By Nkechi Deanna Njaka
I love my skin. But I haven’t always.
“Don’t play in the sun.” My mother used to say this to me during the summers growing up. At first listen, I was confused; I loved the sun. I was even born on the longest day of the year—clearly I was not only meant to play in the sun, but also worship everything about it. Still, I didn’t want to question my mother.
Very young, I knew that my mother's advice had less to do with protecting me from skin cancer and had more to do with protecting me from darkening my skin. “Tar baby” is a term she would use to describe the consequences of being outside in the sun too long. I could tell by her tone that she was deeply concerned with my skin being dark and that dark skin was somehow inextricably linked to bad and wrong. As a result, I learned two things rather quickly. First: avoid the sun, because it makes the skin darker. And, second: the color of my skin is a nuanced discussion about my identity to the outside world.
Unconscious awareness of the subliminal messaging of “don’t play in the sun,” in contrast with a conscious awareness of how I relate to my skin, is an interesting topic to write about. For almost 30 years, I have looked at myself in the mirror with mixed emotions regarding my skin. I have looked at my face with an analytical eye contemplating my own power, privilege, economic status and concept of beauty as it pertains to the color of my skin. Colorism is a term almost as old as I am. Coined by the legendary Alice Walker in 1982, it is an important consideration to bring into the discussion and equally important to note that it is not a word synonymous with racism.
Now while I know that this is a very harsh message for a mother to send to her daughter, I have empathy for my mother’s root concern. She grew up in the south during the 1950s and 1960s, and she had very light skin (she was called fair and yellow) that benefited her. I believe that in her own way, she was trying to protect me from the subtle systems of oppression that exist in colorism. Not only would I experience colorism in our hometown suburb outside Minneapolis, Minnesota where we were the only family of color in our neighborhood, but I would also experience a form of social oppression affecting almost all my interactions throughout my life. I don't think she consciously understood the impact it would have on me and my relationship to my skin outside of that context.
I AM NOT THIS HAIR, I AM NOT THIS SKIN, I AM THE SOUL THAT LIVES WITHIN.—RUMI
Recently I've been thinking about “Black is Beautiful,” “The Melanin Queen,” “Brown is the new Blonde,” “The Melanin Goddess,” and similar statements. I love these affirmations. But we must be honest with ourselves that these declarations are extremely external and do not necessarily address the issues of colorism. Sure, I know color is relative just like everything else, but why should skin be? In order to have a healthier relationship with both our skin and the color of our skin, we need to start with ourselves. What is really truly valuable has been my ability to accept my skin as it is, and to look at it with deep love and appreciation.
A healthy relationship with our skin begins with actually having healthy skin. Skin-love through intentional beauty products, the sun, sweating and gratitude are the four major ways I have repaired the complicated relationship I had with my skin.
Our skin is our greatest organ, covering around 18 square feet of our bodies. Consider the next time you coat yourself with a lotion made up of chemicals or soak yourself in a toxic tub, remember that your precious skin absorbs a very large percentage of what you put on it. Therefore, it seems obvious to mention that what we put on our skin is equally important to what we put in our body. Both affect the wellbeing of our entire being. My solution for this is that I try to buy chemical-free and animal-free beauty products whenever I can. You can also be mindful about how certain nutrition affects the skin. For example, I notice that my skin is more clear when I consume healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, coconut, almonds) and when I stay hydrated.
The sun is the star at the center of our solar system and is by far the most important source of energy for life on Earth. I will continue to worship and play in the sun. Despite what my mother said, we need to be in the sun. With proper sun exposure, skin plays a large role in manufacturing Vitamin D. Most Americans, and specifically people of color, are Vitamin D deficient. So, actually, all of us need to be playing in the sun more (and most likely taking Vitamin D supplements). Vitamin D is so important! It is incredibly vital to our immune system.
We all know that sweating is a good thing. I generally get a pretty good sweat doing various activities like dance, yoga and SoulCycle to name a few. Recently, I have been obsessed with sweating using infrared sauna technology. These types of sweat sessions can help purify the skin by eliminating toxins from the pores. They also increase circulation, resulting in clearer, softer and healthier-looking skin. If you’re new to infrared saunas, I would recommend starting out with 5-minute sessions at 160-180 degrees Fahrenheit and slowly work your way up to 15- to 30-minute sessions when you become more comfortable with the heat.
Gratitude + Sensuality
The final way that I love my skin is through gratitude and sensuality. I do all the pampery things that fall under the category of self-care and self-love. I get regular massages, I take long epsom salt baths, I spa, I steam, I get facials. Daily, I make it a point to embrace the beauty of my skin and how it is a part of my entire being. My daily rituals might be as simple as applying organic coconut oil to my skin after each shower or by dry brushing to exfoliate.
THE WOUND IS THE PLACE WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS YOU—RUMI
By letting all the light from all the love heal and restore me, I have been able to reconcile the complicated relationship I have with my own skin. From here, I am able to see others not through the lens of the color complex or other forms of colorism, but rather through a lens of beauty.
Nkechi Njaka is the founder of NDN Integrated Lifestyle Studio where she curates lifestyle and wellness content for brands and individuals. She is a woman of color, deeply concerned about personal and global well-being. Nkechi holistically approaches her wellness with mindfulness, movement, nutrition and style. She attended Scripps College in Claremont, CA where she majored in neuroscience and dance and went on to complete an MSc. in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. She attended the Institute of Integrated Nutrition and holds a certification in Holistic Health and Nutritional Counseling. When not involved in NDN projects, you can find Nkechi teaching Mindful Movement or Mindful Style classes + workshops, taking a yoga or modern dance class or choreographing independent work. She creates, curates, coaches and collaborates in San Francisco, California.