Feeling burned, staying pale
By Beverly Keel
July 8, 1997: When summer begins, I become part of a minority. Throughout the rest of the year, I am able to blend in with everyone else, going about my business without notice. But as the temperatures rise and sleeves shorten, the differences can be hidden no longer and the taunts begin.
I am a Pale American--one of the pigmentally challenged, if you prefer. And I'm not alone. I see other Paleys in stores and offices, our eyes locking briefly but knowingly. Sometimes, in very small groups, we even discuss our social inadequacy, comparing ridicules and looking for survival techniques to get us through another summer. And I'm not talking about sunscreen.
May begins open season on people of no color, but unfortunately the verbal abuse runs rampant year-round. You can't make fun of people for being too black, but there is no stigma attached to insulting those who are too white. The discrimination has seeped into everyday language, taking its place in the ranks of overused clichs. "That pales by comparison," some people say, or, "That's a pale imitation of the original."
Even in the dictionary, pale seems to have only negative connotations: "Lacking intensity of color..., not bright or brilliant; lacking vigor." It's as if being pale makes you less of a person. Is there nowhere a young Paley can turn for support and encouragement?
Every Pale-American has his or her own story of sufferings and shortcomings, but we have our heroes and our victories as well. We are the only ones who heed doctors' warnings of the sun. Never losing hope, we actually believe it--year after year--when beauty magazines once again declare it the Year of the Pales. "Don't you know pale is in?" the Paleys inquire. Obviously, we're the only ones who read these magazines.
Our only revenge is our lack of wrinkles, and even that's being stripped away by the easy availability of plastic surgery. Christy Turlington and Faith Hill are both a lot younger than I am, but they both have much deeper lines around their mouths, and Deana Carter's eye wrinkles are at least five sunlight years ahead of mine. Meanwhile, fellow Paleys Reba and Wynonna are still looking as smooth as the bellies of the twenty-somethings who are trailing them up the charts.
Let me make it clear: I have absolutely no color whatsoever. My legs are so white that they have a blue tint. Since my blue eyes are framed by blond eyebrows, I have no face unless I'm wearing makeup. This means that even the smallest zit screams out for attention, like a Kool-Aid spill on a white sofa. When I come into work without foundation, I'm sent home early for looking ill.
I don't have a tan line. I dread shorts, sandals, sleeveless shirts, and anything else that reveals my ridiculous skin. (Do you think it was an accident that Paley Sharon Stone launched the trend of turtlenecks in the summer?) I used to describe my skin as "porcelain," until a boyfriend (now an ex-boyfriend) said, "Yeah, porcelain, like a toilet." He was wrong, of course, because a toilet can be flushed.
As a small freckled child, it didn't bother me that my arms weren't as tan as the arms of my best friend, Ricky Street. At that age, of course, I had no vanity. I didn't even brush my hair. Awareness arrived in ninth grade, when I saw sophomore Ann Lee Dennis in a green terry-cloth tank top that displayed her golden arms. I suddenly felt inadequate.
That self-consciousness continued throughout high school, where bronzed goddesses roamed from March until September. This was an era when tanning required reclining on an aluminum mat and dousing yourself with iodine-laced baby oil. I tried too. I would haul out the mat and the oil, along with a pillow, a magazine, a Coke, and a portable TV with its extension cord trailing behind me. Ten minutes later, hot and bored out of my mind, I would trudge inside to the air conditioning.
The abuse escalated in college, when I became everyone's best friend after spring break. They couldn't wait to put their forearms next to mine, reveling in the vast pigmental differences. Even today, within my group of mature, professional friends, I still get ribbed. "Let's compare tans," they say. "Let's compare wrinkles," I respond. After one date felt obligated to tell me I needed sun, I gave my pat response that I wouldn't have any wrinkles when I was older. He said, "Well, what good is it to look good at 70?" Loser.
I realize my past boyfriends have merely tolerated my inadequacy. Despite his reassurances, no man--at least no man on this continent--is truly attracted to white skin. I know my dates stare longingly at the sight of tan legs. How do I know? Because I'm right alongside them, staring wistfully too.
As I weather another season of taunts and teases, it helps to know I am not alone. Every year, thousands of us Paleys head for the malls at the first sign of sunshine, repeating our mantra, "The sun is not your friend, the sun is not your friend." We try to help ourselves remember, white is beautiful and white makes right. This camaraderie, we hope, will keep us strong and determined, allowing us to somehow make it through until September, when everybody else will go pale too.
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