tyra had a long blonde weave with bangs and tracks down to her belly button. Alek had on dark chocolate makeup that accentuated her strong, high cheekbones, and the muscles in her arms were chiseled and firm. Tyra was wearing green contacts, pink blush, and peach lipgloss that made her look like a Barbie doll.

At that moment, I saw Tyra Banks, one of the world's greatest supermodels, as artificial and ugly. Instead I stared at the woman next to her. Alek Wek, who could have walked off my television onto the New Haven streets without changing a thing, was the essence of beauty.

The African-American community has always been divided. This division is based on the same hierarchy that once separated house slaves from field slaves: skin tone. Two hundred years ago, blacks with fair skin, light eyes, and straight hair were seen as more beautiful than those with chocolate skin, black eyes, and nappy hair. Though our culture has changed, the mind set remains. What's worse is that now it's self-inflicted.

All my life I was taught that light is right. I can remember my mother putting harsh chemicals in my hair to straighten it. I remember my grandmother pouring bleach in her bath water, even though her caramel skin never got any lighter. I remember my mom telling my sister not to date ­anyone darker than herself so that her grandchildren wouldn't be dark. Everything that happened to me, everything I saw, everything I heard, led me to believe that dark was ugly.

The image of Alek sitting next to Tyra contradicted all the messages I had received during my childhood. I became enraged, offended that my own race would raise its daughters to believe that beauty is conditional upon skin color and hair texture, even at the expense of their pride and self-worth. I tried to explain this to my mother, saying that I find beauty to be not just a skin-deep feature but a personality trait as well. That quality, the ability to overcome what others perceive as ugliness and make them see the beauty in it, was what made Alek a model to me. She sat on stage – as dark as she was – and embodied beauty with her self-confidence and poise.

I thought of my three-year-old niece and how I never wanted her to doubt her beauty or potential because of the texture of her hair. What Alek had been for me, I wanted to be for her.

So I cut my hair and stopped treating it with chemicals. I grew an afro, and I flaunted my new look as an example of what a beautiful, nappy-headed young black woman looks like.

I've realized that dark is not synonymous with ugly, despite those who tell me I was prettier with straight hair. I no longer need Tyra's light skin and long weave on my television screen for self-validation. I know I am beautiful. And even though I'm not completely over my early misconceptions, I am in a period of evolution. I'm learning the value of looking and feeling beautiful to myself, rather than to society.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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This article has 17 comments. Post your own now!

claire S. said...
Mar. 10, 2014 at 4:32 am
So well written and enlightening. As a white person, I think about how growing up we'd spend the entire summer trying to become tanner than all of our friends, and it is just all so silly. I get that the roots of the desire to change skin color are different, but I find it to be kind of ironic that everyone wants what they don't have. 
ImErinSurvivor said...
Feb. 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm
I really enjoyed reading your poem XD great job writing it 
cemm said...
Feb. 9, 2013 at 8:09 pm
You are so inspiring!  What an empowered, aware and confident persective you provide in this piece.  It is truly revolutionary. :)
beautifulspirit This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Dec. 28, 2011 at 8:54 pm
Such a powerful observation and so true. In the African American community or in portrayals of African Americans in society, I am constantly seeing blonde weaves, blue or green contacts, and things of that nature. For some people, this look is what they like and their is nothing wrong with that. But the way I feel is that it's like saying that going natural with your hair and having dark skin makes you an eyesore. Now I straighten my hair and I have lighter skin, but I like my look. My sister wh... (more »)
Lissabelle116 said...
Mar. 18, 2011 at 8:13 pm
I personally have always thought very dark, very clear, complexions were beautiful.  I have been jealous, what with my milky face.
a.singlenote This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Feb. 24, 2011 at 8:00 pm
This is very lovely!! Very strong and beautiful!
bbrianna101 said...
Sept. 7, 2010 at 4:19 pm
i love this article! its so true!
toxic.monkey said...
Jul. 11, 2010 at 4:48 pm
i'll admit that blacks or dark africans aren't common where i live (central asia) but i always found black skin very very very beautiful. i'm glad that you're not afraid to be what you percieve is beautiful and not what other people tell you :)
PurpleFeather said...
Dec. 6, 2009 at 11:14 am
Beautifully written! You sound like a strong, independent young woman. I have decided to go natural, too. Today I undid my twists and and am wearing kinky curls. Keep inspiring your niece!
adastraabextra This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Nov. 8, 2009 at 1:36 am
absolutely amazing!!
SierraLikesSnow said...
Oct. 29, 2009 at 12:33 pm
Kayla this is beautiful. This is just what America's youth needs. We need to break stereotypes and judgments. I commend you for doing so. :]
WildeWriter replied...
May 23, 2011 at 9:30 pm
Amazing :)
writingrox said...
Oct. 23, 2009 at 5:59 pm
I love this piece because it is so like me. I always hear the dark skin is ugly. But it's not! Keep writing the truth!
Cocoaskin This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 22, 2009 at 11:23 am
Wow! Kayla this is a great piece! Alot of black females, women and girls alike are programmed to think that black and having natural hair is bad and ugly.
I hope many girls read about what you wrote because it is really mind-opening.
I went natural as well!
Ambrosia H. said...
Jul. 1, 2009 at 6:56 am
You are enlightened in ways...:)
Kayla W. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jun. 29, 2009 at 2:47 pm
thanks, i appreciate it.
pinksage33 said...
Jun. 23, 2009 at 3:14 pm
WOW. this is really good.
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