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‘I was 9 when I first bleached my skin’: Bree Runway on overcoming hate

After suffering chemical burns, the musician is here to make a difference and show dark-skinned women in all their glory, thanks to her mum, model Leomie Anderson, and encouraging words from Michelle Obama

Here, London-based musician Bree Runway pens a first-person piece reflecting on her difficulties with being a dark-skinned black woman growing up and her experiences with colourism and skin bleaching. 

I’m from Ghana and I grew up in Hackney around a lot of aunties which exposed me to beauty and skin stuff. Bullying about my skin tone probably started at nine years old and it was actually by the lighter-skinned black girls at school. I had a chicken pox mark in the middle of my forehead that I still have and I was called “the dark skin bindi girl.” A cool, lighter skin boy liked me and caused a lot of hate in my direction. They were like: “How can he like you, you’re so dark?” and “your teeth are like little bunny teeth!” because I had a little overbite. It got so bad, they cornered me and were like, “you think you’re this and that...” and I never had the balls to tell them to shut the fuck up. One day, the boy had a letter for me. It said: “No matter your skin tone, no matter how dark you are, I still think you are the most beautiful girl in the world. Don’t listen to what anyone says about you.” I will never ever forget that letter. We even talk about it now because we’re still friends. He often tells me “I don’t know what the issue was with those girls but they are rude.” It’s crazy how we were dealing with colourism so intensely at that young age. 

Skin bleaching is the use of a very invasive, unregulated product to change and alter your skin complexion to make it lighter. I was nine when I did it (at the peak of the bullying). My auntie was unpacking and she pulled out a cream that said ‘skin light’. To my nine-year-old self, this was a lightbulb moment, a call from God. When everyone was sleeping, I put some on my face very quickly. I would put loads on at night and before I headed out when my mum told me to cream my face. I did it for a month. I didn’t know that when you’re bleaching your skin, you are supposed to stay out of the sun unless you’ve got the highest SPF on. I was absent mindedly out in the playground all day and I used to sit by the window at school because the outside inspired me. At the end of the month, I woke up one morning and I’d had the biggest breakout overnight: moon craters on my face. The only thing that was light on my face was my nose. So I was burnt black with an orange nose. “Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer”, that’s what they called me.

My mum was like “Brenda, what happened to your face? Did you have an allergic reaction?” The bullying reached new levels. My mum sent me to a shop, a kid turned around to me and said, “Mum, is that a monster?” It was terrible, the worst experience of my life. We went to a GP, they put me on antihistamines, the reaction came down and I said to myself: “Brenda, you need to stop.” My family didn’t encourage skin bleaching. People are led to skin bleaching because of colourism, and a lack of representation. I told my mum and auntie about bleaching my skin in my late teens. My mum was in disbelief. “I didn’t know the bullying was that bad for you,” she said, “you always used to come home saying you hate people and stuff but I didn’t know that you wanted to change yourself that badly.”

As a teenager, I went to a college in south London and my skin was considered ‘cool’ there. The attitude was, “you’re dark skin and your skin is so nice. What cream do you use?” and I was like “me?” That’s where I met Leomie Anderson. I always hid my face when I took pictures because I didn’t want anyone to call my ugly but she’d tell me “you’re so cool, you should take pictures. I am going to take pictures of you.” We encourage each other to have a voice and take charge of our situations. Leomie will send me pictures of her make-up that’s been poorly done by someone that doesn’t understand black skin. We just text “LOL” to each other back and forth and send voice notes to each other laughing about it all. When I was younger, I used to buy foundations that were a shade lighter. Looking back at pictures I looked really stupid and now I don’t like it when someone who is doing my make-up uses too much light stuff to contour my face.

“My family didn’t encourage skin bleaching. People are led to skin bleaching because of colourism, and a lack of representation. I told my mum and auntie about bleaching my skin in my late teens. My mum was in disbelief”

Accepting my skin tone also came from music and being gassed on myself. I was exposed to Grace Jones and highlife music at a young age. I would sing along and as I grew up, music was the only thing that felt like a safe haven for me. When I got home from school, I’d always put on a fake show in my room and perform to no one. I still do that now, by the way. At secondary school, I started studying music technology – singing on the beats that I produced, writing my own songs. Then, Michelle Obama came to my school and I performed for her. She was like “You need to continue doing this, I want to see you singing at the White House.” I was like: “Invite me then!” I started directing my own music videos and that inspired me to continue doing it because I found it fun and I like being in charge. It’s grown into this really crazy, wacky, quirky enterprise. I got signed to my record label in 2018, but I am still the head of everything and I really have to thank my past for that. If I wasn’t into every aspect of the creative process, people would have too much leeway with what I do.

My Be Runway EP (2019) cover is half white and half black and that in itself is a message. I want you to be free and be yourself. The darker side of it (represents) the lengths people will go to become lighter and also to become more acceptable socially and in our workplaces. For the EP, I looked at the lengths we would go to damage ourselves because of society. “Apeshit” isn’t connected (to skin bleaching) but it’s more about loving yourself and being yourself in the most freeing way. I’m very apeshit in the video and the video I wanted to express a sense of freedom and just not caring about anything, that was my aim, it wasn’t about being sexy or appealing it’s about just rocking out really.

There is a shift happening right now in terms of skin tone and representation in the media. We have way more brown people on TV and in ads, brands like Fenty Beauty shook the industry up for brands to be a little bit more inclusive. Also Edward Enninful going into British Vogue and putting more black women on covers, even Dr Barbara Sturm has a range of skin care for darker skin tones. We are in this incredible space but the fact is light skin people always get preferential treatment. They are the majority and the darker shade skins are always the minority, if we are being completely honest. It just depends on what kind of narrative they are trying to create. Girls like Lizzo, Normani, and hopefully, me cutting through and doing things on our terms is going to change the perception for girls who have considered skin bleaching. Dark-skinned women are becoming more visible and more represented in mainstream media and hopefully there will be even more of us.

The skin bleaching experience was a really big wake up call and worked out for me in the worst way. I am on a skin system right now to clear up hyperpigmentation and chemical burns. All over my neck, the top of my forehead was very dark but it wasn't as rich. I ruined my skin from bleaching it and my dermatologist said I needed medical level skincare to fix it. She introduced me to a new skincare system that includes five steps and three and five are the skin bleaching agent that helped me on my face. I don’t even have dark circles under my eyes now. 

“Now I think to myself – ‘Imagine I was light skin!’ it would change what I represent completely. Hopefully I’ve given a voice to other black girls. There’s so many people that message me comments like, ‘following your journey has made me believe I’m beautiful because you don't give a fuck, you literally do you’”

Now I think to myself – “Imagine I was light skin!” it would change what I represent completely. Hopefully I’ve given a voice to other black girls. There’s so many people that message me comments like, “following your journey has made me believe I’m beautiful because you don’t give a fuck, you literally do you.” I want people to know that there are no limitations on your beauty and fashion. I’m here showing you that anything looks good on a dark-skin girl.

One thing that I’ve really wanted to do, that I’m working on now, is a Bree Runway campaign for young black girls and women. We should be able to uplift each other the same way Leomie and my mum have helped me grow to love myself more. My fan base call themselves ‘the Runways’ and have their own little community. I want to expand on that and make it stand for something.