An Uber Driver Asked Me If I'd Bleach My Skin — Here's What I'd Say To Him Now
Model Nyakim Gatwech shares her inspiring story.
For some, a lipstick is just a lipstick. But for others, it's a source of strength, creativity, and expression. In our series Power Faces, we'll explore the relationship between strong women and the makeup they choose to wear — or not. Our fourth subject, Nyakim Gatwech, is a model and activist living in Minnesota.
A while ago, I was working with a designer who was upset because she felt that her orange dress didn’t look good on my dark skin tone. After that, I stopped dressing in bright colors for a while, but now I don’t care what she — or anyone else — says. I’ll wear reds and pinks just to prove a point.
Metallics especially make me feel glamorous and classy — like I’m on the red carpet. I started wearing them last year, beginning with purple and then blue. You know how lighter-skinned people can wear nude lipsticks and look amazing? Well, there’s no nude for me. Instead, blues, golds, and bright colors work in the same way to bring out my features.
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when I was self-conscious about the way loud colors looked, especially because makeup artists would tell me that they didn’t work on me either. I remember one shoot where all the models wore blue lipstick, and they kicked me out! “We’re sorry for the inconvenience Nyakim… ” I bet they feel pretty stupid now.
Re-Learning Self Love
I was born in a refugee camp and came to the U.S. from Sudan at the age of 14, after an 11-year immigration process. Before, I had no problem with how my family and I looked. We were different, but we were beautiful. Once we moved to Buffalo, New York, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I’d get comments at school, and looks at the grocery store or restaurants; I thought that something must have been wrong with me. Kids would tell me that I looked like a monkey, and ask me to smile since "that’s the only way they could see me."
Eventually, we relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, since there are more Sudanese people in the Midwest and my mom wanted to preach. When we moved, I chose to love myself. It definitely took time — I had to grow into it. I started to ignore the negative people and say, ‘You know what? I’m beautiful the way I am.’ I know that I came to this Western world where beauty is considered to be something different. But if I’m going to live here for God knows how long, I’ve got to learn how to accept myself.
The Right Foundation
Even before I arrived in America, I was in love with makeup; I just didn’t know what products to use, or which foundation to buy. I’d look on TV and think, "Oh, her eyeshadow is beautiful,” or, “I love her highlight.” But I couldn’t find things that matched my skin tone. I didn’t care — I loved makeup so much, I’d put it on regardless. I’d buy a base three or four shades lighter than my skin and look ridiculous. I was getting made fun of at school anyway, so I didn’t care that my neck looked darker than my face. Back then, I used cosmetics for the wrong reasons. I didn’t feel like I was pretty, so I thought that if I put makeup on, then people would think I was beautiful. I’m glad to be at a stage where I don’t feel like I need it anymore.
Something I’ve learned is that beauty goes hand in hand with self-love. It’s not just about makeup. I could have on great lipstick, fake lashes, and all this eyeshadow, but you’d still be able to tell if something was off on the inside. I used to wear makeup to get people to see me as beautiful. That didn’t work. Now, I wear it because I feel beautiful. If you’re happy with who you are and you accept yourself, people will see it and it’ll brighten your eyes. Of course, a little bit of eyeshadow makes them even brighter.
Growing up, people around me didn’t wear makeup. It’s not really a part of my culture. However, skin bleaching is. You didn’t see women wearing eyeshadow or foundation — they just wanted lighter skin. At one point, I thought I needed to bleach my skin to get a boyfriend. I’d go home and cry to my sister, who did it when she came to America at the age of 18. She didn’t get made fun of; she was tall and beautiful and looked like a model. At the time, I wanted to look just like her.
In Sudan, I didn’t feel discrimination. In Ethiopia, I didn’t. In Kenya, I didn’t. The criticism about my dark skin is worse in America than anywhere else. And while white, Asian, and Mexican people may stare, Black Americans are usually the ones to say mean things. I didn’t even think colorism had a word or existed until recently. I didn’t feel it back home, but I really feel it here.
Earlier this year, an Uber driver asked me if I’d bleach my skin for $10,000. I’m not going to lie — at some point, I did consider doing it without being offered anything. Now, with the way I feel about my skin, you could offer me a million dollars to bleach it and I still wouldn’t do it.
In New York or L.A., you see all types of models, but they still go for the blonde hair and blue eyes in Minnesota — a more “commercial” look. I was signed to an agency here, and not once did they ever get a job for me. At shows, makeup artists still didn't know what to do with my skin, or which foundation to use. I’d go to shoots where they’d say, ‘Oh, you don’t need a foundation!’ Uh, yeah I do. If you’re going to put on eyeshadow and eyeliner, you need a base. I’ve made it work. I’ve even used black eyeshadow to contour before.
I’m also Photoshopped lighter or darker all the time. You still see my face, it’s still my nose, and it’s still my eyes — but my skin looks different. It’s like, Can you just get my skin color the way it is? Is that too much to ask?
Despite all of that, I’m among a group of models making history. I look up to Tyra Banks so much, and I wish I could walk like Naomi Campbell. Alek Wek is a model that looks like me. I follow Melanin Goddess — she’s from Senegal, and I think she’s amazing. And Nykhor Paul is Sudanese and has been to Paris Fashion Week. We’re not just regular models who walk down the runway, go home, and call it a day. We’re inspiring people and opening doors for others. A model is a role model. It’s not just wearing pretty clothes and makeup. We’re all making a difference and doing something meaningful.
I knew I was beautiful, but I didn’t know that all of these other people thought I was beautiful, too — until I went viral. I started getting messages on my Snapchat from girls admiring my confidence, saying that they wished they could feel the way I feel about myself. These girls remind me of myself in the seventh grade, when I wanted to be lighter like my sister. I figured that I should speak up and tell my story to help them, because I wasn’t always this confident myself. Sometimes, I’m still that little insecure girl. Doing interviews and going on TV is out of my comfort zone, but my followers have inspired me to break out of it.
There are times when I still get silly or hateful messages on Instagram. I’ll notice them when I’m liking comments or trying to respond to my supporters. One person commented on a photo, saying that my “condition” is what made me famous — as if my skin were a disease! I commented back, “My skin is not a disease, I have been blessed with melanin… I'm dark skinned, not sick.” I’ll mostly ignore the hate, but oftentimes I will find a better way to respond. I don’t want to fuel fire with fire.
At the end of the day, I’m not going to let anyone's words affect me. I remind myself that I’m beautiful; I’ll even say it out loud to myself. My mom is always asking, “Are you okay, Nyakim?” because I usually say it in English. It took me time to get where I’m at, and I am not about to go backwards.