By: Erika Wang
Kept in a cardboard box in the attic, filled to the brim with colorful drawings and old report cards, is all of the work from the beginning of my school career. It’s contents are frequently emptied to indulge in nostalgia or revisit old memories. However, there is one piece that is never touched, dust still collecting on the ripped edges of the paper, on the outline of its face. A face I still find difficult to look at.
It happened in the early years of my childhood when my teacher—a young woman in her 20’s— assigned all of us young and curious students a project we were to present: a self-portrait. The assignment was easy enough, we were meant to draw a picture of ourselves and write a list of the things we enjoyed doing. Excited to start, I rushed home and sat down in front of the mirror, examining myself closely. I stayed there for what seemed like hours, attempting to replicate what I saw onto paper. My drawing was admirably detailed; my face was drawn in the center of the paper, with trees and plants and birds of all sorts of colors dancing around the edges of the paper. But I was most pleased with the face, focusing much of my attention on tracing the curve of my eyes, shaping the bridge of my nose, and outlining the edges of my lips. I remember thinking it was the best drawing I had ever seen.
The next day, I proudly walked up to the front of the classroom, construction paper in hand, and held up my face for the entire class to see. As I was presenting my portrait, I watched my fellow classmates turn to look at each other in confusion and noticed how my teacher raised her brow, puzzled. Without thinking much of it, I continued on. Finally, after reading through my presentation, one of my classmates raised their hand and asked me the question everyone in the room had in mind, the question everybody wanted to ask, “Why don’t you look like your picture?” I was confused, to say the least. After spending what seemed like an eternity on my drawing, there had to be at least some resemblance, I thought. It wasn’t until he pointed to the strands of golden hair, framing the face I had so dutifully crafted, that I understood. My heart started racing and my mind rushed with a hundred thoughts. Panicking, I looked around me. Everyone I saw had light hair, light skin, and light eyes. I thought back to the beautiful women on the television, the dolls I played with, the characters in the movies I watched; they were all blond, and they were all pretty. I had drawn myself with blond hair because that’s all I saw as beautiful. Looking down at my own strands of black was the first moment I realized that I didn’t look like myself. Or at least what I wanted myself to look like.
That day I had trudged home from the bus stop, the bag on my back feeling as empty as I did. I walked home under the heat of the September sun with my self-portrait, still wrinkled at the edges from my unanticipated presentation. I stared down at the sidewalk as I neared, trying to avoid the looming gaze of the face in my hand I had once felt satisfied with.
As soon as I got home, my mother greeted me at the door and took my drawing from my hands with a gasp. Her face lit up as she told me how much I had improved and how much she liked my portrait. Her support gave me hope and for a split-second, my head swam with possibility. Maybe she knew it was me, maybe she–. My thoughts were cut off when she asked me, in the middle of her praise: “Who is she?” I felt the exact moment my heart sank and felt tears prick my eyes and I screamed at the top of my lungs, “It’s me! Why doesn’t anybody know it’s me?” My mother’s gaze softened and she bent down to meet my eyes and asked, pointing to my self-portrait, “Do you think she’s pretty?” I wiped my eyes dry and looked deeply at my portrait. It was a rather rudimentary face. The only discernible features were the pale skin, blue eyes, and long frame of blond hair. She looked like a sad imitation of the women on the screens I saw growing up. Still, I nodded and thought to myself, she was pretty. My mother nodded with me in agreement, “Yes, her blond hair and blue eyes are very beautiful.” She paused for a moment before she turned to face me. “But do you know what else is beautiful?” she asked. Then she pointed to my black hair, my brown eyes, and my golden skin.
At that moment, something changed inside me. I looked at my mother’s face, with the same black hair and brown eyes I had, I thought back to my teacher who wore her radiant dark skin with pride, and I remembered the characters on the television that shared my resemblance. I realized that, indeed, blond is beautiful, but so are brown, and black, and all of the other colors I neglected to cherish. That night I set my self-portrait inside a box in the attic, thinking about the newly found colors I had learned to accept.
A few years later, I found myself sitting on a couch in during a holiday dinner, watching one of the kids—a little girl no more than 6 or 7—engrossed in her drawing. She drew things with impressive detail, from the bricks of the house down to the color of the grass. But that was when I saw the people. All of the people she drew; her friends, her family, herself, were all blond. My mouth went dry as I picked up her drawing, taking me right back to the front of that classroom, to the start of my own journey of self-acceptance. Sure enough, there they were, everyone with their pale, smiling faces framed with golden locks. She looked up at me innocently, entirely unaware of my reaction. I could’ve done many things in that moment. I could’ve pretended as if nothing had happened or told her how great she was at drawing, but I couldn’t just let her think, let her believe that beauty could only be found in shades of blond. So I pointed to the drawing as my mother had done, asked her the same questions I had been asked, and touched the same black hair, brown eyes, and golden skin that we both shared.
I have avoided taking my self-portrait out for as long as I can remember. In the early years of my childhood, it was a face I never looked at because I thought I could never be as beautiful. Now, I find it hard to look at because all I can think about is how naive I was for forgetting to see the beauty in the colors I now treasure.
Erika Wang is a senior at Enloe High School in North Carolina and is planning on studying neuroscience and/or anthropology. In school, she runs an organization that teaches young girls about STEM. Besides her interest in science, she also has a passion for storytelling, focusing especially on the lives of women and people of color. In her free time, she likes to sew and make zines centered on science and society.
Instagram: @erika.l.wang – www.instagram.com/erika.l.wang / Tumblr: erikasdesk