My pale skin bothered me for years.
I recall various moments from my childhood when I found myself observing my father and taking note of the striking resemblance he bore to the scary bearded men on the news. I would later learn that I had made a habit of comparing my father to foreign terrorists, but at the time I could only think,
"Wow. I think I might be adopted."
It was true. Though he shed the beard and with it the subsequent suspicious glances years ago, my father's dark features still make people think that he understands them when they ask, "¿Cómo está, amigo?"
Though she donned paper white skin the majority of the time, my mother differed from me in that she at least had the ability to tan. A portrait of her from the 70's hung in the hallway for years that featured my mother sporting a Charlie's Angels hairstyle and a bronzy, Texas glow. In the portrait she shot a piercing glance over her shoulder that seemed to speak to me and only me and say, "Gaze upon my golden complexion, daughter, for you will never know this joy."
My sister was the same way - except she naturally sported a healthier glow and there was no strange implied nude portrait of her shoulder-up in the hallway. The both of them sported angular, feminine features and wispy blue eyes. Gorgeous specimens of femininity, both of them. Then there was me.
A pudgy, slightly Asian looking bundle of alabaster. I needed to be protected.
Vivid mental flashes of my mother chasing me with bottles of prescription grade sunscreen lace the otherwise heartwarming memories of Savannah vacations at my grandparents' river house.
"Go ahead, scream all you want," she'd say as she pinched the back of my neck to disable any fighting chance I had, "But do you know what happens to little girls with paper white skin who run around in the sun without sunscreen?"
She slowly rotated my head and locked in eye contact.
"They get third degree sunburns. And third degree sunburns hurt. Very, very badly. They are sticky and gross and attract dirt and hair. Do you want that?"
"Alright then," she replied. Then she spent fifteen minutes of valuable beach time slathering sunscreen all over my arms, legs, chest, and scalp. I feel very strongly that this is the reason I experience an intense sensation of panic whenever someone opens up a bottle of anything that sports the Coppertone logo.
It should go unquestioned that I never stood a chance in Madison County Middle School, where the physical ideal of a woman stalled on the days of Baywatch. Mine was a world where mothers gleefully took their girls on trips to the tanning bed after they shaved their legs for the first time. To the rural, white youths of Georgia, tanning was a right of passage and the darker you were, the better.
Various factors contributed to my lack of social fortitude in the country market: I chose to ditch the southern accent. On more than one occasion I wore a Sailor Moon key chain as a necklace. I very publicly insisted that the soundtrack to Guys and Dolls trumped Christina Aguilara's Genie in a Bottle. I had slightly obsessive habits regarding my my female friends ("You're... you're sitting next to Sarah Fitzpatrick? But you said that you'd sit next to me. Forever.")
These things and more partitioned me from my classmates, but when the teachers began to make little comments about my complexion, all bets were off - and once sixth grade bad-boy James Mitchell pointed at me in the hall and screeched,
"Living WHIIITE girl," my peers began to seize any opportunity to remind me of how white I was. Not only did this phrase catch on like wildfire, but James Mitchell did this for the entire duration of my middle school career. It stuck.
The time had come for me to take matters into my own hands.
I have stolen three things in my life. I once lifted Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason from a K-Mart to impress a girl I was hanging out with. Then I stole laxatives because I felt too embarrassed to tell my mother that I wanted to be the master of my own bowel movements. The third thing that I ever stole was a bottle of industrial strength selfless tanner, which I applied every single night to moderate success. Results, however, came at a price. Think: Monkey's Paw. Except with fake tanner.
"Living White Girl, you stank bad!" James Mitchell said through a pinched nose. He had made a habit of passing by my locker every morning to class.
"You smell like burnt hair or something."
"You're darker. You get some sun, Living White Girl?"
"What? For real?"
"Yup. I started laying out."
"I think you're lying."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because you got a streak on your neck!"
I turned to my locker mirror and, to my horror, saw that I had gotten lazy with my application.
"Ooh, ooh, and your leg, too! Hey! Tyler! Look at Living White Girl's legs!"
I spent the rest of the day with my hands around my neck and my feet buried under the desk, cursing my peers and their orange complexions that attracted what seemed like all good things.
"So what?" said my mother when I told her, "There's a reason that Sarah Fitzpatrick's mother looks like a piece of raw hide hanging in Pa's shed in Little House on the Prairie. Do you want to look like that when you're older?"
"No. But Mom, they call me ... living white girl."
"Well, are you living?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are you walking, talking, and breathing like the rest of us?"
"And are you white?"
"So what's the problem?"
"They're making fun of me!"
"Let them say whatever they want. In ten years their skin will look old and leathery."
"In ten years they'll only be twenty-four."
"Goes to show: tanning is bad for you."
Her demeanor indicated that she felt more than ready to be done with the conversation, but at the sight of my deject expression, she softened her facial expression and embraced me gently, pulling my head close to her chest as she stroked the back of my head. Then she said, in a soothing and more sympathetic tone,
"Baby girl, all I'm really saying is that when I went to my 25th high school reunion, it felt nice to walk around and know that I had an amazing rack while so many of those girls I went to school with had ravaged bosoms and ex-husbands."
She placed her hands on my shoulders and, with a fortifying squeeze, said,
"Give it time, honey. Their tits will sag to the ground and you will feel better."
I had no idea what to say. The pre-teen editions of American Girl, what with all of their practical advice on topics like menstruation, queen bees, and boys neglected to address this specific brand of mother to daughter bonding. I ran with it and simply nodded my head and make-believe understanding. Mentally, though, I took little solace in the hypothetically saggy boobs of the future and resigned myself to the teasing and questions about my parental lineage for next three years.
My frustrations culminated after my freshmen year of high school. I found myself in a state of despair after a particularly grueling week and binged watched the two good Addams Family films seven times over the four day weekend. I had long admired and recognized Wednesday Addams as a pale force to be reckoned with; a role model among odd and slightly freakish children everywhere. However, somewhere between the fifth and sixth time I watched Camp Chippewa succumb to flames and despair in the Thanksgiving pageant scene from Addams Family Values, something inside me compelled me to bolt upright and exclaim out loud,
"You know what? Fuck those guys! Screw you, Sarah Miller, you deserve everything that's coming to you!"
Truly this is one of the greatest films of all time.
Sometime after that, I literally ran into James Mitchell on the way to fourth period. He had grown into a wiry, rugged looking Insane Clown Posse enthusiast.
"Watch where you goin', Living White Girl!" he yelled as the explosion of school supplies showered down around us.
There. Right there. That was the moment.
"Oh my God!" I gasped, bending down to scrounge around for the loose papers, folders, and drawings, "James, I forgot! My radioactively white skin! I can't believe this - Are you ok?"
"Here, let me help you up," I said, forcing my arm underneath his.
"The hell you doin'?"
"Didn't you know? I am so pale that I literally blind people."
It was the sincerity that confused him.
"I glow in dark movie theaters. I can only imagine how bad it must be in broad daylight."
"You're crazy! Let go of me!"
"No, not until I know that you can see. I feel so responsible!"
"Are you going to be ok?" I said, attempting to gently caress his eyelids with my fingers.
"Damn, girl! I can see! Stop touching me!"
He hurriedly slung his backpack over his shoulder and took off down the hall. The acoustics carried the faint utterances of,
"Crazy ass, pasty, white girl."
I didn't know this at the time, but at that moment I had an epiphany commonly shared by most comedians and writers who are destined for at least halfway decent things; a moment of realization that personal endurance occasionally meant capitalizing on one's own insecurities.
"One day," I thought, watching James huff down the hallowed hallways of Madison County High School where he would surely rejoin with his tanner, bronzier brothers and brethren, "the world will see everything that's weird about me. And then they will love me for it."
It's a process to transform an insecurity into a strength.
However, judging by the record number of sign-ups I got last weekend on the beach, I'd say I've started to make that happen.
... Without making people go blind from exposure to radioactive whiteness.