After Being Bullied As a Kid, Here’s How I Came to Love My Beautiful Dark Lips
"Today, I’m grateful to say there’s nothing about my Blackness I’d change."
“Inclusivity” may be a buzzword, but for anyone who has ever felt left out of conversations in the beauty space, it’s so much more. In Shades of Melanin, we celebrate Black beauty, support the brands and founders that are fighting for inclusivity in the industry, and unpack the issues that still need to be addressed.
Growing up, I always told people my favorite color was purple, although it was really pink. Ten-year-old me, undeniably girly but reluctant to identify as a girly-girl, likely saw purple as girly lite, feminine sans its stereotypes. Hence, I embraced purple: lavender bedroom walls, violet school supplies, a doll-size, grape-colored VW Beetle.
The truth—that I loved pink—emerged in daydreams, particularly ones about all the exciting makeup I’d wear once my mom decided I was “grown enough.” By that time, I’d be in high school, surely wielding a cosmetics pouch of rosy drugstore blushes and lip glosses. Like an easy, breezy Rihanna in all those 2008 CoverGirl ads, my berry lip gloss would hypnotize; I’d mirror the white models that defined my library of CosmoGirl! and Seventeen. I’d be pretty in bubblegum pink—the color that not only dominated 2000s beauty trends, but, rather suspiciously, mostly complimented the Caucasian women who defined the standard of hotness.
At 14, as I browsed Rite Aid’s makeup aisle and quickly realized why I’d never seen a singular truly pink lip product in my mother’s makeup bag, an arsenal of deep burgundies, dark reds and purples instead. Both trendy and timeless lip colors—such as Marilyn Monroe red and Y2K’s popular pink—weren’t made for us, women with warm undertones and rich, melanated complexions. Heck, Rihanna, a light-skinned Black woman with a white Barbadian father, was probably the darkest woman they *were* made for. There was no way in hell I was going to commit Black girl social suicide by rolling up to school in something named Pale Peony, mouth looking ashy as all get-out.
So, as I was stuck between a rock (aching to wear makeup in my favorite color) and a hard place (looking like a clown if I did), the clear lip glosses I’d already been wearing for eons continued on as my ride or dies. They were dependable, safe, and Mom-approved. To me, they were more thrilling than bare lips but so freaking boring. It wasn’t until I went to college that I metamorphosed into a lipstick feign.
However, my subconsciousness had long before then already picked up on Eurocentrism’s function in the beauty world: to other the natural states in which Black and Brown people existed. I was merely a preteen at this point, so I didn’t quite know how to articulate what I saw—the “problem” with kinky hair, wide noses, or brown skin. And, as for any Black girl coming of age in a predominantly white area, feeling pretty corresponded with one’s proximity to whiteness; so something inside of me died every time my genetic fabric failed me, on which felt like a frequent basis. Aside from the ability to wear classic pink lip gloss like lighter, mixed-race celebrities like RiRi, for instance, I also thirsted after pin-straight side bangs a lá white teen celebs such as Miley Cyrus.
At no age was I too green to be subjected to colonized beauty standards and the microaggressions they fueled, either. I’ll never forget the boy in elementary school who asked me why my lips looked “like that.” He asked if I was wearing lipstick, and when I told him that my lips were naturally dark—a physical trait I thought he was complimenting—he responded by saying “no, they’re like, brown” with a manifest stank face. I was insulted, and it stung more coming from a classmate who was half Black himself. I already knew racism—but this? This was an early reckoning with feeling marginalized differently: by way of colorism.
Today, as a 20-something woman who is Blackity Black—which, in my books, is defined by one’s great pride and penchant for being Black—my heart breaks for the little girl I once was. Brown was at fault for my looking bad in pink makeup. Brown was at fault for ending up with nappy hair. Brown was at fault for mean boys teasing me. Brown was at fault for my feeling othered. I was supposed to believe brown was ugly; and I did, quietly and for years, until I didn’t.
I finally developed self-love in college, where so many Black young adults, like myself, grow privy to the radical practice of enjoying one’s Blackness. There, I was no longer infatuated with colors that didn’t compliment my complexion. I wore purple (and I do mean *actual* purple) lipstick 200 days out of the year and fell in love with burgundies and browns. Lipstick made me feel mature, more put-together, and the rich, bold hues I embraced were vehicles of self-expression. When friendly white girls on campus told me they wished they could pull off my vibe, I was flattered—but thought to myself, You sound like me for the first fifteen years of my life. My, how the tables have turned!
Don’t get me twisted; believing Black is beautiful was no overnight feat, but I sided with logic early enough and accepted that melanin doesn’t just pick and choose where it appears arbitrarily. The smaller, often unstated, unique traits of brownness—having darker or two-toned lips, deeper-hued gums, extra pigmented elbows or tushes—synchronize with any brown person’s overall skin tone. In this sense, these unmentionable qualities are reflections of how dope melanin is: Quite literally, every part of our bodies is pre-color-matched. The idiosyncrasies of my own appearance always made divine sense, even when I didn’t yet love that divine sense fully.
Today, I’m grateful to say there’s nothing about my Blackness I’d change. And though a non-Black or Brown person may be surprised to learn that seemingly imperceptible physical features, such as lip color, can be the source of major insecurity, it so often is. Just as there’s a booming, international market for overall skin whitening (also known as skin lightening or bleaching, commonly and sometimes dangerously practiced in numerous regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America), there’s a market for people seeking to “correct” other melanated areas of the body, areas that colorism wouldn’t approve of.
Unlike skin bleaching products—which, by one estimate, are regularly used by over 70 million people in Nigeria alone—there isn’t yet any quantitative data on the popularity of lip lightening. But it happens more often than you’d think, and frequently enough for there to be growing conversation about its toxicity—not only amongst regular folks such as myself, but BIPOC influencers and women’s media, too. For instance, in 2020 a report was published on the colorism underlying lip lightening treatments, and it was beauty influencer Jackie Aina who taught me, specifically, that lip lightening was even a thing.
In a video from April 2020, she got real about the problematic phenomenon. While inspiring her Black and brown fans to enhance the beauty of their extra-pigmented or two-toned lips rather than permanently “fix” them, she explained the inarguably colorist nature of lip lightening procedures at large, particularly citing a viral clip of an esthetician in Brazil lightening a Black woman’s lips without “correcting” the tone—thus leaving the client with a new, reddish lip color uncomplimentary to her deep skin tone (but appropriate for a white person).
Hearing Aina drop gems on the problem with lip lightening was refreshing for so many reasons: first, although skin whitening in the Black community has been a hot topic for years, I’d never seen a Black woman with a big platform discuss lip color insecurities. Moreover, I appreciated her efforts in encouraging Black and Brown women to ask themselves why they didn’t like their naturally dark lips in the first place. The answer? They want to meet racist, Eurocentric beauty standards halfway—but oftentimes, having that epiphany yourself, and thinking critically about it, is the beautiful start of loving yourself the way you are, melanated lips included.
At the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns—coincidentally right around when Aina uploaded that video—my can’t-leave-the-house-without-lipstick era ended. (After all, my creamy lipsticks didn’t pair well with face masks.) So, I gathered my burgundies, plums, and browns, and bid farewell to my lipstick baddie phase. To make myself feel something during those dark days, I felt had to wear something on my lips, so I called up an old friend: clear gloss. Dependable. Safe. Mask-approved. Flirty yet sort of ironic considering that as a tween I though clear lip gloss was “so freaking boring.” The tables had turned again, but this time, against me.
I’m never stupefied when things come full circle; life has a knack for doing that. However, there is something extra gratifying about circularity as it relates to your identity—particularly when you’re part of a racially marginalized group. In a world of white supremacy, the BIPOC experience is, in part, branded by incessant worry about how society perceives you in your natural state, or whether it would be easier to pursue the unnatural. Shaping ourselves—our language, our hair, our melanated idiosyncrasies—into unnatural states is a mechanism of survival, after all.
However, my story, and those of millions of other Black and Brown people, is proof that it is possible to love every facet of your naturally melanated self, even in the face of Eurocentric beauty standards. (Don’t just take my word for it, though: Watch the many proud Black and Brown people on social media who have shared their experiences.) On Aina’s video alone, thousands of viewers from across the globe commented that the beauty vlogger’s sentiments helped them feel more secure in their battles against colorism. And, on platforms like TikTok—between videos of melanated women’s lip lightening fails—you’ll find clips from makeup lovers who share tips on how their fellow dark-lipped ladies can emphasize their uniquely melanated pouts. For instance, you can opt for shades based on your skin’s undertone or use lip liner to highlight your natural lip line when rocking certain colors, such as bright red or hot pink.
In the Black community, specifically, I’ve noticed a beauty trend that’s subtly political: dark-skinned sisters serving lip looks in nothing but dark brown liner and a high-shine gloss. It’s a gorgeous aesthetic—one that Black women can pull off like nobody’s business—and unironically, it’s also an underscore of the two-tone look others seek to desperately “repair.” If there’s one thing about Black women, it’s that we slay—no input from the white gaze necessary.
A few days ago, I bought a several new lip glosses—all shiny, clear, and with varying *sparkle* factors. Before trying them on at home, I first looked at my lips, bare naked, and briefly thought about the boy who teased me on the playground all those years ago. I laughed at the memory, because he was right. Duh, my lips were brown AF; and I’m so glad because they wouldn’t look as beautiful any other way.