I was only 9 years old when I discovered beauty. I had come home from school, upset about a comment my classmate, Dexter, had made about my complexion. I was standing at the front of the class, doing some type of presentation. I can’t remember my teacher’s name, but he was a tall, white guy who had a buzz cut. Anyway, after giving my oral report to the class, the teacher said something along the lines of,“Melanie you’re a very bright girl.” Then Dexter followed up with, “Nope, she’s a very dark girl.” He and a few others snickered at his comment. My teacher ended up saying, “Dexter, that’s not very nice, apologize.”

But I didn’t really get the joke or why it was bad that I was dark, or why my teacher understood it to be "not very nice" that Dexter was announcing my dark skin. I remember that the comment didn’t make me sad. But it was Dexter's tone and the laughter that made me feel, for the first time, that there was something wrong with my complexion.

That day, I told my daddy I didn’t understand why Dexter (who would later ask me to be his girlfriend) made fun of me having dark skin. During our talk, daddy reminded me that I was beautiful–not only because he thought I was his pretty little girl, but also because I was a sweet girl. It wasn’t until that moment that I actually thought there could be something wrong with the way I looked. And even though there would be a few more moments like that to come, it was then, talking with my daddy at 9, that I sort of understood that being beautiful had to do more with what was inside than out. I learned what it meant, where it came from, and how it felt to have it. Beauty was the word my daddy used to describe my mother, my sister and me. “Pretty, is only skin deep, but beauty is from within,” he would remind us. As cliché as it was, my daddy's words stuck with me and helped me always be confident.

Yet, as a brown girl—a dark brown girl—affirmation of my beauty was difficult to find. Outside of my home, I grew up with very few reminders that dark was actually lovely. Strolling down the make-up aisle of my local drug stores, I didn't see many women who looked like me plastered up in any ads. Granted, I’m from Maryland (Prince George’s County to be exact), so I was surround by Black people. But when I say I didn’t see any women who really looked like me, I mean complexion-wise. Like so many of us, I grew up in a predominately Black environment, but of course complexion disparities still existed. I’ve heard the “she’s pretty for a dark girl” nonsense more times than I can count. I can’t say I wanted to be lighter, but I wanted to be pretty without the qualifier. I’ve felt the yearning of my lighter cousins, wishing they were dark like me to feel like a “real Black woman.” It's heavy, the complexion drama–and it still is for many of us. Thankfully, I'm over the drama; we’re all gorgeous in our own shades and hues. Next.

I didn’t have anyone outside of Daddy telling me I was cute or pretty or beautiful.

So, I had to teach myself.

Around age 11, I began experimenting with the colors grandma would say were “Too bright for you child”, which then of course led me to making the ultimate beauty statement in high school with bright pink lips. By college, I had evolved to vamp black. I rocked bold blue eyes, false lashes and wore wild nail colors. Against my skin, everything stood out. Soon, I’d have friends and friends of friends asking me to do their makeup. They wanted to be fearless with color and have fun too, because at the end of the day, isn’t that what girl just want to do?

I broke the “brown girl” beauty rules, and I still do, because I feel there is no need for them in the first place. Any rules that I follow are essentially created by me (like never leaving the house without blush, and always finding a new pink lipstick for Spring).

I believe that beauty is a core part of the female experience. I don’t know about you, but I love my morning beauty routine; it’s one of the perks of being a woman. It’s girlhood, its fun; it’s exclusively ours. The fact that we can wake-up, each day, and decide to present a different aspect of who we are, through something as simple as a new shade of shadow, or nail polish is just ah-mazing.

In the Michelle Obama era, at a time where Black beauty is being heavily dissected and defined by multi-billion dollar cosmetic companies, now, more than ever, is the perfect moment to remember to celebrate and define the beauty of our brown skin for ourselves. While this isn’t a column solely dedicated to darker women, it certainly will take a stand from the dark brown girl’s perspective because that's who I am and what I know. But that’s not to leave out all of my beautifully brown women. We are our sister’s keepers, and I don’t want anything to separate us–least of all the shade of brown we are. 

Each week, at EBONY.com, a special reader will receive a fun Beautifully Brown care-package full of handpicked goodies. We’ll have fun as we try new lipsticks together, share stories about our Brown womanhood and love each other–and ourselves–a little bit more each day. 

Melanie Yvette Martin is the Editorial Assistant and Beauty and Style contact for EBONY.com, a proud Temple Alum and lover of all things beauty for brown women. Follow her on Instagram: @melanieyvette and on Twitter: @theffgal