They Told Her To Bleach Her Skin To Stop Bullying, But Instead…
Nyakim Gatwech has lived a life full of highs and lows. Born in Sudan, she was forced to flee with her family to Ethiopia before finally settling down in Minnesota. Once there, she received plenty of attention for her unique look; most of it negative. Desperate to change her narrative, the young woman with dreams of being a model considered bleaching her skin to fit in with her classmates. If she decided to go through with it, the decision would be life-changing. Would she? This is the incredible journey Nyakim Gatwech took from Sudan to Minnesota to something amazing.
Nyakim’s Family Left Sudan Before She Was Born
Nyakim Gatwech may be Sudanese (and proud of it), but she wasn’t born there. Her mother was still pregnant when she fled the country during the second Sudanese Civil War in search of refuge. At the time, there was no safe place in Sudan. Soldiers were entering villages and shooting them up without remorse.
Husbandless, the mother fled with her children and walked for days. Exhausted, she made it to Ethiopia, where she found the right refugee camp to help tend to her children. It was in this camp Nyakim entered the world and her story began.
Nyakim’s Life Begins With Heartache
Shortly after Nyakim’s mother settled down in the refugee camp with her children, she gave birth to her precious daughter. Despite the health of their new family member, others in the Gatwech clan weren’t so lucky. Before making it to Ethiopa, one of Nyakim’s sisters fell ill and passed away.
Nyakim’s brother ended up suffering from kidney failure, and passed away from complications. It wasn’t the easiest start to her life’s journey, but things would eventually get better for Nyakim. She just never could have predicted where her incredible journey would take her.
The Gatwech Family Left Ethiopia For Kenya
When the United Nations left Ethiopia, Nyakim’s mother knew it was time to move the family again. Unfortunately, she couldn’t flee to America like so many others around her. Her request was denied. Knowing she couldn’t stay where she was, she packed up the kids and began walking.
The family made their way to Kenya where they found a new refugee camp to live at. At this camp, the family had access to a television and young Nyakim became obsessed with America’s Next Top Model, which was hosted by Tyra Banks at the time.
An Attack By Rebels Becomes The Final Straw
Sadly, even though Nyakim and her family were a refugee camp, they still faced the threat of violence daily. Rebels would often enter camp and rob everyone. During one horrifying event, Nyakim’s mother laid on top of her children to protect them from harm.
The final straw came after Nyakim’s brother was left scarred by a rebel’s knife. The mother screamed until neighbors came to scared the rebels off. She knew at this moment her family could no longer live the life of refugees and needed to flee to American to pursue the American dream.
Nyakim And Her Family Arrive In America
In April of 2007, Nyakim and the Gatwech family were finally approved to come to America. The amazing news meant they would be reunited with their extended family, including cousins, nephews, and nieces already leading new lives in the United States.
The initial news sent Nyakim through the roof with joy. No longer would she have to worry about not having clean water, where her next meal was coming from, or where she was sleeping. In America she would also have access to medicine and education. In time, the strong woman would learn America wasn’t everything she thought it would be, and it would help make her stronger in the end.
Living A New Life
Nyakim and her family arrived in Buffalo, New York in 2007 ready for their new lives to begin. Moving to the United States finally put an end to the suffering the Gatwech family had endured in Africa. Now they just had to learn to live their new lives and the new freedoms afforded to them.
The first thing Nyakim learned about living in the United States was that hard work was the key to success. Looking back on her life years later, she told Teen Vogue, “America is a really great country if you make it.”
Nyakim Learns About A New Kind Of Discrimination
Growing up in Africa, Nyakim always knew she was different than most people. Her skin was darker than most of her family and friends, a trait she only ever seen as beautiful, not controversial. As happy as she was to be in the United States, she learned life wasn’t perfect when people began insulting her over her skin color.
According to Nyakim, “I didn’t even think colorism had a word or existed until recently. I didn’t feel it back home, but I really feel it here.” She also said that it wasn’t just Caucasians criticizing her, it was people of all racial backgrounds.
Middle School Crushed Nyakim’s Confidence
Nyakim was excited when she enrolled in middle school in Buffalo. That excitement quickly turned to sadness as her classmates taunted her relentlessly, even telling the teacher they couldn’t see her unless she smiled. Her English might not have been the best, but she quickly learned the worst words in the dictionary.
Her teacher would defend her and send the bullies to the principal’s office, but the damage was already done. Nyakim says she internalized every insult her classmates flung at her and cried herself to sleep most nights.
Nyakim Gave Up On Her Modeling Dreams Early
After all the teasing she endured, Nyakim gave up on her dreams of being America’s Next Top Model. Every once in a while she says someone would tell her she could model, but that was it. The overwhelming response to her was negative because of how she looked.
Nyakim, with no self confidence, said, “These kids think I’m ugly. I don’t see myself on social media, or TV, or in the magazines. I don’t think I’m meant to be a model.” Little did she know that opportunity would come knocking, and it would be much sooner than she could imagine.
The Lowest Low Came While Walking Down The Street
At this point in her life, Nyakim was running low on self-esteem. She would be insulted and made fun of far more than people would tell her she was beautiful. The rejection she felt everyday by her classmates, sadly, was just the tip of the iceberg.
Nyakim recalled she reached her absolute low point when two men on the street placed a bet on whether or not she was wearing dark leggings. After this moment, Nyakim could only see herself as ugly. Before long all that would change, and the young Sudanese refugee would learn to embrace her beauty.
Nyakim Turned To Make Up To Feel Beautiful Again
Nyakim was so low that she couldn’t even look at herself in a mirror. To help build herself back up, she decided to start wearing make-up. No one in her family wore it, so she had never considered it an option despite being obsessed with the idea of it from television.
To start her journey to feeling beautiful, Nyakim had to find colors that matched her skin tone, “I loved makeup so much, I’d put it on regardless. I’d buy a base three or four shades lighter than my skin and look ridiculous.” The self-esteem boost didn’t last, and Nyakim began considering a much more drastic alternative.
Nyakim Considered Skin Bleaching For The First Time
Desparate to fit in with her peers, Nyakim began to consider one drastic measure; bleaching her skin. The practice was common in her culture, much more common than wearing make-up. Nyakim hoped that by bleaching her skin, students would begin to look at her differently and guys might even notice her.
Just as Nyakim was about to change her life forever, something happened. She was given a second chance and was forced to reconsider destroying the person she was just for social acceptance.
Sisterly Advice Saves The Day
Looking for help bleaching her skin, Nyakim turned to her sister. Before Nyakim came to America, her sister bleached her skin to fit in. Nyakim was hoping that meant she would get support. Instead, she was given a life lesson more important than she could have imagined.
Nyakim’s sister told her, “You would not just be bleaching your skin, you would be bleaching your mind. I did it and I regret it.” She added that Nyakim would only find true happiness when she learned to accept her, “beautiful dark, dark melanin.”
The Gatwech Clan Moved To Minnesota
After years of turmoil living in Buffalo, Nyakim and her family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. There was a larger Sudanese community there that offered more support during trying times. Nyakim’s mother also wanted to become a preacher, and there were more opportunities in Minnesota to do so.
When Nyakim started school in her new state, nothing about the way she was treated changed. While she was on the track team, she remembers one student remarking, “Are we going to be able to even see her when it’s her turn to pass the relay stick?”
A Friend Gave Nyakim Her First Big Break
Nyakim was a junior in high school and her dreams were hanging by a thread. Her sister continually encouraged her to pursue modeling, but the young woman was stuck in her belief that he skin wasn’t light enough to succeed. Everything changed when a friend asked her to model a new clothing line.
This friend was debuting her new clothing line at a fashion show at St. Cloud University. She believed in Nyakim and gave her the the first big break of her life. Nyakim loved every second of the show and said she felt at home on the catwalk.
Suddenly People Began To Notice Nyakim
After her turn on the runway, Nyakim’s self-confidence began to return and she even noticed people would stop her on the street and tell her how beautiful she was and that she should pursue modeling. Filled with happiness for the first time, Nyakim’s reignited her pursuit of her American dream.
To begin her career, Nyakim moved back to New York to work on her portfolio while attending college. She was determined to show the world just how smart and gorgeous she really was.
Nyakim Did Not Find Success Right Away
Living in New York, Nyakim might have been older and wiser, but she still faced the same problems as when she was young. Her look was not traditional by any means, and she had a hard time convincing make-up artists and designers to think outside of the box and work with her.
Instead of giving up again, Nyakim used her struggles to motivate herself to prove everyone wrong. She had been doubted her entire life and always found ways to persevere. She wasn’t going to let New York have the last laugh.
Nyakim Learned To Love Herself
Determined to become a model, Nyakim realized she needed to take her sister’s advice and learn to love and accept herself. So far, she had only internalized the words of strangers, not those closest to her. Nyakim quickly realized the opinions of other people didn’t matter.
Nyakim knew that by believing she was beautiful, she would have more confidence while pursuing modeling gigs. The more confidence she had, the more modeling jobs she got. The correlation was amazing. Sadly, Nyakim had a interaction in 2017 that nearly derailed everything.
An Uber Ride Full Of Ignorance
It was March of 2017 when everything almost came crashing down for Nyakim. She was in an Uber when the driver turned to her and asked, “Wow, you’re dark. If you were given $10,000, would you bleach your skin?” This one simple question nearly had a devastating impact.
Luckily, Nyakim was older and tougher than before. She knew that her skin color surprised people and she learned to laugh off their ignorance. What she did next really showed how much she had grown as a person and how much she loved the skin she lived in.
Nyakim Turned The Tables On The Uber Driver
Nyakim’s first reaction in the Uber was to laugh off the remark. She had dealt with discrimination so much it had become second nature. Once she finished laughing, though, she turned the tables on her Uber driver and asked him why he really felt she needed to bleach her skin.
The driver said that it would make it easier for her to get a job and even find a boyfriend. At this point, Nyakim made the proudest declaration of her life, “Even if being lighter would make my life easier, I’d rather take the hard road. Why would I ever bleach this beautiful melanin God blessed me with?”
Nyakim Goes Viral
Nyakim was so impressed and amazed by the ignorance of her Uber driver she decided to share her story on social media. As soon as she posted the details, it went viral. Her tale of discrimination seemed to strike a chord with everyone who read it
In the story she described the driver as a “light-skinned black man” and included her proud proclamation of self love. Nyakim’s social media accounts were flooded with loving and supportive comments from followers old and new.
Nyakim Becomes Insta-Famous
With her story going viral, Nyakim’s Instagram following exploded. In just over a year she accumulated 400,000 followers. Addressing her new found fanbase, Nyakim said she was used to getting stupid questions about her skin, and couldn’t believe how moving her story became for so many.
Fans showed incredible support for Nyakim. Many told her that her outlook on life is what is the most inspiring. Her self-love and extreme confidence helped fuel their own self-love during hard times. One fan even told Nyakim that her positivity was contagious.
Nyakim Is Nicknamed The “Queen Of Dark” By Her Fans
Nyakim became an internet sensation for embracing her skin and was given several nicknames by fans. The most notable nicknames were “The Queen of Dark” and “Melanin Goddess.” Nyakim took a special liking to them, feeling they showed how much she had grown personally.
Nyakim had grown so much, she decided to use her new exposure to become a role model for younger women with low self-esteem. She encouraged them to love the skin they’re in, “It takes time to love who you are. If you love yourself other people will see. It will shine through you and then they have the choice to accept you or walk away.”
Nyakim Learned She Wasn’t Alone In The Modeling World
Shortly after becoming an Instagram sensation, a group approached Nyakim about a body positive modeling shoot. The job was for a series of photos titled, “Different Melanin” and had several models with different shades of skin proudly modeling.
Nyakim doubled down on her skin color days later, posting a picture online of her with her Sudanese friends. For her caption she used her story with the Uber driver again. She then began posting more pictures with more personal stories, saying, “I’m telling people that I am beautiful even though I look different than the majority of people in this world I live in.”
It Wasn’t Long Before Calvin Klein Came Calling
With so much attention coming her way, Nyakim started to get notice from major magazines and clothing brands. One of those calls came from Calvin Klein, who wanted her for a national campaign. Other companies vying for her services included Aldo and Jigsaw.
One of the most prominent magazines to feature Nyakim was Teen Vogue. In her interview with the magazine she said, “My skin is beautiful; it’s smooth, it’s glowy, and I stand out when I walk in a room. My skin right now is being used as a weapon to show the world different is beautiful.”
Nyakim Refuses To Be Photoshopped
As Nyakim has grown into one of the top models in her field, there is one thing she refuses to let others do; photoshop her. Having her body or skin photoshopped is one of her biggest pet peeves. Plenty of photographers have attempted to lighten her skin, only to have her fight back.
Nyakim is proud of the woman she is and the skin she was born with. She’s also not alone. Models Nykhor Paul and Alek Wek both come from Sudanese backgrounds and have found incredible success thanks to their determination and natural beauty.
Nyakim Proves Contrasts Are A Good Thing
Not only has Nyakim become a successful model thanks to her social media presences, she is also challenging young girls to fight back against American beauty standards. She says, “In New York or L.A., you see all types of models but they still go for the blonde hair and blue eyes in Minnesota.”
Nyakim encourages models to play with contrasts. One time, after a designer refused to dress her in orange, she began wearing brights pinks and reds to prove them wrong. She’s also a fan of metallic colors because of how they play with natural skin color.
Nyakim’s Long Term Goals Include Becoming A Teacher
Nyakim knows that modeling might not work out in the long term. The money and attention right now are nice, but she didn’t go to college just to walk the runway. While attending Minneapolis Community College, Nyakim completed her degree in education.
When Nyakim becomes a teacher, she hopes to teach in middle schools. She says middle school was the time in her life she lost her self-confidence, and knows she could make a difference teaching students at the same age, “If loving myself and talking about it is helping people, I want to keep doing that.”
The Discrimination Hasn’t Gone Away
With all the success Nyakim Gatwech has achieved, one thing has not gone away. The discrimination Nyakim faced a child still happens to her as an adult. Sprinkled in-between loving messages of positivity on her social media accounts are messages of hate.
When Nyakim sees these messages, she tries to kill them with kindness, responding with uplifting messages for her hateful messengers. She told one person, “We’re all human. There’s no need to divide ourselves. There’s no need to think that one person is better than others.”
The Fight To Raise Awareness Will Never End
Nyakim isn’t just using her platform to help young girls in the United States. She’s also working to raise awareness about the problems still happening in South Sudan. Using her large fan base, she has been able to spread the news to places it could have never reached before.
There will always be people in this world who will doubt you and try to stop you from chasing your dreams. If you follow the inspirational example set by Nyakim Gatwech, though, then you know that no matter how hard things get, there’s always a reason to stay positive!