It is amazing what lingers in a child’s memory, takes root and refuses to go away. It’s amazing how long, words spoken to us in our childhood remains in our subconscious, forming our responses and outlook on life and our perspectives of ourselves, even many decades afterwards. Yes, words from the past can, and do travel with us through life, influencing our relationships and decisions and how we see ourselves.
These days, I am amazed to discover I do love the colour red on me. Growing up, it wasn’t so, because red was the color used to cover my ‘shame.’
My mother often dressed me up in red in an effort to ‘brighten up’ my dark face. So, for many decades afterwards, as I learned to love myself, I avoided the colour red, preferring instead, to wear black, brown and sometimes grey and cream. I avoided wearing bright colors as they reminded me that my skin tone wasn’t desirable and attractive. Only recently, have I yielded to the pressure from my daughter to ‘add a bit of colour’ to my wardrobe. So now, I have ventured into adding some purple, pink and red to my couture.
My mother had no idea of the impact her words and actions had on me as a child. I was a timid little ‘darkie’ who at a very early age, had already experienced several life-altering and traumatic events, which contributed to a very strong sense of insecurity as a child. My mother didn’t realise that I already felt ugly, dirty and insignificant. So, each time she pointed out the darkness of my complexion or made fun of it with her friends, or each time she focussed one aspect or the other of my body which she considered unattractive, she may not have realised that she was affirming what I had already accepted as the truth about myself – that I was an ugly waste of space.
As a child, I compared myself to my cousins who were fairer-skinned and regarded as beautiful and I didn’t measure up. I compared myself to my mother who was also fair in comparison to me, and I definitely didn’t measure up.
It was only later in life that I realised that like most women of her time, my mother used skin-lightening lotions. So although she wasn’t as dark-skinned as I was, the hue I admired on her face was not God-given but was the result of skin-bleaching.
As women of colour, we have a responsibility towards affirming and encouraging the generations that come after us. We are the Titus 2 older women who are supposed to teach the younger women to live godly lives and I believe we teach, not only with our words but also through relationship and character modeling.
It is the responsibility of older generations to affirm the contested and globally ridiculed aesthetic truth of the girl of colour. The older generations must say to the younger generations “you are beautiful.”
We mustn’t rate her less beautiful or less desirable by denigrating any attributes by which she differs from her peers or falls outside society’s beauty standards and norms. Otherwise, we destroy and bury her confidence and self-esteem in a coffin which she will try to unsuccessfully exhume for the rest of her life.
Many of us have migrated from more or less homogenous communities where phenotypical differences, although present, are less dramatic and less defined. We have migrated from places where our skin shades were in the majority, to settle in places where we are the minority shade which is always under scrutiny, suspicion and ridicule.
We don’t need our mothers’ or our sisters’ voices adding to our pain, shame and the negative clamour we encounter in our host countries. And even if we have not migrated, but are still ‘home,’ we don’t need sarcastic humor or tactless comments that chip away at what little self-worth we may have.
Words matter. Words are powerful. They can do as much damage as a fist and maybe even more.
When we as mothers, sisters, friends or aunties speak to the young girls entrusted into our care, we must thoughtfully lace our words with grace and refuse to be the nasty voices that transcend childhood into teenage, young adulthood and even into middle age years. We must give deep consideration to the words we speak to young girls and young women.
Although I now incorporate more colour into my wardrobe, I’m still wary of red because I still hear my mother’s voice…I still feel self-conscious and I still doubt people’s genuineness when they compliment my looks or general appearance. I still expect to hear ‘but’ after their compliments.
I am a fifty-eight years old woman, yet I am still trying to recover from what I was told as a five-year-old, as a gangly ten year old, and as a very insecure teenager.
No soap has yet been made that can wash away the ugliness reinforced by a mother’s words, because our children trust us. Therefore, what a parent says becomes a child’s truth. As the trusted person in their lives whom they love, children believe they are whom their parents say they are. If parents tell you are ugly, you believe and act like you are ugly. If parents tell you you are beautiful, you also believe and act like you are beautiful. If parents zoom in on how dark and undesirable your skin tone is, then you really believe black is ugly.
Mummy’s words, daddy’s words, siblings’ words are all powerful and long-lasting.
Let’s count the cost and the impact of our words on the little girls we are supposed to mold into the women of the future.
[This article was first published on Fari’s website at https://farikanayibooks.co.uk/embracing-my-red/]
Farikanayi was born and raised during Zimbabwe’s colonial era. She earned a Bachelor of Science and Teaching Certificate from Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University and East Carolina University). She worked in Zimbabwe as a teacher, deputy head and head teacher, then migrated to the UK where she resides with her two sons and two daughters. She obtained a Master of Art degree in Gender Studies and a Master of Arts degree in Social Work from the University of Leeds. Like most immigrants to the UK, Farikanayi became a health care assistant before obtaining her UK teaching qualification. As her children have started leaving home Farikanayi has also started following her own dreams; setting up a business which allows her the flexibility to focus on her main passion which is writing. She has published six books: ‘Sarai-Sarah-Hall of Faith’, ‘The Shells that Shaped my Life’, ‘Hey Sal’, ‘Soak it, in the Word’, ‘Dear Daddy’ and ‘Saved by a Harlot’ and is working on a few more. Church has always had a central role in her life. It has become the brook where she is fed and watered and through it, her family has extended greatly and her physical, spiritual, emotional, financial and relational healing has become a reality.