I don’t even know what’s going on anymore, but I know that I’m really sad about it.

Over the weekend, ol’ school hip hop icon Lil’ Kim posted this photo of her on her Instagram account, and I must say, I’m speechless.

Fair-skinned, blonde be-weaved, cheekbones on fleek, and are those contacts? Oof.

I know lots of people are passing the photo around as if it were some kind of digitized circus freak display, but after my initial “Woooooooooooow” moment, I winced. Such a drastic change isn’t one a person would endure without serious devotion and commitment. But where does someone get it into their head that this is the way to go? That getting white skin and platinum weave was something to commit to with this level of intensity? A Newsweek interview that Alison Samuels did with Kim back in ’99 might help illustrate why:

“But the Lil’ Kim you meet offstage speaks in a soft, tiny, unrecognizable voice–still the voice of Kimberly Jones, the little black girl with doe eyes and kinky hair, the deeply hurt little girl from Brooklyn. Even before her parents divorced, when she was 8, she suffered her father’s disapproval. “It was like I could do nothing right,” she says. “Everything about me was wrong–my hair, my clothes, just me.” After the divorce, she tried to stay with her mother, but money was tight and her father won custody. “I always knew my child would be somebody,” Kim’s mother, Ruby Jones, recalls. “She’d always be the one in her class who looked the most like nobody else. Her father never understood, and that hurt her.”

At 14, Kimberly left home and fell into the glamorous, dangerous world of drug dealers and pimps. “I did what it took to survive,” Kim says now. “I ran errands for drug dealers, lived with them–whatever it took to make ends meet.” The men she met seemed to have a special radar for damaged souls. “All my life men have told me I wasn’t pretty enough–even the men I was dating. And I’d be like, ‘Well, why are you with me, then?’ “ She winces. “It’s always been men putting me down just like my dad. To this day when someone says I’m cute, I can’t see it. I don’t see it no matter what anybody says.”

But one man saw something in Kimberly Jones: Christopher (Biggie Smalls) Wallace, an overweight, clever and charismatic small-time drug dealer about to reinvent himself as the Notorious B.I.G., the rapper’s rapper and a hip-hop superstar. They met by chance–“He was like, ‘You’re too cute to be able to rap’ “–and Wallace asked her to do an impromptu freestyle rap right there on the street corner. “He was sold,” Kim says. And soon she and Biggie were an item, even though he later married singer Faith Evans. After Biggie made his deal with Bad Boy Records, she began recording with his Junior M.A.F.I.A. posse, and transforming herself from girl in the ‘hood into blue-eyed blonde.

So what was up with that? According to Kim, just what you’d think. “I have low self-esteem and I always have,” she says. “Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.” And the implants? “That surgery was the most pain I’ve ever been in in my life,” says Kim. “But people made such a big deal about it. White women get them every day. It was to make me look the way I wanted to look. It’s my body.” [source]

We pass around Kim’s photos as if she was some sort of circus freak, instead of a natural consequence of colorism. “The lighter the better” isn’t merely a belief in the black community—it’s a global phenomenon that results in skin lightening being a billion-dollar industry internationally. The world was colonized, our perceptions of power and value were changed forever, and so went our ability to set our own standards for beauty.

Kim’s quote serves as proof of a theory I had before—we wield beauty as a sword, intended to knight those we want favor from and simultaneously cut down those we want to take advantage from. If she truly believes the only man who ever loved her—the man who, sadly, married another woman instead of her while he was with her—is now gone, and the only women she’s ever seen be respected were lighter skinned (like, I’m sorry to say, Faith), on a observational level what else would we expect her to gather from this?

If we’re telling women that it is important to be beautiful, and being beautiful requires white skin, and being beautiful is how you escape mistreatment, shouldn’t we expect women to go to great lengths—like this—to become beautiful? And, if that’s the case, how much sense does it make to malign a woman trying to play the game? Do we think being inside the industry disproved the theory to her, or did seeing it from the inside only validate it?

It is a feat of epic proportions that more women don’t bend themselves backwards for beauty in the way she has.

As I said on twitter earlier, yes, self esteem is self esteem, but the idea of “esteem” is rooted in “value” and “admiration,” so much so that the question must be asked: where do we learn our understanding of what—and who—should be valued? We pick it up by observation. If you’ve been told from childhood that you shouldn’t and don’t have value, what else should we expect?

I don’t want to turn a person who is hurting into a cautionary tale. It’s cruel at worst, and un-empathetic at best. I do want to say that, through assessing our reaction to Kim’s evolution, we should consider what messages we pass down to our children, and whether we build them up instead of demolishing them, either in an active way or passively. This is a belief system that obviously hurts and weakens people—we shouldn’t want to continue it.

*I changed the references to “fair skin” in the essay because, as #bgg2wlarmy member Jamilah pointed out, “Respectfully, we need to burn the term ‘fair-skinned’…it is truly a term which helps drive this complexion loathing,” and I’d never even considered it before she pointed it out. There’s probably no sense in shying away from the fact that we’re talking about light and white skin here, so I might as well keep it 100.

For more writing on beauty and colorism: