Nicole Dennis-Benn

The Day I Learnt To Accept That My Dark Skin Was Beautiful

Jamaican author Nicole Dennis-Benn grew up believing only white women could be beautiful. It wasn't until she moved to New York and undressed as an artists' model that she found beauty in her own skin

'Dat's a beautiful girl,' I heard my mother say.

She was staring at one of the Miss Jamaica Universe contestants on television. I thought I recognised her—as I had begun to recognize them all—girls whose frozen smiles lit up every road-side bar and shop in Kingston: girls whose skin mixed the milk-honey hues of Lebanese and Indian, or the café au lait of White or Chinese.

It was perhaps inevitable that as soon as the word 'Beautiful' began to form in my mind, I had an image of a light-skinned beauty queen with a crown of jewels on her head.

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In Jamaica where I was born, 'Beautiful' was not used to describe me.

Instead, I heard the words: 'Nuttin' Black nuhgood.'

I grew to be ashamed of my dark skin, because it incited contempt from people who looked like me.

I recall the primary school dance teacher who beat me for more than the precision of my pirouettes, her condemning eyes sharpened by internalized hatred and disgust.

I also remember the nun—the school's principal—who used to beat us with a rubber switch for being late or wearing our hair in braids.

No such discipline was executed on my lighter-skin peers.

My connection between beauty and light-skin solidified in high school, where I enrolled in art class during my junior year.

I became interested in looking at the muses of artists—curious about the way they were sketched or painted into existence, each feature round and soft; an ode to femininity.

I never saw a dark skinned girl like me in these paintings.

No one observed or beheld me the way they did the fair female muses.

I imagined being a muse, the slowing down of a pencil or paintbrush; the beholder captivated. I stole the art books from class.

Alone in my room, I discovered Botticelli's Venus, which was both pleasurable and confusing at the same time.

At fifteen, I explored my own breasts, the deepening space between them, my newly widening hips, the soft hidden parts of my body; the contours of my face.

I became assured of the thing I'd always wanted to prove—that I am beautiful despite what I was socialised to believe.

It was a private act done often to reassure myself of something I felt was lost in the gaze of others. I started to believe then, too, that life wouldn't be complete without having experienced the chance to be the muse, the beheld.

To be observed that way with such tenderness. It must be lovely, I thought, to be seen—an act synonymous with love.

I boldly stepped out of my clothes for the first time at the age of twenty-five inside a spacious art studio in New York City.

I sat in the nude, poised with my legs crossed, hands placed behind my straightened back on the hard, wooden stool; my brown skin a brilliant contrast against the white surface of the canvasses lined before me.

Forty pairs of eyes caressed my hair, lips, navel.

The only sounds inside the studio were from pencils sketching swiftly, and the intermittent coughs and sighs of the artists— a mixture of young and old, novice and expert, mostly white and male.

I sat steady within their contemplative gaze, trying not to think of the tangled history that brought me there.

I also contemplated the hidden parts of me they probably sketched, erased, then sketched again.

There, inside the high silence of the lofty spaces in my new city—a place I began to call home—I created myself.

'You're beautiful', I heard over and over again, poised atop stools, couches, beds—or whatever furniture or prop the artists found to sketch me on.

I went faithfully every week for five years to different studios around the city.

I was fully exposed in these settings, my motive stirring from the darkest places that I hoped to forget— I hardly recognised myself on the artists' canvases.

A woman with high cheekbones, narrow eyes, flared nose and full lips, all bequeathed by Maroon ancestors who were brought over as slaves from West Africa .

The contours of angular bone under deeply browned skin—an image I would later see displayed in art exhibitions where groups of strangers would marvel at her, the word beautiful uttered in exhaled breaths.

I started to believe then that life wouldn't be complete without having experienced the chance to be the muse, the beheld.

One day, about a year after I stopped modelling, I discovered a box of drawings I had stored over the years, signed by the artists.

I examined each one, aware of the sun creeping into my Harlem studio like an openly ripe papaya, chasing away the shadows of doubt that veiled my youth.

It crept into my pose too, as I became assured of the thing I'd always wanted to prove—that I am beautiful despite what I was socialised to believe.

Perhaps I knew then that the child in me wouldn't have been satisfied without this defiant act of self-love in a city miles away from the one where I was born.

I came to understand that to behold oneself is, in itself, revolutionary.

Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn is published by Oneworld on 16 March, hardback £12.99

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