Returning to Myself When Beauty Becomes a Guide

There’s a perception that people use makeup to hide, but for me, it marked a return to my face.

The Black Atlantic is our newest column for nuanced, human stories about the Black experience around the world. Send your story.

Texas, United States

don’t remember a great deal about my childhood, but there are a few experiences that stick out like a splinter: the time an electric current ran through a family friend; the day I cried and cried because my mum wouldn’t let me wear a mismatched outfit to nursery school; and the first time I was called ugly.

I was in primary six and it was the end of the school day. The boy I sat next to—we’ll call him ‘David’—was fiddling with something on his desk when out of the blue he said, ‘No offense Tritima, but you’re ugly.’ He spat the word out defiantly and unequivocally. Then, he gestured with his fingers to show how I had too many pimples colonizing my face. ‘Pimple,’ he pointed at one spot, ‘Pimple,’ he pointed at another.

I wasn’t embarrassed, just mostly confused. Before this moment, I had never carefully considered my skin or what was on it, but soon it began to make sense. I was ugly, or at least uglier than I used to be. And for whatever reason, this was a reality that deeply disturbed everyone around me. Teachers called me aside with furrowed brows to ask if everything was okay. Maybe I had a rash? Did I need to ask my mummy to take me to a doctor? Family members and friends also got mad at me for anxiously picking at my acne and recommended all manners of potions they swore helped their grandmother’s great-uncle.

Young people are known for their uncaring candour, so my skin was expectedly the brunt of a few jokes.

Once, a senior in secondary school was describing someone else to her friend and she said, ‘He’s as fair as Tritima, but without all the pimples.’ Said person at least had the decency to whisper, given that I was only a few feet away. But her friend thought the entire dorm needed to be let in on the joke.

Secondary school was generally a disconcerting time. We were stripped of most cosmetic filters—makeup was not allowed (although it was certainly smuggled in), many of us did not have elaborate and well-thought-out skincare routines, and our hair was cut as low as possible. During this time my self-esteem was nestled wholly in the palms of others. I was pretty when a list entitled ‘Finest Girls in JS2’ decided I was. And I felt like a small and hideous thing when someone made any reference to my ‘bad’ skin.

Commenting on other people’s perceived ‘imperfections’ has to be one of the most perplexing things humans do. A plus-sized person could post a picture of themselves, and their comment section and inbox would be inundated with people screeching about BMIs and impending death by heart attack. I simply can’t imagine what would possess me to look at someone and feel the urge to inform them that I find something about their appearance unacceptable. Women face unique harassment because we are expected to perform beauty (for instance through endless enhancement procedures) exactly as the beholder prescribes.

My mother encouraged me to ignore all the commenters.

I was only experiencing the same stage of puberty literally every other child did. Sometimes, she made jest of her own physical ‘imperfections’ to make me feel better. Ultimately, she assured me the acne would disappear just as fast as it had sprouted. I was willing to be patient, but I wish she knew how lonely the wait was.

I eventually grew tired of the pimples, angry actually, and I forced them to leave. The ‘just use black soap and shea butter’ advice wasn’t working so I decided to strangle the life out of them. They eventually packed their shit and left, but I watched in horror as their ghosts manifested in dark and uneven patches.

The August after I finished junior secondary school, I flew to the US on holiday.

I remember lying on a family member’s guest bedroom floor Googling my new ghoulish tenants. I learned the dark spots were the results of something called ‘hyperpigmentation’ and I discovered all these ingredients I couldn’t pronounce that were supposed to rid me of them.

As soon as possible, I begged my mother to follow me to a nearby Walgreens in search of these magic ingredients. She had always said the new tenants weren’t important and I was better off ignoring them, but she couldn’t hide her excitement as we browsed products. The hope rose in me as we walked back to the house. I was finally going to have clear skin. Everyone was going to finally stop pestering me with questions and accusations of not caring for my skin. But needless to say, the products didn’t work. Not even a bit. In fact, my skin probably worsened since I hadn’t discovered the importance of sunscreen as a Black person, much less the two-finger rule.

A few times, I looked in the mirror and envisioned clawing my skin off or dragging the sharp end of the geometry compass from my maths set across my face. At least then, I thought, people would feel too awkward if they shared their thoughts aloud.

In January 2020, I made it one of my New Year’s resolutions to ‘fix’ my skin.

My skin had come a long way since that day in primary six, but it was still a significant source of insecurity. ‘New Year, new me,’ I declared, and I studied all the aestheticians’ feeds I knew building my brand-new skincare routine. I covered all the bases—double cleanse, tone, treat, protect. After conducting extensive ‘research’ for a few hours, close to a hundred dollars had escaped from my skinny account and I couldn’t have been happier. I downloaded an app to track how often I did my routine, and I pasted my exfoliation schedule by my bathroom sink. Acne and I were going to enter the same trouser leg.

This was my second major attempt at improving my skin and, again, my skin rebelled. My forehead broke out terribly and I winced each time I took a progress picture. Fair enough, I was reckoning with the global pandemic, a lockdown, and the seismic change in society as we knew it. But so were millions of other people. My skin needed to get it together. Luckily, I didn’t have to face the outside world save for weekly grocery store runs, and so I distracted myself with gardening, writing, skipping and other new-found passions.

Eventually, very slowly, I achieved conceptually clear skin. That is to say, not skin that was factually clear, but the type of skin someone could look at and decide was clearer than most, and therefore, clear enough. I can’t say for sure when this happened, I just know I kept at my skincare routine twice a day almost every day, used pimple patches, and stopped believing drinking more water would do anything tangible. I also came to terms with the fact that it wasn’t vain to seek professional help. Soon, I could take progress pictures (now I just called them ‘selfies’) and leave my apartment barefaced, sans earth-shattering anxiety.

Accidentally, I also delved into beauty at large. There’s a point in many teen girls’ lives where they become properly interested in makeup. However, at that stage in my life, when most girls I knew were learning how to blend their eyeshadows, I fled from my face. I believed makeup was for the girls with glass skin; I had no time to learn otherwise because I was too busy clearing mine up. However, as time passed and my confidence improved, clear skin or not, I found that I wanted to engage in the beauty world beyond acne solutions. I actually enjoyed learning new blush techniques and perfecting my ‘soft glam’ look—A.K.A. the makeup look you do when you can’t draw on eyeliner.

There’s a perception that people use makeup to hide, but for me, it marked a return to my face. Starting to use makeup symbolized a well-rounded relationship with my skin, one not tainted by the belief that I was undeserving of experimenting with it. It turned out makeup was in fact for girls like me, I just couldn’t afford to sleep in it.

The funny thing about memory is how selectively forgetful it is.

I can clearly recall David’s short figure in the red and white chequered uniform looking first at his desk, then straight ahead as he reminded me of my facial shortcomings. I can even recall how the afternoon light coming through the window illuminated him. Yet, revisiting my skin’s turbulent phases, it’s a struggle to recall my long-time survival mantra: ‘I just have acne. I didn’t kill anybody.’

Fortunately, when the fog clears, I am able to remind myself that David wanted to project a sense of shame onto me. I wish I learned earlier that a perceived lack of beauty is not a personal failing that anyone can lord over another person. I’m grateful that I finally reached a point where I discovered so many qualities I loved about myself that it became near impossible to drive me far away from positive self-perception again.

However, this isn’t an attempt to lecture on self-love. The way we are outwardly perceived influences how we hold ourselves and, in turn, how we move through the world. Sometimes, the world thrives in cruelty, making loving oneself feel like a herculean task. In especially difficult moments, may we find—and be for others—unrelenting wells of kindness⎈

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].