I’m pale. Really pale. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had someone approach me with their forearm extended, ready to compare it to mine, to remind me of this fact.
Being pale used to bother me. I was jealous of my brother, who could tan during the summer. His arms and face, like my dad’s and many of my friends’, would turn a nice shade of light brown during the hottest months. I can’t tell you the amount of times I wished for tanner legs or a face that didn’t appear stark white in sunlit photographs.
My best friend from home is just as pale as me. We were teased about it, but she never faltered like I did. She was proud of her skin and reminded everyone that centuries ago, pale skin was the desirable skin. The skin of royalty. When I was younger, it didn’t feel like that.
I burn in the sun. Freckles accumulate on my cheeks. I love the outdoors but avoid the sun because sunscreen is the only option for me. I hate sunscreen. It’s sticky, smells weird and makes me feel like I’m wearing a second layer of skin. But every summer I spend hours slathering it onto my body.
I’ve gotten a few terrible sunburns in my life. One time, hours of sitting on the beach enjoying the heat resulted in terrible nausea and peeling skin because the tops of my thighs were bright red. Right before my senior prom, during another beach trip, I forgot to apply sunscreen to the backs of my legs, and the burn was so bad that it was hard to walk. (Maybe this is the world telling me to avoid the beach, but I refuse to accept that.)
Each time my skin would burn, I would complain that it wasn’t “fair” that I couldn’t tan like everyone else around me. My mother – a melanoma survivor – would constantly tell me that tanning was dangerous and I needed to wear sunscreen. I didn’t disagree with her. I didn’t want to fry my skin to a crisp or lie in a tanning bed; I just wanted my skin to stop “reflecting the sunlight,” as I’ve been told it does.
This past summer, my childhood wish was granted. I worked at a day camp, chasing after first-graders. Every day, I was inside then outside then back inside without having a spare second to breathe, let alone apply sunscreen. This pattern, combined with my vacations to Massachusetts and Hawaii, burned me a bit at first and left me with many new freckles, but then I started to tan.
Weirdly enough, I hated it. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t feel or look like myself. I started rubbing my arms as if I could brush the tan off. I missed the way my skin used to look. (Of course, my idea of “being tan” likely won’t compare to yours. I’m still pale.)
Without realizing it until now, I started to accept myself for how I look. Girls and women are constantly reminded by our peers, the media and makeup companies that we don’t look the best we can. We’re judged on appearance, often before we can say hello. I’m grateful for some of the changes I’m starting to see regarding this issue, such as Aerie’s #aerieReal campaign, which promises to stop using Photoshop on their models, and the #InMySkinIWin hashtag started by model Shaun Ross that embraces people with vitiligo, albinism or any sort of skin that may have previously been deemed as “weird” or “wrong.”
I’m ready for autumn, with its lower temperatures, thick sweaters and less intense sunlight. I can’t wait to look like my pale self again.
Despite all this, please don’t come up to me with your forearm for comparison. I love my skin, but I still hate that.