How I Learned to Love My Pale Skin

Anna Kovalieva |
Anna Kovalieva |

By Giorgia Guazzarotti

As I’m sitting here, I’m assaulted by doubts. Wracked with guilt. Tempted to hit “cancel” and delete this whole thing. It feels wrong to complain about the color of my skin. My white skin. I’m Caucasian. A member of that privileged caste that will never know racism.

I don’t have to worry that a potential employer won’t call me back for a second interview because of the color of my skin. I can safely pass through airport security without ever being stopped. I’m never approached by police officers wanting to know what I’m doing in their neighborhood. And the neighborhoods I’ve lived in have always been pretty and safe. I will never likely be arrested unless I commit a serious crime, like murder or robbery, and even then the jury will be less predisposed to see me as guilty. And should I be the victim of a crime, the authorities will likely take it more seriously.

White privilege is a thing. A very real, ugly thing. I did not ask for this privilege. I did not earn it. But I still enjoy it because of an accident of birth. And so, I’m told, I should just shut up. Count my lucky stars I was born in this privileged white caste. But there’s something I must get off my chest. Because this insane Western ideal that equates white skin with beauty is harming us all.

You see, as absurd as it may seem, even white people can sometimes be made to feel flawed because of the color of their skin. And when I say “white people,” I mean just that. White. Ghostly pale. Translucent.

Be White … but Not Too White

The world loves white skin. As long as it isn’t really white. White skin must be tanned. Sun-kissed. Slightly golden. White, porcelain, or even a pale pink won’t do. Pale skin is considered unflattering. Embarrassing. A flaw that needs to be hidden under a tan. A failure.

That’s something I learned before I even began to walk. Growing up in Senigallia, a dainty little town on the Italian east coast, my pale skin always stood out. Summers were the worst. As soon as the sun starts to shine brightly in the sky, everyone heads to the beach. I couldn’t. My skin doesn’t tan. It burns. Rather than a warm golden hue, my skin turns lobster-red.

But that wasn’t considered a good excuse to be pale. My friends at school would make fun of me for it. “Casper the Ghost,” they would call me. “Why do you always look like a walking corpse?” they would taunt me. Their parents weren’t much better. Adults weren’t mean, just “concerned” about my “health.” “Are you sure you’re not ill? It’s not normal to be that pale. Why don’t you get a tan?” they would ask me.

Getting a tan was all I needed to do to fit in. But a natural tan wasn’t an option. Tanning beds were expensive for a teenager, and thank goodness, my mom would’ve never allowed it. So I tried to fake it. I bought bottle after bottle of self-tanner, and diligently slathered their contents all over my body. But it only made things worse. My skin was indeed now darker. It was also orange. And muddy. And patchy. Not a good look!

So I hid my pale skin, at least what I could of it, under layers of clothing. But my face and hands still gave my secret away. I resigned myself to being the butt of my peers’ jokes and to the commiserating looks of adults who assumed I spent all summer long in my room studying and never had any fun.

What’s in a Tan?

In modern society, a tan is a synonym of fun and beauty. Caucasian women adorn the pages of every magazine and get most of the leading roles in movies (74% to be exact, while African-Americans receive 11%, and Latinas only 4%). But they rarely show their true skin tones. With a few rare exceptions, they’re always tanned. At the first opportunity, just like the rest of us, they rush to the beach to top up their tan. And if they can’t, they’ll fake it. A trip to a tanning salon is often part of their weekly beauty routines. Before a red carpet event, an absolute must.

A tan is an instant image-booster. While a century ago having a tan indicated a working-class lifestyle in the fields, the story is different now. Today, it tells the world that you can afford to jet off to an exotic location and have the time of your life, unlike those losers who are stuck at home working. It covers imperfections, like scars. It makes you look thinner. Healthier.

Except there is nothing healthy about a tan. A tan is the body’s self-defense mechanism against overexposure to the sun. It’s your skin’s way of telling you, “Get out of there, you’re making me sick!” But we don’t listen to it. We listen to a society that wants us to fit into a tiny box: white, but not too white. And if you aren’t “lucky” enough to have been born with the “right” skin color, then you are supposed to achieve it by any means necessary.

By spending hours lying on the beach with no sunscreen. Or baking in a tanning bed every week.

Both are deadly. They can cause skin cancer, the deadliest form of cancer and the most common in the United States. Its rates are increasing among young adults. Most worryingly, the highest rise is in women between the ages of 19 and 39. Women are literally dying for a tan.

But there’s always a tan in a bottle, isn’t there? Yes, but that’s not the point. A bottle of self-tanner may be safer, but our society is still encouraging women to spend time and money, and sometimes even sacrifice their health, in the pursuit of a narrow ideal of beauty. Because it’s for their beauty, rather than their personality and accomplishments, that women are still judged and valued today.

Love the Skin You’re In

The pressure to conform is huge and hard to resist, particularly when it comes from your peers. For years, I felt it too. I thank heaven that I couldn’t afford tanning beds back then, or I might not be here today. I could so easily have been another skin cancer statistic. Instead, I had to endure endless taunts and jokes. I may not have damaged my health, or thrown much money away, but I wasted too many years of my life hating myself because I was ashamed of the color of my skin.

Now, I am still ashamed, but not of the color of my skin. Now I’m ashamed of how I used to feel about it. I wish I could pinpoint exactly the moment when I stopped hating my pale skin, but I can’t. There wasn’t a deafening revelation, a “Eureka!” moment, or a thunderbolt from the sky. It happened gradually.

I think it began when I started reading blogs. For the first time, I came across other girls who were as pale as me. Sure, I knew there were some out there. Dita Von Teese and Cate Blanchett, for example, have fully embraced their pale skin. But these were distant goddesses I couldn’t relate to.

Bloggers were girls just like me. Some of them had learned to love their fair skin, others still struggled to accept it, but they all knew what it felt like to be pale in a world that expects you to be tanned. I had finally found a community of people who could understand the struggles and frustrations of being pale.

We also started talking about our heritage. Our families. The amazing women (and men) we had inherited our pale skin from. I had never thought about that before. I am the palest in the family. My mother and grandmother have fair skin, but not as fair as mine. My sister and father are darker, and tan easily. Where did my skin color come from?

I asked my mom. She told me my great-grandmother had skin as pale as mine. She told me what a wonderful and generous woman she was. She raised a family while helping my grandpa work in the fields, and always had a kind word for everyone. I should have been proud to look like her. I am now.

My pale skin is part of me. Part of my identity. When I try to hide it, I am saying I am ashamed of my family. Of my story. And for what? To blend into a sea of tan skin that makes all of us look the same. That thought saddens and angers me. Who has decided that one skin color is prettier and better than another? That’s disgusting. No one has the right to decide what skin color others should be. It’s wrong. It’s discriminating. And it’s got to stop.

Porcelain pale, honey gold, ebony black … All skin tones are equally beautiful. Rock yours with pride!

Giorgia Guazzarotti is a freelance writer and blogger living in London, UK. She’s passionate about beauty, personal development, and empowering women to be the best they can be, both inside and out.

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