I couldn’t sleep last night. I cried until I was out of breath. Over and over, I kept telling myself this is not who I am. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I counted to five to avoid a panic attack. The words weren’t really new, but they felt like they were questioning my whole existence.
I caught my breath, but those words were like a blunt knife. Someone again said to me yesterday that I am ugly.
While I write this, I am thinking about that Eid day when I was five years old and my mom dressed me up in white. I excitedly got out of my house to meet all of my friends, and the minute I stepped out, I wanted to bury myself in the ground. What was I thinking? How could a girl with a dark complexion wear white?
The sounds of laughter, the humiliation, the hurt, the feeling of worthlessness, and the ugly truth of not being conventionally pretty hit me when I was a child. That day, I went back to my house, tore my white outfit, and never wore that colour again.
I thought a lot about why a peacock cries after glancing at its feet. I asked my grandmother who said, “it has ugly feet.” And I, a child not older than six, thought about it day and night.
“My face is like a peacock’s feet, and my brain is like its feathers. When I look at my face, I end up crying because of how ugly it is. My brain, on the other hand, is one of the most beautiful things I have.”
Growing up, my mother did tell me that I was beautiful, but it has always been the hardest thing for me to believe because, in all the stories I ever read, women with dark complexion were the villains. I remember reading Cinderella’s Urdu translation where Cinderella was portrayed as this beautiful “fair” woman while her stepsisters were “dark” ugly witches. When I was sensible enough to get my hands on women digests, the female protagonist was always a fair woman. Most of these writers were female, who ridiculed women based on their skin colour. Whenever I purchased a colouring pencil set, the “skin” coloured stick was always designed for a lighter shade of skin.
In twenty-two years of my life, I have tried to love myself as I am. A brown-skinned, petite, smart, and attractive woman. I have tried to tell myself that I am smart, so I don’t need to be pretty. But when I have to walk up to the stage to receive my award while people chant nasty things about my complexion, I fail.
When my mother is told that I will have to go through the same struggle of finding the right one because of how I look, I fail. When I see men and women making fun of dark-skinned actresses over the internet, I fail. When I see the advertisements of fairness creams still relevant in this era where everyone talking about women empowerment, I fail. When I see an actor being trolled for having intimate scenes with a dark-skinned model, I fail.
Because where do women like me should go to find a tiny bit of acceptance? Women like me, who have tried so hard to become “likable”? Women like me who are smart enough to conquer the whole world but always end up getting their hearts shattered because the world won’t accept them for something that’s not under their control.
I often think about what to say when someone asks “what do you think of yourself?” I tell them I am smart enough to solve complicated math theorems and rational enough to make the right decisions. I have read enough poetry to describe you in metaphors and I know just the right strokes to paint you. But, when my lips purse together, to pronounce beautifully, I feel my tongue shivering, fumbling and paralyzing because I genuinely don’t know.
Am I pretty yet?