My Journey To Loving My Brown Skin Has Been A Long One

loving my brown skin Shani Jay
Photo by Mango Moon Photography for Shani Jay

My journey to loving my brown skin has been a long one, that has come full circle.

I was born, like every other baby is, a clean slate. Traumas and experiences were yet to shape me; but it wasn’t long before they did.

I don’t know at what point I became conscious of my skin being brown, or when I learned to see it as inferior to a whiter, paler complexion.

What I do remember is an incident in the playground at school. A group of us girls had a falling out over something; something very trivial I’m sure. We split up and spent the rest of break time avoiding each other, but eventually came face to face; in what could only be described as the biggest showdown that month.

All I remember of that exchange was a girl—Charlotte—standing in front of me, and stretching her arms out in front of her. She then began to rotate her hands 180 degrees, from palms down, to palms up, while chanting the words, “pink, brown, pink, brown,” at me. Because obviously, my hands were a different colour to everyone else’s.

I think one of my friends encouraged me to tell one of the dinner ladies who was on watch that break time. From what I remember, Charlotte got a minor verbal scolding, but the actual issue wasn’t really addressed.

And that was the first of many random racial slurs I received over the next twenty years; including the words paki and afghan, while I walked down the street in the middle of the day minding my own business.

I grew up in a predominately white village, and was always one of less than a handful of “ethnic minorities” as they like to call us. This didn’t change until I left home for university in Nottingham; which is much more diverse, yet unfortunately still not void of racism.

My dad is Sri Lankan, and immigrated to the U.K at 27; while my mum is a second generation Indian, whose parents left India for England in the 1950s.

His skin is a dark chocolate colour, having spent much time on an island so close to the equator; while hers is very fair, as her parents were from the northern part of India.

The combination gave me a slight tan; light enough that I didn’t really feel like I had things that bad (compared to say, the racism that black people experience), but dark enough that I stood out from everyone around me and felt different.

And not in a good way.

Because when you’re young, trying to fit in, all you want is to blend in with everybody else. But there were so many things that made me stand out. My long, difficult to pronounce Asian name. My dark hair and eyes; and my arched nose. And of course, my brown skin.

It breaks my heart to say this, but I remember wishing I could have white skin and blonde hair and blue eyes instead. Because that’s what the most popular, “pretty” girls at school looked like. They were the ones the girls liked, and the boys fancied. They weren’t bullied and tormented like I was. And they seemed happier. Life seemed much easier for them than it was for me. And I was tired of struggling. I was tired of hating the way I looked.

Inferiority and difference didn’t just greet me when I went outside. It found me in the TV shows I watched on Saturday mornings; and the faces of pop stars and models staring back at me from the magazines I read.

There was rarely anyone who looked like me. No one to look up to or be inspired by.

Did that mean I wouldn’t have the opportunity to sing on stage, or walk the runway, or be on TV?

Did that mean I would have less of a shot at achieving success and fame?

Worse still, did that mean there was something wrong with me?

Of course, there were exceptions to the rule. Shows like The Fresh Prince and America’s Next Top Model were a breath of fresh air; and mattered more to me than they perhaps otherwise would have.

That’s what made loving my brown skin so challenging; not my original beliefs, but other people’s attitudes and perceptions and judgements of it.

I wasn’t born hating myself, and neither were you. None of us were.

Observation eventually shifted to confusion, which became shame, and then rage.

I learned there was a whole world of different colours, races, and face out there, that weren’t being represented; and we were all being shown the same, narrow stereotypes that society had deemed beautiful and good and worthy of being seen.

After many years, I realised our world is run by people with agendas, mostly rooted in gaining money and power. Highlighting and ranking our differences on a scale of desirability creates a sense of hierarchy amongst us all. We know our place; the “winners” are content, while everybody else is not. And those who are not are sold props to help us achieve that illusive step up the pecking order. Skin bleaching creams, hair weaves, chemical straightening, coloured contact lenses, and even surgery.

But still, we don’t win. They do. Because they profit from our insecurity, our unhappiness, and our inferiority—all the things we learned to feel around the colour of our skin.

Eventually, I confronted all of those childhood and teenage traumas and demons that had been lurking in the shadows ever since they occurred. I realised they couldn’t hold any power over me unless I gave them permission to.

Slowly, I let go of the shame I’d been carrying around since I was a child.

I learned that my insecurities wouldn’t disappear by throwing money at them. I couldn’t change something on the outside, and have that create real change within. It had to come from the inside first.

Because, sure, I could bleach my skin and dye my hair and “whiten” myself up as much as I like, but that’s not dealing with why I feel insecure about my brown skin in the first place. It would only be glossing over the real source of my wound.

So, I did a lot of work on learning to love myself; every part of myself. Gradually, I learned to see the beauty in all the things that make me different, instead of wishing I could be like everyone else. And each day, loving my brown skin became a little easier to do. A little less of a battle.

But it took many years.

And the truth is, while I’ve come so far, I’m still on that journey.

I continue to confront more shadows and insecurities that I don’t even realise are there. I challenge my own beliefs and judgements all the time, and dig in to the root of where and how they were formed. And I remind myself of who I truly am at my centre—in my soul—when I remove all the conditioning and layers I’ve become weighed down by over the years.

Which brings me full circle; right back to where I began when I took my first breath as a newborn baby on this earth. Back to loving my brown skin; the skin I came in. Back to my truth; my centre; my soul. Content. At peace.

Brown skin, dark eyes, and small breasts are what I wear in this lifetime. They’re my make-up, and I can now see and appreciate their beauty. But underneath it all; that’s me. And that’s where you’ll find you.

Please remember this next time you’re struggling to love the skin you’re in. Because while it defines and shapes your experience on earth, it can never define or shape your worth.

Bloom Book Shani Jay

Praise for Bloom

I read Bloom in one night. I started feeling hopeless and pushed down. Shani picked me up, dusted me off, and guided me to self-love in a few short hours with only print. Truly inspiring - Rebecca Barnoff

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