No. 11: The time my niece cut her skin off

6 Minute Read

Sometime before medical school

I heard the crying before I heard the doorbell ring. It was around 4 in the afternoon, and big yellow buses were trucking down the neighborhood streets, dropping kids home after school. I was living with family at the time to save money on rent, which came with particular responsibilities. As the older cousin, AKA “Auntie” (in Nigerian culture, if you’re much older than your younger cousins, they will likely be instructed to refer to you as auntie or uncle), it was my job to make sure the younger ones got in the house safely after school, ate a snack, and got started on their homework before the parents came home. Ours was a quiet street, so I always knew to head towards the front door when I heard the kids playing and running outside. 

Today was different. Instead of the typical banter and pitter-patter of energetic feet against concrete running up to the door, I heard gut-wrenching sobs. I opened the door to one of the most perplexing sights I had ever seen: My 8 year old niece stood on the doorstep with a stream of bright red blood running down her dark brown face. Her tears, half-water and half-blood after mixing with the flow from her forehead, dripped down her cheeks and onto her school blouse, making the saddest of messes.

“OH MY GOSH!” I exclaimed, bringing her into the house quickly, yet gently, not knowing if she was seriously injured. “Who did this to you? What happened? Why are you bleeding? Are you ok?” Leaving her in the foyer for a split second, I grabbed a towel from the kitchen and ran it briefly under water, then rushed back to cradle her precious face between my palms. As she sobbed more quietly now, I wiped softly to assess the damage. Her left eyebrow was literally hanging off her face, and from behind it, a copious amount of blood continued to flow. I sat her on my lap, held pressure on her eyebrow with the towel, and rocked her back and forth until her tears slowed.

“What happened?” I asked again softly.

“I did it, auntie,” she said as she looked up at me, wincing in pain with the weight of my pressure against her left forehead. Her bright round eyes, typically a window into her playful spirit, now revealed a sadness, the extent of which seemed all too vast for a child in the 2nd grade. “I was trying to cut it off, but I stopped because  it hurt too much.” 

“But… WHY did you want to cut off your eyebrow? Honey, I told you, when you get older you will truly appreciate the eyebrows you have. I wish I had your thick, lovely eyebrows!” I remembered a conversation we had a while back when she told me she was being bullied at school for her bushy eyebrows. Everyday, they would point and laugh at the “caterpillars” on her face. Kids were so cruel.

“Not my eyebrow, auntie. My skin.” She shifted her gaze towards her lap and winced again from the movement. “The kids at school say… they say I’m really ugly because I am so dark. They say that I am actually light skinned underneath my dark skin, and if I could just get it off…” She started to cry again. “If I could just get it off! I tried to cut my skin off with my scissors to see if I am prettier underneath, but there was so much blood… and… and…”

I was crying along with her at this point. I couldn’t believe it. She had mutilated her own face all for the futile hope of being “lighter skinned” and thus “prettier”. She wanted to be fair so badly, that she caused herself physical pain just for the chance that her skin was more favorable underneath the surface. It was the heartbreaking logic of an eight year old girl, dying to be accepted by her peers. “Oh, honey,” I whispered into her hair, pulling her closer to my chest. “I don’t understand! Don’t you know? You are so beautiful!”

But of course. I understood. All too well. I remember the exact day I found out I was “dark-skinned”. I was only a bit older than she was when I stood in our church parking lot with 5 of my closest girlfriends. One of the young boys from church (who had made a habit of making fun of me mercilessly whenever he got the chance) walked over to us with his friends and made the observation that we encompassed the full spectrum of skin complexions. He compared each of us to bread, calling my lightest friend “white bread”, the next “honey wheat bread”, the next “whole wheat bread”, then “toasted”,  and then calling the friend next to me “lightly charred”. When he turned to look at me, he began to point and shout “And YOU’RE BURNT TOAST!” All the boys laughed. 

From that moment, I became hypersensitive to my complexion. As I got older, I started to notice when guys said things like “Man, I love light-skinned girls” or “I’m just not into dark-skinned girls.” I got made fun of my first two years of highschool, being compared to “the TV screen when it’s turned off” or “midnight”. There were the relentless “Lighten up, Tewa!” and “Man, we can only see your teeth!” jokes.  And of course, I noticed that few, if any, celebrities were my complexion. It became my secret internal obsession: comparing my skin to that of everyone I met or saw. It happened subconsciously, automatically. Am I darker than him? At least I’m lighter than her. I’m really not THAT dark. Man, I would be so pretty if I were just one or two shades lighter. 

Finally, during the summer after my sophomore year of highschool, I spent 6 weeks on a university campus taking an African Diaspora course. I learned about “colonialism” and “Eurocentric standards of beauty” and the “brown paper bag test” and “colorism”. I studied alongside an incredibly bright and diverse group of highschoolers, under the tutelage of college students and professors from various universities around the country, some of which were historically black. It was in this setting that I finally learned to value my own worth and beauty. It was during that wonderful summer that I started to love the skin I was in.

Six years after this life-changing experience, I found myself staring at my beautiful, dark little niece, wondering what I could do to help her. I was angry at the children who made fun of her, but I understood that more than anything, I would have to find a way to help her to love herself, truly and completely. 

Today, I’m very proud to be training for a profession that gives me the platform to speak to patients about self esteem, self worth, and beauty. And no, I’m not talkin’ botox, fillers, make-up and chemical peels (although playing around with those will probably be fun as well!). I’m talkin’ the true beauty that comes from being more of yourself, totally and completely aligned with who and what you were created to be. I’m talkin’ falling in love with your skin color, your facial features, your body, your hair, and even your flaws. I’m talkin’ loving yourself so much that you have love overflowing to others, to the point where you understand that everyone is beautiful in their own way. I’m particularly excited about being a voice to speak out for the skin and health concerns of darker sisters and brothers out there (heyyyyyy), who deserve to have just as much expertise put into handling disorders that affect them (US) as everyone else.

Thanks for riding with me through this journey. Until next time!

Dr. Oye

9 Replies to “No. 11: The time my niece cut her skin off”

  1. I’ve just come across your blog on my wordpress feed, and I must say I have never heard such a heartbreaking story! As a white girl from England, I’ve never had to deal with feeling “different” from people my age. Kids can be incredibly cruel! All I can say is, if we were all the same shape/size/colour/nationality then the world would be an incredibly boring place. All skin shades are beautiful, and I think we should be fascinated by our differences rather than critical of them 🙂

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    1. Thank you SO much for reading, and for your thoughts! And yes I agree, our differences make us unique and interesting, and we should love each other for them.

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  2. Tewa, you are always an inspiration. What happened to your niece? Did she need stitches? Let me know when you are stopping back through the DC/MD area and let me know if you are going to be doing any poetry nights.

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  3. Thank you Dr. Oye for sharing this story. Kids can be cruel to each other. I wish many parents raising kids at this time will read this and know what their children might be going through in the hand of their peers, make time out of their busy schedule to show them love unconditional and let them know they are unique and special to their maker. ❤️

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  4. I’m shook!!..even now, I feel sorry for your niece for going through such experience. Trust me, I know how it feels and it’s that bad here in the mid-west. Nice post all the same!

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  5. Man that story hit really close to home. I remember those school days… kids are something else! But I’m glad your were able to be there for your niece and even more I’m glad you talked about Dermatology as a vehicle to promoting self worth and self esteem. Great post!

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