Growing Into My Skin: Tales From the Depths of Ugliness

Have you seen Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

I did as a child. Ignorant of all the political, misogynistic, and religious undertones to the plot, I commiserated with the story of Quasimodo. Outcast by society for his hideous face and effectively enslaved by Minister Frollo, I saw myself in the lonely bell-ringer of Notre Dame. I, too, walked with my head down, averting my eyes away from people on the street in hopes of sparing myself ridicule. Like Quasimodo, I was made to believe that I was unlovable because of my appearance. I’ve encountered dozens of Frollos in life that told me in insidious ways I was fortunate to receive any attention, even if that attention was abusive, cruel, or demoralizing.

Such is your constitution when you inhabit space in the world as a Black, albino child.

From the youngest age, I recall strangers going out of their way to ogle me in public. I wasn’t sure if people were puzzled by the difference in skin tone between my mother and me, or if they were simply disgusted by my appearance. I was a tall, skinny, yellow-haired child with invisible eyebrows and buck teeth. My intense eyeglass prescription magnified my already large, almond-shaped blue eyes. People of all ages peered in jovial disgust at my albinism — running up store aisles in Target to snicker at me, turning heads while passing me in shopping malls, shifting toward me with unblinking eyes on rollercoasters at Six Flags. I didn’t know the exact reason people stared, but I knew it made me feel terrible. I hated the attention. I walked with my head down well into my teen years in a futile attempt at hiding my monstrous face from the ire of other people.

Black middle school boys who fancied themselves comedic prodigies would walk up to me laughing, saying things like “Aye! My friend wanna ask you out!” before running away. They hoped I’d be so pathetic as to fall for the joke so they could laugh at my expense, because why would any boy desire me? Even if I never fell for the ruse, those repetitive taunts still left scars. I resigned myself early to my fate as Ugly Duckling. People like me weren’t meant for companionship — or visibility.

No, Black albino girls like me were meant to be observed. Studied. Laughed at. Inquired about. The recurring trauma of these interactions taught me that taking up space was an invitation for commentary. I was bullied even in kindergarten. My albinism left me vulnerable to unwanted confrontation, therefore I figured the best way to combat this was to direct attention away from what made me different, by either being pathetically introverted or clownish. In my adolescent and teen years, I was convinced conformity was my way out of social contempt.

In school, I tried to keep accommodations for my albinism discreet. The primary disability associated with albinism (besides the obvious lack of melanin) is very poor vision. I have been wearing glasses since the age of nine months. Most albino folks cannot see well enough to drive — I’m fortunate enough to not be one of them. Even still, I have trouble reading print from certain distances. On the first day of every new class, I’d walk up to the teacher and explain that, no matter how seating arrangements may change throughout the year, I’d always need to sit in the front of the classroom. Which I hated, because it meant my back would always be to my classmates. More precisely, it meant that I’d always be seen by everyone. For 16 years, I sat in paranoia in the front of classrooms, reading into every whisper behind my back as commentary about my appearance, my hand raising, my existing in that space. About half the time, my suspicions were founded; I’d walked into enough rooms of people giggling in whispers that quieted when I got too close. The body remembers how moments like those feel — those sensations never leave you, even when the context changes.

I regularly had gaps in my notes from class because I couldn’t read words from the board. When reading text from overhead projectors as a class, I sometimes had to leave my desk and read from right underneath the screen. When I couldn’t do that, I struggled to read the words aloud from my desk until the teacher mercifully allowed another kid to take over. Embarrassments like this caused me to feel permanently marked, as if there was a scarlet letter on my body reminding people I didn’t belong.

For years (and still to this day) I encountered the dehumanizing question “So what are you?” from peers and strangers alike. The “what” implies race, but our society’s clumsiness about the topic prevents folks from asking about it in a thoughtful manner to the racially “ambiguous.” The question makes me feel like a zoo animal. Rarely is it asked from a curious or intimate place, but rather from an instructive one. The asker wants to know so they have information on how they should treat me. They want to know how I would take up potential space in their life, as a token Black friend, a sister to the Culture, a sexual object, or otherwise.

To the latter, albinism on this body has put me in precarious situations with predatory men. As an astoundingly large number of Black women can attest to, I was the object of male attraction not long after entering puberty. As my curves filled out, I realized that men much older than me took a peculiar interest in my appearance. Before white and non-Black Instagram models began Blackfishing and appropriating Black features, I understood as a teen the lust that men can have for Black features on fair complexions. My phenotype is identifiably Black — from my flat nose and wide nostrils, to my full lips, to the coarseness of my hair. Additionally, my thighs and butt have only grown with age. The totality of these features without melanin to cover them meant that I was a target for advances from men many years my senior, particularly Black men. As the laws of colorism dictate, my fair skin made my Black features more desirable to them.

I learned this at 14, when I was asked to dance by a man in his 40s at a family party. I was wearing a red party dress that revealed a little more leg than I anticipated. The gentleman, noticing this, took advantage by forcing me into movements that made my dress lift and twirl. Something about this dance felt strange deep down, but when you’ve been beaten down so much by callousness, you begin to see anything short of cruelty as net positive. It would take me at least another decade to understand that this type of male flattery was a cloak for misogynist desires to own me.

Catcalls and aggressive advances in this vein have persisted, but one instance stands out to me as the culmination of the intersecting difficulties of being a Black woman with albinism.

A few years ago, I went to a local coffee shop to meet with a writing group. The café, ironically, was called Everybody’s Coffee — a name implying the promise of inclusion for everyone in the neighborhood no matter their race or class. I was waiting for my coffee when a man entered and sat at a table near the order counter. As I waited between his table and the counter, he called to me.

“Hi miss.”

“Hi,” I replied curtly.

“Are you Black and white?” he asked, more as a statement than a question. My white skin gets me this question often. I answered, “I’m Black.” In disbelief, he responded, “Just Black? So you’re just really light skinned?”

“I’m albino,” I clarify.

Apparently, this man was a genealogist, because he retorted, “What? You’re not albino! You’re just really light skinned. There’s no such thing as albino! If you’re albino, you might as well call me albino.”

I stared blankly at this man who was at least three shades darker than I was. Flustered, I attempted to explain to him the genetic possibility of albinism, that it is a homozygous recessive trait inheritable from two carrying parents. But I couldn’t get that far before he dismissed me, taking my hand in an attempt to kiss it. Suddenly, I was just an object to him, this whole debate a frustrating set up for a pick up line: “Well, you look good then.”

In two minutes, this person simultaneously dismissed my existence as a Black albino woman and fetishized my Otherness. At a business called Everybody’s Coffee, I felt unsafe, embarrassed, and degraded while a full house of patrons sipped their coffee and worked in peace. My harasser was not asked to leave, and I was left with the repugnant aftertaste of the exchange as I tried to join my writing group. Despite other customers seeing the harassment I’d just endured, no one in the writing group cared enough to check in with me about the exchange. That was the last time I ever met with that group. That was three years ago.

Living in an albino body as a Black woman means that the space I take up is perpetually questioned, denied, invalidated. It is fetishized and exotified to fascinated onlookers. It is ridiculed for being different. How was I ever to believe I deserved to take up space in this world when I was told, over and over again, that said space was nothing more than a genetic fluke?

Well into my twenties, I accepted less respect than I deserved from colleagues, classmates, friends, and bosses because I believed their acceptance of me was the bare minimum I deserved for taking up space in their lives. I worked hard to entertain and people-please because I wanted so desperately to conform, to pretend that albinism wasn’t a factor in my engagement with the world. I was self-deprecating because I assumed I couldn’t be made small by others if I belittled myself first.

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering what key life event set me on the path toward self-esteem. As convenient as it would be to name one pivotal moment for the purposes of this essay, I can’t. All I can tell you is that somewhere between graduating college, marrying the love of my life, and a pandemic, I pieced together the esteem I likely had for myself before society ripped it to shreds. Similar to most things in our society, “ugliness” is a construct. It is what we determine it to be. Relative to conventional attractiveness and “typical” racial phenotype, ugliness is by definition a contradiction to agreed upon standards of appearance.

Thus by society’s definition, I am different, therefore I am ugly. Yet, what people may not know by simply gawking at me is how little I’ve come to care about society’s silly definitions. I am bigger than anyone’s small-minded assumptions about my worth. Through copious amounts of tears in and out of therapy, I can finally look myself in the face and see a woman who deserves. If contrasting with colonial standards of beauty makes me ugly, then honey, I’m proud to be it.

At the end of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, after Quasimodo saved Esmeralda and the city from Frollo’s wrath, the hunchback finally left his bell tower. When Quasimodo was a social reject, his world was small. He was only allowed to exist within the narrow space of Frollo’s imagination in Notre Dame. After finding his inner courage, Quasimodo’s world opened up. He could finally see the broadness of possibility for taking up space outside of the walls of the cathedral.

My inner child still sees herself in Quasimodo. Only now, adult Me is there to remind her that his misery didn’t last forever. I accept my albinism now as a gift, one so rare that it couldn’t have been a fluke. Believing in the intentionality of my creation has formed the basis for a new constitution, one where I love myself more than the anxiety that once kept my soul confined.

I say this James Baldwin quote to myself when I reminisce on the scorn I’ve survived:

“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the Earth as though I had a right to be here.”

My existence on this Earth, however strange or rare, means that I am no less entitled to space upon it than anyone else. I am space, limitless.