I was 27 years old when a clerk at a cosmetics counter told me I was looking at the wrong shade of foundation. Instead of the color I had worn for the last several years, which matched my skin tone, she encouraged me to get one that was actually two shades lighter. Registering skepticism, she explained that I should try to go as light as I could get away with because with my complexion, she said, "you wouldn't want to get any darker."

There was no question in her voice. She didn't say it as if she were stating a preference, but rather a fact, the same way she would have advised me on how best to apply blush or find a base that wouldn't dry out my skin. I was humiliated by her assumption that it was an unspoken understanding between us: that obviously, if given the choice, I would change this thing about the way I looked.

As a black woman with dark skin, it wasn't the first time I had been told—subtly and often not so subtly—that my complexion was a deficit I had to overcome to be beautiful. But the fact that the saleswoman, who was white, said it not out of malice, but seemingly with genuine concern, made me feel worse. I didn't think she was criticizing me; she was trying to help me. And I was terrified that she—an expert—knew something I didn't. I bought the foundation.

At home, I dipped the sponge in the compact and covered my face with the powder. I couldn't bring myself to look in the mirror as I applied it.

When I finally did look, I was horrified: I had to admit that I looked prettier than I'd ever remembered. I had to admit that my dark skin was unattractive, and that being lighter really did mean being more attractive.

I wept. Then I went to wash my face. But the makeup wouldn't come off. I scrubbed hard; still nothing. That's when I looked at the compact and realized I hadn't pulled off the protective paper. In fact, I hadn't been wearing any makeup at all.

After seven years and countless applications of the right shade of makeup, that moment has stayed with me. Whenever I question whether my complexion is beautiful (which is more often than I should, but less often than I might), I think back to that moment when I saw my face—my bare face—and thought it was so beautiful, it made me cry.


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