“I hope….you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”- Lupita Nyongo

Defined as being unpleasant or repulsive, especially in appearance. The word is a dagger rhyming with words such as unattractive, hideous and disgusting. It’s a word I’ve called a friend all too often. I’ve hated being attached to it, lived up to its expectation and embraced it, as it drained every droplet of blood from my being. It ostracized and stripped bare the confidence to self, the very essence of my soul. Every bullet wrapped in saliva found it’s trajectory towards my fragile tormented heart with hardly any ounce of sympathy. Ugly tormented self, confidence dry, it led me through this fragile path to maturity guided by hate, embraced by contempt, envious for death. Ugly drew me to the deepest, darkest dudgeon, drenched with sadness, and scented with despair, where love was non-existent. Ugly reminded self, that I was worthless, an itch to the universe; that fly on the wall.

Ugly was introduced to self by the woman who breathed life to my being. As I transitioned to my teenage self she picked up a mirror placed it in front of me and said, “Look at how ugly you are.” It was hardly a fairy tale recital of ‘Mirror, mirror who is the fairest of them all,’ but the direct opposite. From that moment I hated mirrors, hated photographs, I hated the blackness that colored my skin, I hated the big eyes that telescopically brought objects and colors to life, I hated self for being, just ugly. Her words drew breath from my very existence. That moment a part of me died, my heart shut the door to love, and the I retreated to the depth of my soul. I listened to her as a daughter should and as the door whooshed opened the silent killer of confidence and cousin to depression waltzed in back straight in her natural glory.  

Today I sit here reminiscing about ugly from my dark days, as I read an article about a protest march organised by the University of KwaZulu Natal. The fundamental objective of this initiative was to eradicate the use of bleaching and skin lightening creams and further promote awareness on the dangers associated with such products. According to the University of Cape Town research has proven that 75% of Nigerian women and between 52% and 67% of Senegalese women use skin lightening products and in addition 35% South Africa’s Pretoria women make use of these products. Hence there appears to be a considerable niche within the African market. 

I’m now a mature woman who has shaken the depressive chains, held ever tightly by ugly. With hindsight I find myself contemplating this complexity with sensitivity and empathy, and a part of me is masked with comprehension. In truth we find ourselves in a culture of aesthetics where the intricate lines are every bit beautiful or ugly. The concept of ugly is entrenched in our society that the standard and ideals on beauty are crafted in such a way that they are cosmetically impracticable. When a South African artist Mshoza was asked why she bleached her skin she simply said,” I’m tired of being ugly.”

In my narrative it took the person who mothered me to belittle me psychologically to such an extent that I found comfort in the idea that I was unattractive and too black, the pins of which strengthen this veil of self-hate.  I used every negative word I could think of as a depiction of my character, I hated being born, and wished I was a version of Tyra Banks, I simply wished I was beautiful. Why? Because I felt that being yellow bone with narrow nose and compact eyes was the epitome of beauty, that pretty was the ideal standard for I to be excepted in society.

However I believe that for us to be protesting against skin lightening creams we should highlight and draw focus at the root of the problem, so that we can treat the problem rather that address the symptoms at hand. Banning these creams and removing them from the shelves and highlighting the dangers of this practice is all good but I believe it will hardly dent on the stigma borne by the victims at play here. Like Professor Ncoza Dlova said, “The post colonization inferiority complex and media advertisers promote being fair and thin as desirable goals and this needs to change.”  The inferiority complex enhanced by magazines, entertainment industries exacerbate this fragile bubble. We find ourselves trying to measure up by resorting to extreme measures such as being anorexic, bulimic, dieting, with science profiting from the epidemic.

The use of skin lightening is hardly a foreign concept and is synonymous with cosmetic surgery be it Botox, Rhinoplasty, breast implants. Lupita Nyongo in essence magazine on the art of blackness was quoted as saying, “European standards of beauty are something that plague the entire world, the idea that darker skin is not beautiful, that light skin is the key to success and love”.  The lack of attractiveness is hence a catalyst for the utilization of such measures. Erasing the flaws to the extent of playing God by making use of science as a corrective measure is the new age phenomenon where the plastic surgeon is on speed dial and the skin lightening creamers are laughing all the way to the bank.

When Alek Wek came to the platform she was beauty personified and she broke the stereotypical elements on the runway. Yes, we had Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Iman, Oluchi, Grace Jones, but she was blackness personified. She was inspiration for girls who related to her world- wide, and when questioned by it by a newspaper publication the guardian, she affirmed it by saying “I felt that girls growing up needed to see somebody different, who may have been criticized for their nose, or their hair or anything – that they could be beautiful, and emphasized that it’s about telling girls from a young age that it’s OK to be quirky, it’s fine to be shy. You don’t have to go with the crowd.”

This boils down to us instilling pride in our kids that there is no ugly in being different and as parents we have the power to mold our children to see beauty through our differences. Both Nyongo and Wek are testament to this as Wek said, “Our confidence came from my mother, she told us it was about celebrating the beauty of being a woman – that’s what made you gorgeous.” Nyongo attested further saying her mother groomed her to believing that “there are more valuable ways to achieve beauty than just through your external features.”

The stigma of blackness is apparent from an early age. When kids are playing with Barbie dolls that are of a pearly shade, long sleek hair, without any trimmings of fat on their silicone curves. Switch on the telly, magazine covers, runway ramps and what we exposed to are the yellow toned characters, small waist, with narrow nose. This gives form to a beauty that is sculptured to unfathomable expectations.  This modeled version is paraded to us and our children in blackness begin to question their identity in a world that appears to be a juxtaposition from their very eyes. Lupita Nyongo pointed out that she once received a letter from a girl saying, “I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.” The art of blackness is an emotional roller coaster that propels children to grow up questioning their blackness as a subset of beauty. With the label branded on their foreheads, whispered by blood and tormented by bullies through different social mediums, they grow up being every inch aware of their difference in society.

Skin lightening creams will always have a market as long as there are children who feel the need to correct their body structure as a means of fitting in. I’ve heard of those who bath in milk to get rid of their dark hue, in college a classmate once said she scrubbed her skin so she could get rid of her black berry colored melanin as she felt she was just a shade too dark. What we have is a society that is brainwashed into believing that beauty is the be all and end all, and the anomalies have been availed corrective means at their disposal, at a cost.  It is heartening that as man we find ways to exploit each other through psychological servitude, a heart wreaking stain tainting our societal fabric.  

Hence the underlying element at hand is the extinction of ugly from society but like every stigma it boils down to the inward looking of one to self and realizing that you are responsible to no one else but thy self. That on the journey to life one has to grow a thick skin and embrace the inner you. I’ve grown to believe that I’m my own person that as I seek life on this treasure map, I shall not be reliant on man’s perception and ideals of how I should walk this thorny path. As I draw breath I chastise self of the beauty that is within and remind I that no scalpel can mold a better version of self.

What we need is to breathe confidence to our kids and remind them that they are destined for greatness rather than break their wings. Words are powerful and dig deeper than the sharpest dagger, hence we should tame our tongue and build a society that has the confidence to ride this wave in contrast to one that is for finding self- gratification through science.

So what is the ‘U’ in UGLY? It is the role society plays in driving the element of self-hate in our society. The U is that parent who paints the stigma of ugly to her child, the U in ugly is that bully who spits ugliness to your character, the U is the us who plant this virus and see it blooming through our children, the U is merely U and I who are guilty of pruning ugly and breathing life to this vicious cycle. 

Hence it is imperative that we strip the ‘U’ in UGLY, center ourselves and realize that thy pristine self is Undeniably Gorgeous, Lovable U

Published by Murunwa Netshisaulu