I grew up in the suburbs of Southern California. Early on, I learned that there were subtle rules of what constituted an acceptable skin color in a primarily-white school. And these rules were separate from racial differences — they were the rules about what white skin was supposed to look like. In my case, I was indeed white. The problem was that I was too white. I was Casper-white, glow-in-the-dark white, butt-white … the ugly shade of white. To the other kids, my pale skin and dark hair contrasted in a bad way. Where I was from, you were supposed to contrast in a good way, meaning blonde hair and tan (but still white) skin. I got accused of being goth (that’s like emo to those of you born a little later); I wasn’t, but my corpse-like skin tone was what goth kids dreamed of. The popular kids regularly sneered that I should get a tan, and damn if I didn’t try.
I desperately wanted to be tan, because tan = pretty. Over the years I tried everything. I wore coffee-colored pantyhose under skirts and even shorts(!) on 90-degree days. I sunned myself on towels in my parents’ weed-covered backyard. I over-baked in tanning beds until I got bulb-burn-stripes down my body. I broiled in the Acapulco sun like a crustacean on a BBQ until my bright red legs made standing so excruciating that I had to seek medical help. (As I was basting myself with the 0-SPF coconut oil I bought from a beach vendor, a passing woman stopped to tell me how beautiful my light skin was. How ironic.) No matter what method I tried, my skin only managed to turn from white to pink to red. And then ultimately to freckles. I just hope that I won’t develop skin cancer due to my efforts.
I’ve since given up on achieving that sun-kissed look. The sun never even hugged me, no matter how hard I chased. Apparently, he was just not that into me. He always made promises like a big tease, and then ended up burning me over and over again. Trust me — the sun’s not that hot. Even if he fulfills his promise of a glowing tan, you’d better get yourself checked out. No one wants to bring home an outbreak of melanoma. Since I kicked the sun to the clouds, I use alternative methods of tanning. I now slather or spray stinky-smelling and streaky tanning shit. Or I just wear pants or a maxi-dress. (And that way, I don’t even have to shave.)
It hurt to be judged for being too white, and I absorbed the criticisms as much as I did the damaging rays. No girl wants to feel ugly.
Women all across the skin color spectrum are affected by beauty standards. These standards come from both the dominant culture, as well as from each minority group within. In the Hispanic culture, skin that’s “too dark” isn’t generally considered attractive. Darker skin indicates more Indigenous blood than the preferable Spanish European blood. I’ve heard several people comment about the good-looking gueros (light-skinned males and females). I’ve heard women gossip about their friend’s new baby: “Mira la morenita, la pobrecita” (Look at the little dark one, the poor thing). The telenovelas (soap operas) popular on Spanish television channels primarily feature light-skinned actors. Skin color doesn’t just matter outside of their community — it also matters within.
In the soon-to-be-released documentary, “Dark Girls,” the filmmakers examine how attitudes about skin color affect women. They focused on dark-skinned African-American women, but as I watched the preview below, I could empathize with the self-disdain. One woman talks about how she felt about her skin as a little girl: “I can remember being in the bathtub asking my mom to put bleach in the water so that my skin would be lighter and so that I could escape the feelings I had about not being as beautiful, as acceptable, as lovable.”
We can’t control how others treat us, but we can control the way we treat ourselves. Why do we keep trying to find ways to separate and judge ourselves? I was teased about being too white, so I learned to view my white skin with disdain. It’s sad enough that darker-skinned minorities are discriminated against by whites based on skin color, but even sadder that some would do the same to themselves. Please note that I am not saying that being “too white” is at all comparable to the racism experienced by people for being “too dark.” The only aspect I’m comparing pertains to beauty standards. Clearly, there is a long and painful history of racism and discrimination in our country. What I can relate to is how it felt to be a little girl who thought she wasn’t pretty enough because her peers judged her based on an arbitrary rule about the amount of melanin in her skin. If I could’ve added self-tanner to my bathwater as a kid, I would’ve done it.
It’s heartbreaking to think that an innocent little girl would feel so ugly that she’d want to add bleach — or self-tanner — to her bathwater. But it’s also a reminder of how we as women don’t need others to hold us down. After awhile, we learn to do it to ourselves.