Our theme for the month of February is “color.”

I asked you for help in the cosmetics department.

I don’t remember what your name tag said. You were twenty-something, with blonde hair and rosy cheeks. Freckles, like me. “Do you have Jergens Natural Glow?” I asked. The lotion I’d seen in commercials that would add color to my skin over time.

It was a simple question. You could have given me a simple answer. It’s right here, you could have said. 2-for-1 special. Thanks for coming to Kohl’s! You could have made an easy sale. 

But you saw through me. I projected an air of confidence back then, but you saw the pale fifteen-year-old who wanted tanning lotion and knew there was more to the story. “Oh,” you said, brow furrowing. “I don’t think you need that.” 

I opened my mouth to respond—couldn’t you just give me the lotion? But you kept going. “I love my pale skin,” you said. “I think it’s so unique and beautiful.”

I love my pale skin.

I love my pale skin.

It was one of the most shocking things I’d ever heard.

***

Tan was the beauty standard that so many women at my high school felt pressured to chase after. You tan on the beach in summer and at least once every few weeks in winter. More if prom is approaching, but don’t get too tan or you’ll be an orange fake-baker.

In this race for bronzed beauty, I was left behind. There were my friends who’d lament, “I’m so pale and gross” if they hadn’t tanned for a while. The teammate who saw my skinny legs at a track meet and said, “Oh my God, you’re so white.”

Pale and gross.

Pale and gross.

People asked me all the time why I didn’t just go tanning. I told them redheads can’t tan.

“No, you burn at first,” they assured me, “but then it turns into tan. All skin tans.”

“My skin just goes back to white after it burns,” I told them. 

“Oh,” they’d say, sympathetically, and then I’d make a joke about skin cancer, to prove I was above it all anyway.

But it was never an option for me to like what I saw in the mirror. The messages I heard made that clear. I couldn’t forget the words from my crush, who told me how weird it was that the vein in my forehead was visible all the way down my face. From the guy who called me “pasty pale girl” to uproarious laughter in our math class. From the trashy gossip site article I found online entitled “The 15 Ugliest Movie Stars.” A curvy, red-haired actress was at the top of the list; they said her breasts looked like “veiny beach balls.” If she was ugly, there was no hope for me.

Pasty pale girl.

Pasty pale girl.

I’d tried other solutions before I discovered the tanning lotion. One afternoon my mom came home to find me sitting with the phone receiver in my hand, an expression of guilt on my face. I’d seen an infomercial on TV for a magic-fix mineral powder that promised to cover all your imperfections if you just call now! I ordered the powder, using my mom’s credit card without permission. 

I confessed to her immediately. I knew I did wrong, that I should be punished, but honest tears came and threw a wrench in my mom’s scolding as I sobbed, “I don’t think you understand how much I hate my skin.” I wanted the stupid veins gone, the freckles hidden forever. I needed to cover it all up.

My mom’s anger softened, and she allowed me to work off the money I spent. When the order arrived at our doorstep, the mineral powder was too dark. I had to call again to special order a shade pale enough for my skin. 

To survive the insecurity, I tried taking comfort in comedy. On the show Late Night, Conan O’Brien teamed up with light-skinned comedian Jim Gaffigan in a series of animated shorts starring themselves as the superhero duo Pale Force. Conan and Jim’s powers involved laser vision and lifting their shirts to blind enemies with their paleness. 

How could they poke fun at themselves so comfortably? I found myself trying on their strategy for size, writing myself into the Pale Force for a class presentation of a “heroic narrative” assignment. I was proud of how many laughs I got from my ridiculous story, even if the laughs were partly at my expense. If I couldn’t be pretty, at least I could be funny. 

But of course, I’d rather have both. At least once a week, a guy or girl would come up to me in school and hold their forearm up to mine, declaring with a sigh of relief, “at least I’m tanner than you!” Sometimes I pretended to be in on the joke. Mostly, I was exhausted.

You’re so white.

You’re so white.

I feel I should acknowledge the ways I do more closely fit the Western beauty standard for womentall, thin, Caucasian, red-haired, feminine. Part of me wonders what right I have to feel pain over my skin tone when women of color experience so much hurt, discrimination, and under-representation in media. Non-white women weren’t even allowed into the Miss America beauty pageant until 1940. How bad could it be, really, for me?

But I have to remind myself that the difficulty of others’ situations does not invalidate my own. The world of teenage girls has more than enough insecurity to go around. In the microcosm of my rural, ninety-five percent white high school, we had our own hierarchy of what was beautiful and what wasn’t, and I saw myself at the bottom. Pale was a problem to be solved.

***

Unique and beautiful.

Unique and beautiful.

Your words to me in Kohl’s were revolutionary. You weren’t trying to fix your skin. You actually liked it. I never knew that was an option.

We talked for another minute, and I thanked you and left. I didn’t buy the lotion. I never saw you again. You don’t know how much your words healed me.

It didn’t happen right away. My high school’s culture was the same. But it’s like you showed me a doorway through what I thought was solid wall.

What if pale skin was beautiful, too? Pasty, freckled, veiny, translucent skin? I couldn’t believe it.

Because of you, I came to believe it.

Thank you.

6 Comments

  1. Geneva Langeland

    Beautiful, Laura! I used to be horribly embarrassed by my blushing red face (did it really have to flush beet-red at everything?!). At some point in high school, I read an article about people embracing their flushed faces, including a politician from Sweden who was proud of his fluorescent pink cheeks. Ever since, it’s been easier to feel comfortable with my own. Hooray for embracing our bodies the way they are!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Laura, I so enjoy your post, I hope many young girls will read it and find comfort knowing other struggle with wanting to look like the magazine’s say is beauitful.
      Love yourself, we are all made so unique, embrace it.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Oh, my dear Laura. You are beautiful. Own it-be confident in it!!

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    As always, I love your writing! This one really hit me personlly. I too had the white skin that could not tan, only burn. Also, I would get more freckles each summer. I have some photos of me at about 3 where I am refered to as Pinky. Now, in my old age I no longer freckle, my skin just droops and wrinkles. I think I prefer the freckles. Of course I think you are a rare beauty. I love your gift of writing.

    Reply
  4. Kyric Koning

    I like how you take a universal problem, make it personal, and then own the personalness of it. People have problems. All of us. One’s isn’t necessarily greater or more painful than another. It’s all hurt, and you speak a word of healing to all.

    Reply
  5. Avatar

    I always loved the fact that you were your own person. We never know what others insecurities are or WERE. You are beautiful, smart, witty, and I believe loyal. Take care, have many more adventures. From someone who always cared.

    Reply

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