I grew up in Topeka, Kansas, where most people don’t look like me.
My dad is from what is now Sudan; he is a refugee from a war-torn country, and has been in the United States since the 70’s. My mom is African American—she grew up in Detroit which is where she met my Dad, and she’s the proud descendent of slaves from Alabama. I really see myself as a descendent of the black diaspora, but coming from an immigrant and an African American, it’s so clear the way that we’ve internalized whiteness as the standard. At the end of the day, America and much of Africa are all former European colonies.
When I was three years old, I went to a play with my mother and I remember holding her hand, walking into the Topeka Performing Arts Center, looking around at all of the people in the lobby and asking my mom, “Are we the only black people here right now?”
When it comes to beauty standards, my most painful memories were while I was dancing as a kid. I did ballet, tap dancing and jazz—and the wardrobe requirement was to wear nude hosiery or pink hosiery. The opaque pink tights made my legs match the light leotard, but my arms didn’t match at all and I stood out.
I asked my mom, “When I put my arms up in the air during the choreography, does it look bad because my arms are a different color than everyone else’s?” She reassured me that this was only the case in Topeka, Kansas. I think I understood I was different at an early age and I subconsciously carried that with me.
In middle school, I had a white friend who was really good at putting on makeup. One night, she came over for a sleepover and she brought her makeup kit, which was like opening up a case of jewels. She put a pale pink lipstick on my lips, and I looked like a scary clown. It was really opaque and matte—so beautiful on her. I just looked like I had ashy lips, almost like a ghost. The only thing I could think was, I’m ugly, I look ugly.
I grew up in the 90’s: think about who the popular black women in that era were and what they did to look good—Halle Berry, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks. These women were my heroines as a young girl, and the look was to completely straighten your hair or to wear synthetic hair, which usually comes from Asia—really straight hair you could wear as a wig.
I used to get my hair braided with synthetic braids that would go really long, to my mid-chest level, and that allowed me to feel like I was able to emulate Euro-centric beauty standards. At least I could make my hair look long and put it in a straight-ish looking ponytail and do what the other dance school girls did, put it into a bun for ballet. I think I was dealing with a lot of internalized racism and colorism from the beauty industry and also just the realities of being a black face in a very white place.
When I was eight years old, my mom had the idea that I should cut off my hair. She told me that I have a beautiful face, and it would be easier for me if I had short hair. So she convinced me to cut my hair short, the way it is now, when I was pre-pubescent. And I hated it. Everyone in Topeka misgendered me; they always thought I was a boy. And I kept on crying. As a young black girl, I was already feeling ugly, trying to put on makeup that makes me look like a clown, and I kept saying to myself, I don’t fit, I don’t fit. Subconsciously I had absorbed the message that I was ugly, and then on top of that, I had people calling me a little boy. My mom said to me, “Atima, you’re not a boy, it’s just Topeka, Kansas—it’s just the people here.” And I told her that I couldn’t keep my hair short anymore.
Thankfully, my transformation started in college. I’ve always known I wanted to be a businessperson, and I decided to go to Washington University in St. Louis because they have a four-year business and entrepreneurship program where you can petition to the university and start your own business. I applied to rent space from the university to open a full-service hair and nail salon because Freshman students on campus weren’t allowed to have cars and couldn’t easily get off-campus. Many of us had a very regular need to get our hair and nails done.
The school approved my plan and I opened the salon, but since I didn’t have a cosmetology or barber license, I had to hire professional cosmetologists and barbers. The people I hired in the St. Louis area all happened to be people of color. They could do everyone’s hair—regardless of the client’s ethnicity—and it was amazing.
In 1997, Alek Waek was named “Model of the Year” by MTV and that same year she was the first African model to appear on the cover of Elle. She’s from my father’s country. And for the first time I saw a version of me in mainstream beauty, with dark skin and short hair. I thought, That can be my standard of beauty. It was the very early days of the natural hair care movement in the black community, and I started to ask myself, What if I just cut off my hair and stopped using these chemicals to straighten it?
I was very close with one of the stylists at my shop, and he kept encouraging me to cut off my hair. One day at work, he said, “Atima, is today the day?” And I said, “Yes, let’s do it.” We put my chemically-straightened hair into a ponytail, and he said, “Are you ready?” I said, “I don’t know,” and he snipped off the ponytail. From that moment on, I haven’t had long hair and I haven’t had to use any chemicals to straighten it.
And let me tell you, it’s so liberating. Just the fact that as a black woman, I can work out and take a shower and not worry about making sure my hair stays straight.
It was the beginning of deciding that I am going to be my own beauty standard.
When I cut off my hair, I looked the way my mom encouraged me to look all along. My dad is a doctor and a scientist who doesn’t care about beauty at all, and when he saw Alek Waek on the cover of Elle he said, “This is my countrywoman.” Through the difficulty of getting the societal message that I was ugly, my African father and African American mother helped me see that I was good enough. Women love short hair in East Africa. And I want to look like my roots.
In 2015, I went back to Africa to see my aunts, and my cousins for the first time, I really felt like I was in my homeland. Even my skin felt better
Media is power. If you have people in black countries hating their own skin and wishing they were white, it’s because of the images that we, as Americans — who own global media and culture — are perpetuating across the internet and everywhere. So we have a responsibility to do better, and the beauty industry is finally seeing that.
I was just on the street in New York City today, and I saw an ad for a new teeth straightening system, and it featured a guy with my skin tone. Change is really happening, finally. I’m so excited to see it and contribute to it.
Atima Lui is the inventor of patented AI-based app Nudemeter and is on a mission to change the standard of beauty to match the full range of diversity in human skin.