White as snow: I will not whitewash myself for you

Unsettled Settler

“I love your hair,” my aunt said as she carefully touched my hair. She then proceeded to say, “You’re so blanquita (white)!”

I awkwardly smiled and looked away. I didn’t know how to react to compliments at the time. At least, that’s what I thought they were. I, just like my family and friends, thought perceived-white physical attributes were the epitome of beauty. My close friends used to say to me, “Eres la más blanca de todas” — you’re the whitest one — as if that was something to be proud of.

Throughout my childhood, I watched telenovelas with mainly white actors. When I was 11 years old, I remember watching a telenovela in which the main actress had beautiful blond hair and white skin. She was the love interest of all the boys in the show. As I watched her being loved by everyone, I thought to myself, “I wish I were as beautiful as her.”

Although I was perceived to have lighter skin than most of my friends, I was never as white as the people I saw on TV.

“Why are they all so attractive,” I thought. But I don’t remember ever thinking any of the dark-skinned actors or actresses were physically appealing.     

I was physically captivated by white people, and I wanted to be as white as them.

When my cousin who lived next door invited me to play outside, I would think, “I’d better use long sleeves to cover my hands and arms from the sun.”

I feared that my arms, which were already dark in comparison to my light face, would get darker. I feared people would say, “Look at her — her arms are so ugly.”

I was influenced by white standards of beauty that made me want to transform my body to make it more acceptable, to make it whiter.

As a child, even though my hair was lighter than everyone else’s, I was constantly trying to make it even lighter. When Tío Nacho’s “natural lightening” bee jelly shampoo came out, I was thrilled by the product’s promise. At 12, I used this shampoo for the first time. When I got in the shower I thought, “I’d better use this twice so my hair gets blonder.”

When I got out of the shower, I looked in the mirror to find that it had lightened my hair. I continued to use this product, hoping to see a better version of myself.

After some years of using Tío Nacho, one day my mom told me, “What happened to your hair? It looks different.”

She was right — it was lighter. My hair was not mine anymore, no longer the same thick hair that reminded me of my mom; it was now damaged and brittle from the bleaching.

Tío Nacho advertised itself on the basis of Eurocentric beauty standards, standards I quickly accepted and was too naive to ever question. I thought, “Who wouldn’t want to have blond hair?”

Not only did I changed my hair color; my skin, too, was constantly altered both by me and by my family.

I suffered from acne since I was about 12 years old, which led me to initiate my search for a cream that would give me clear skin. Many of the anti-acne creams I found could not only clear my skin but also lighten it. For me, that was an added advantage, and I liked it. If I could have the clearest skin, then why wouldn’t I want the fairest?

My mom, who was obsessed with skin beauty treatments, would always get me to use these products by saying, “You look too tan. Come so I can lighten your skin with this product I just got.”

I would accept her advice without questioning it.

It wasn’t until I went to my parent’s house during winter break that I confronted her. I was in the kitchen and heard my mom casually talking about the creams she was currently using.

“This cream is amazing,” she said, “It whitens your skin like no other brand would.”

I was shocked and said, “Mom, we shouldn’t keep using those creams. It is not OK to lighten our skin.”

She just looked confused by what I was saying. She couldn’t understand how by using whitening beauty products, we were perpetuating white supremacy.

After hearing this, I realized that decolonizing my body and mind is a continuous process.

I have decolonized myself by not trying to whiten my body. Some months ago, I went to the beach with my sister and her best friend, and as I lay on the sand, I thought, “I really want to enjoy the sun this time.”

So, I no longer covered my arms in fear of them getting darker. I felt empowered for not being ashamed of my dark arms. I have come to realize that Black and brown skins are beautiful and that the only reason I was oblivious to this before was that I was being influenced by white supremacist advertisements and ideologies.

I also no longer want to have hair that is compliant to Mexican beauty standards European standards. I am now proud to have the skin that I have and to show my brown hands and arms. I am no longer intimidated by short-sleeved T-shirts that show my brown skin.

It took me a long time to challenge Eurocentric beauty ideals. But now, I am able to look in the mirror and see a real person, a person who is no longer submissive to European ideologies. I am now able to face myself.

Lupita Lua writes the Friday blog on unlearning white supremacy and decolonizing aspects of her life. Contact her at [email protected].