I Used to Love Myself

Adebola Oyeku
  • I liked my face as a child. I had zero ounces of low self-esteem. How did a child with a healthy view of self become a woman who doubts her thoughts, feelings, and appearance?
13 min read

I don’t remember how old I was when my parents bought the brown metallic closet with the mirror on the front, but its presence in our home goes back as far as my memory of self does. I don’t think I paid too much attention to the mirror on that closet before age six or seven, but thereafter we became quite acquainted.

At age seven, we had recently moved to a new residence and the mirrored closet was no longer in the room my sister and I occupied; it was in my brother’s room. When I was bored with television or done with the imagined world of my makeshift toy collection, I would sit in front of that mirror.

Cross-legged on the floor, I’d stare at my reflection. My fingers grazed over patchwork edges, the result of too-tight braids, and an absentminded habit of twirling any unfettered curls. I pulled off hair-ties to free the black cloud of zig-zags and corkscrews. I fluffed and finger raked the strands to create volume. I wished that Mommy would let me wear my hair free, big. Hiding this badge of confidence away was diminishing. I liked it and Daddy always remarked at the sheer amount of hair on my little head. Mommy said I was born with hair so thick it looked like a wig. Watching their faces delight at my hair signified its mass as a good thing, so why was I forced to reduce it, hide it, and tame it?

Eventually, I’d recognize that the vision of hair hanging down your back was the standard, so I would come to love wearing synthetic hair braids. They swung like the Puerto Rican girls’ hair did and that, as I discerned, was socially esteemed hair.

 

Smoothing what I thought were jam-packed intense eyebrows, I remember the moment I noticed the shape of my eyes. At the time I didn’t know how to describe the silhouette, but I thought they were exquisite. Look at how they are round in the center and sweep into upward slanting points at the outer corners. Look at the chameleon properties of the irises; a chocolate diamond in the sunlight and obsidian depths when I cry. Who wouldn’t love such eyes? I know I did. Funny though, I felt like I had discovered buried treasure. No one had ever complimented my eyes. They didn’t see what I saw; they were blind to it. But I saw myself. I thought this self was beauty-full.

I took my time cherishing this beauty-full self too.

My parents would tease me whenever it was time to brush my teeth. Little me took the task of keeping them pearly white very seriously. At my favorite position, in front of a mirror, five bite-size fingers gripped the cartoon character toothbrush twisting and turning it appropriately for each distinctly shaped tooth. Cinnamon-flavored toothpaste foaming out of my mouth and down the sides of my chin to congregate at the slope, keeping a one-two beat of dripping into the sink. None the wiser of how many minutes had passed until I heard someone saying “You better be in the shower by now!”

Angry grumbling soon followed with, “How many teeth does she even have? Why does it take so long to brush simple teeth? She can stand in that mirror brushing teeth forever.”

My time in the bathtub didn’t take as long though. We were allotted one bucket of water to moisten, wash with soap, and rinse so I had no wiggle room to bask in baths. Although those moments when Daddy indulged my older sister and me with ‘sitting in the water’, as we called it, I devoted the time to personal inspection.

Immersed in water, with barely any bubbles, I would lift my limbs up, slowly rotating them and enjoying the cascade of water falling away. Smooth brown skin with darker brown spots, big ones and tiny ones, everywhere! Mommy said the doctor called them Mongolian spots. They were supposed to fade by age two, and be mostly gone by five; that was not my case. On my left calf, the spots were faintly arranged in the shape of a pinnate leaf; that was my favorite one.

After bathing, applying lotion to my body in front of a mirror, I would contort my form and neck to look for the spots on my thighs, back, and hip. When counting all the large spots on my body individually, I had about eight in total. My tiny spots were the closely posited freckles on my hands and lower forearms. Another discovered treasure for me to peak at and gleam with joy.

They were my spots and I loved them without persuasion. I even used my spots to encourage my older sister. Her chickenpox scars were a source of gloom so I told her not to feel bad because I had spots too.

All this self-loving was bliss. So, what happened? I was no different from most children, if not all, who observe their autonomy at a certain age, and appreciate what makes them unique. I can’t pinpoint the moment an internal switch flipped from self-love to low self-esteem, but I can isolate a few instances that reinforced a message of “You love yourself too much. Be humble; sit down”.

 

Are You Conceited?

At a new church, hoping to recreate the community we’d been stripped of by leaving our previous church, I was on the hunt for a friend.

At the intersection of Yoruba Nigerian, Pentecostal Christian, first-generation American born, almost broke struggling middle-class, and the reality of the Bronx in the late 80s/early 90s, I was friendless. Within my young life I had deduced certain limitations on the kind of friends I was allowed to have. We were only friends with church members’ kids. Adult drama had removed us from that church and put us in a new neighborhood; the experience was incredibly isolating and disorienting for me. How do I rectify these feelings of disconnection? If church was the only place approved friends could be found, then finding a church was the first move.

I was such a brilliant child. I dressed myself and my brother up on a Sunday morning and we marched to a nearby church like the children in The Color Purple who informed Shug that Celie was fixin’ to shave Mister.

On one of these Sundays I was fortunate in my search. I saw her. She was medium brown in complexion, a few shades lighter than me. Her hair was in the popular slicked back ponytail style with the loose strands spread into a “fountain” effect. Dressed in a fluffy taffeta dress, very close to my height and build, she had to be around my age. We met in the basement bathroom.

I said, “Hi! My name is Adebola. Are you new at this church?”

“Hi. My name is Chioma. Not really; my family has been coming here for about a year.”

Chioma was an African name, I was sure.

“Cool. My parents don’t really come here often yet. It’s just me and my brother to Sunday school mostly.”

Conversation continued to flow as I asked where she was from. She was Nigerian! Score! We were the same age; she was two months older than me but we were still in the same grade. I’d hit the friendship jackpot. Characteristically, I began to imagine the lifestyle of a child with real friends. Sleepovers, birthday parties, sharing secrets, and companionship. Shaken out of my reverie, Chioma commented on my appearance.

“Is that all your hair?” She had also done a head to toe inspection.

“Yes, it is. My mom is going to braid it up soon though.”

“Wow, you have a lot of hair and it’s so long.”

I beamed at her notice of my crowning glory.

“I know right,” my eyes wide with delight.

We were walking up the stairs toward the sanctuary. Chioma stopped walking. I looked back.

“Are you conceited or something? You just gonna say ‘I know right’?”

Shocked by her reaction and feeling my chances at friendship slipping away, I recalibrated.

“No. I’m not stuck up. I meant thank you.”

She chuckled shaking her head. She probably doesn’t remember that exchange. I can’t ever forget it.

I’ve thought about that moment for decades. Chioma had learned, at some point, that acknowledging one’s own qualities somehow expressed conceit. If she had said, “you have brown skin” which is a fact, would I have been expected to show gratitude for that statement? While I couldn’t understand the error of my response, I adjusted my public expressions of self-appreciation.

Apparently, recognizing my greatness before external sanction and agreement with outside approval was a social taboo. This was my first lesson in the life class of socialization.

 

You’re Pretty for A Dark-Skinned Girl

Being a child in a family that represented a proverbial rainbow of brown shades, I maintained no definite distinction of “light skin” and “dark skin”. I looked at all of us, Daddy, Mommy, older sister, me, brother, and baby sister as Black people. Our respective versions of brown had no value beyond a descriptive trait.

By the time I got to elementary school, I observed that certain girls got attention and other girls were called ugly. Certain girls had straight hair (relaxed or naturally), wavy hair, or curly hair. Other girls had coarse, kinky, cornrowed, or plaited hair. Certain girls had skin no darker than the tone of brown eggs or peanuts. Other girls had complexions of umber, pecan, hickory, walnut or espresso. Certain girls were never Black African. Other girls were me.

 

If I ever doubted my suppositions, one day in fifth-grade gym class offered confirmation of my thoughts.

A boy I had a crush on, named Hassan, straight up told me, “Girl, with your hair like that you look like Celie from The Color Purple.”

Whether or not he meant to use this evaluation as an insult was lost on me until someone standing outside my peripheral vision shouted, “You sho’ is ugly!” Laughter erupted in the gymnasium and spread like brushfire as children asked what was funny and the joke was repeated and over and over. I wanted to die. A part of me did die. Me? Ugly? How could anyone think I was ugly? Did they actually look at me? I looked at me every day in the mirror and I only saw beauty. Maybe I was wrong, my ten-year-old self thought.

 

A couple of years later, while walking to the train station for my morning commute, a group of high school students on a corner hollered from across the street.

“Ay yo ma!”

I continued to walk, oblivious that the yelling was directed at me.

“Yo shorty! You, with the white and blue coat.”

I looked down; they were talking to me. I turned my head in the group’s direction as acknowledgment. One guy ran up to me; I never slowed my pace. Generally wary of groups of men, I gripped my keys in my pocket, threading the keys between my fingers in case I needed to fight.

“Shorty, why you walking so fast?”

I became agitated. The scene from The Color Purple when Mister chased Nettie on horseback as she ran flashed in my mind. My stride became swifter. “I gotta catch the train. If I miss it, I’ll be late for school.”

“Where do you go to school?” His skullcap and face mask covered his face mostly. But I saw that he had green eyes and caramel brown skin.

“Harlem.”

“Oh for real? That’s dope.”

“Yeah.”

Was he going to ask for my phone number? I didn’t have time for a full conversation. The light eyes caught my attention and imagination filled in the details of our middle school/high school sweetheart fantasy of k-i-s-s-i-n-g, love, marriage, and a baby in a baby carriage.

“Well, I wanted to tell you that you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” He pulled his mask down and smiled. My imagination wasn’t too far off. He was cute.

“Thank you.”

I returned the smile, my heart beating audibly in my head. I heard the brakes of the train above head and ran toward the station steps. I carried that compliment like a badge of honor for years. I didn’t see the foolishness or internalized disdain for dark skin until I was in high school.

Was the expectation that all dark-skinned girls were ugly? When was that established? Why had I glimmered at the statement? At some point, I had accepted my fate of last chosen girl, unattractive girl, least desired girl to the point that being the exception to the “ugly dark-skinned girls” rule was a source of esteem. Just another lesson in the “don’t love yourself too much” school of life.

 

Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?

In December 2019 Netflix gave me the festive gift of adding the Spike Lee joint Malcolm X to its lineup. I was delighted at the opportunity to watch one of my favorite movies, with one of my favorite directors, and a cast of my favorite actors during the most wonderful time of the year.

While watching the film with rapt attention, I appreciated certain facets that had gone over my head as a child. Malcolm X was a revolutionary intellectual. I admired his pursuit of knowledge and persistent self-development. After watching the film, I did a google search for more information, to satisfy the discontented curiosity I usually felt after watching biopics. I found the original footage of Malcolm X’s infamous “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?” speech. The first few lines speak directly to my introspection on depreciated self-esteem:

“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?”

These questions are still valid. In my present efforts to not oversimplify nuanced concepts, I acknowledge that the answers to those questions are neither linear nor straightforward. White supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist systems are great socializing, domesticating, multi-dimensional weapons. They permeate our lives through every fiber of existence and at every level of residence: interpersonal relationships, home, education, work, and communities.

I used to feel despondent when considering the immense effort necessary to change these systems that were toxic and killed my sense of self-worth and self-love. But I’ve recognized that the solution was evident from the very beginning.

I was, as everyone is, born with a totally positive perception of myself. I was born whole, complete, and lacking nothing. No one had to teach me then to love myself; I just did. But I will teach myself to love myself again, and this time it’ll be deeper and more real than before.

I will once again love the texture, fullness, and mass of my hair. I will love the shadowy depths of my complexion in the paler tone of the winter and the richest warmth of the summer. I will appreciate the shape of my nose and the ampleness of my lips. I will teach myself to abundantly bask in all my attributes from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet.

And it will all be a lifelong lesson learned well to the tune of “Just took a DNA test; turns out I’m a hundred percent THAT chick!”

 

 

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