Sometimes that voice in your head has no chill when it comes to hating on your looks. L’Oreal Thompson Payton, now all grown up, learned how to shut it down and embrace her unique beauty — and you can, too.
Blonde hair. Big boobs. Blue eyes.
As a teen in the early 2000s, I thought that was the magic formula for beauty. At least, that’s what the teen magazines I subscribed to led me to believe.
Back then, our first lady wasn’t Black, Lupita wasn’t crowned one of America’s most beautiful people, and Beyoncé was not yet running the world. Simply put, brown was not beautiful … at least not to me. I was just an average teenage girl with brown skin, brown eyes, and wide hips. Oh, and glasses and braces, too. “Adorkable” wasn’t trendy yet, so I was just plain dorky.
When it came to boys, I preferred books. When it came to putting on makeup, I would have rather done math (even though it was — and still is — my worst subject). I was considered a nerd and my status as “teacher’s pet” certainly didn’t help my popularity either.
It took me a long time to learn to love the skin I’m in. I wish I could say that one day I went to bed and woke up feeling #Flawless, but that wasn’t the case. My self-hate brewed deep and it was going to take a lot more than a daytime talk show makeover to help me realize my inner beauty.
Pretty may hurt, but ugly certainly isn’t a walk in the park. There were so many nights I cried myself to sleep and prayed to God to make me beautiful. Or, more specifically, white.
Despite my mom’s efforts to convince me that I was fine the way He created me, I’d still secretly pray:
Please make me pretty. I would give anything to be Britney Spears. She’s perfect.
It’s an easy ting for moms to say. I mean, it’s what they’re supposed to say. But let’s be real, no girl is looking to her mom for validation in middle and high school. Not even my BFF could salvage my self-esteem. No amount of “OMG, girl I love your hair!” or “It doesn’t matter what they [the boys in class] think” helped. When you’re a teenage girl, the only person’s opinion you care about when it comes to how you look is your crush. And let’s just say I noticed the boys, but they didn’t exactly notice me … at least not for the right reasons.
One day, I forgot to bring my lip balm with me to school and the boys in my fifth grade class called me Krusty the Clown in reference to my chapped lips. (To this day, I bring lip balm with me where I go!) Those same boys also passed around a list with all of the girls’ names on it. Next to each of the names were the boys’ ratings for that particular girl: ugly or pretty. I happened to catch a glance of this list and noticed my best friend’s name had two “pretties” next to it.
My name was next to “ugly.”
And it wasn’t like high school was any better. Going to an all-girls school meant my day-to-day interactions with boys were pretty limited, but when it came time for dances with our brother school, I might as well have been invisible. There wasn’t exactly a line of (mostly white) guys waiting to dance with me (the Black girl) and I felt like I wasn’t worthy of their attention.
In middle school, I was also teased for being smart, “talking white,” and liking boy bands instead of rappers.
“You’re such an Oreo,” they’d laugh.
“You think you’re better than us because you live in the suburbs,” they’d say.
“Why do you listen to that white music,” they’d ask.
Looking back, I know that this relentless bantering subconsciously influenced my decision to attend an all-girl Catholic high school, which also happened to be predominantly white. There, I could speak as “white” as I wanted to with no judgment. I could let my boy band flag fly high with no scrutiny. I felt like I was finally free to be myself. But while I was embracing this white culture as my so-called sanctuary, I was also losing who I really was.
Shunning my ancestors, my heritage, my skin.
I’d proudly tell people I lived in a house in the suburbs, so they wouldn’t assume I lived in the projects. I bought into the notion that Blacks were somehow less than whites, and did my best to disassociate from others who looked like me. I was the Black girl who enjoyed being the only Black girl in the room.
I took pride when people told me, “You don’t sound Black,” not realizing it was a low-key racist statement shrouded as a compliment.
I’d never wanted to be white so badly in my entire life.
In the privacy of my home, I adorned my bedroom mirror with pictures of Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez. These curvaceous women of color stood out in a sea of petite, white pop stars and I loved them all the more for it.
“Bootylicious” was my personal anthem. It may seem like a silly song, but it gave my self-confidence a much-needed boost, and helped me feel more comfortable in my own body. I remember Bey explaining in an interview that the song was about a woman being proud of her curves. “Finally,” I thought, “A song for the girls with thick thighs and wide hips — like me!”
But it still wasn’t enough.
I mean, as much as I love Bey, we’re not exactly twins. I didn’t have the waist-length blonde weave, the flat stomach, and the light skin. I felt like I wasn’t quite good enough.
Before my freshman year at Loyola College (now Loyola University Maryland) in Baltimore, Maryland, my dad signed me up for a pre-orientation program for students of color that started a week before the fall semester.
I didn’t want to go — not because I didn’t want to cut my summer short, but because I didn’t want to spend a week learning about Black history and being forced to hang out with other minority students. But, it actually turned out to be a valuable experience. Not only did I make lifelong friends, but it also opened my eyes to the reality of being young and Black on a predominately white campus.
Dear White People was the story of my life.
Suddenly, I became very aware of being the only Black girl in the room … and not in a good way. I worried that my peers assumed I’d only gotten accepted because of the color of my skin, not the content of my mind, even though I’d graduated high school with honors. I worried that they didn’t think I deserved to be there as much as they did.
Joining the Black Student Association was one of the best decisions I made. I attended various lectures and became aware of race as a complex, yet beautiful thing for the first time in my life. I had a place — an identity, a history, I came from a long line of beautiful, brown queens.
I finally started to realize that there was no reason for me to be ashamed of the color of my skin, the fullness of my lips, or the width of my hips (in fact, these are the same features our fairer counterparts spend a fortune trying to get … here’s looking at you, Kim Kardashian and Iggy Azalea). And, today, these are the physical features I love most about myself because they are unique to me as a Black girl. I’ll never be a size two and that’s okay.
There is no one-size-fits-all cloak when it comes to confidence. If only it were that easy. What works for one person, may not work for you. It’s a personal journey — and I wouldn’t trade mine, or my Blackness, for the world.
This article originally appeared in Sesi’s Winter 2014 issue. Subscribe here to get the current issue, on sale now.