COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — Aug. 17, 2012

Jessica Iron Joseph
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When will people love the color of their skin? I thought insecurities about skin tone were mostly resigned to the Western world, until I witnessed a bizarre sight in Taiwan.

I had never before been to Asia, and was looking forward to seeing a vastly different culture, but I was unprepared for the humidity. I’ve never been so hot in my life — and apparently when my husband and I arrived, they considered the temperature to be “good” weather.

It was sweltering. I gave up trying to powder my face about 10 minutes into the heat. I was dripping with sweat for the entire eight days we were there. Several times I stared longingly at the hair straightener in my suitcase, but I knew with the humid air I would be sentenced to frizzy, curly hair, whether I liked it or not. My options were to either shave my head bald or pin up my long, bushy mop of hair. I pinned it up, but not without envying the Buddhist monks we passed on the streets.

So, with my pinned up hair, my sweaty skin and my scant clothing, I somehow managed to acclimatize and endure the heat — just barely. You can imagine my surprise then, as I rode on the back of my friend’s scooter, when a woman pulled up beside us fully clothed, with a scarf wrapped around her face and helmet, oven mitts on her hands and boots on her feet.

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t help gawking because she was not only fully clothed, but she also wore a jacket, unzipped and backwards — strategically covering her arms and chest. She wasn’t the only one either! As the days progressed, I saw more and more women completely clothed even as I was certain I would pass out from the unforgiving heat.

I sincerely believed these women thought the weather was cool by their standards, but when I asked my friend about it, she said that many Taiwanese women hid from the sun in an effort to keep their skin white. She said many even bought skin whitening products.

I was dumbfounded. I could definitely understand someone protecting their skin from the sun’s harmful rays, but there seemed to be much more to it, and there was.

For centuries many Asians have believed having light skin to be a sign of class. If you had dark skin, people often assumed you worked in fields, and were browned from the sun. Lighter-skinned people therefore appeared wealthier based on their fair skin, a sign that they spent more time indoors.

This is a direct contrast to nearly every Western person I know. Growing up on reserves I was often teased for my fair skin. I can get pretty dark in the summer, but I don’t like to tan because I worry about skin damage and skin cancer. If I choose to bronze, I rely on the aid of self-tanning lotions.

But why is there a need to alter skin colour? I know several First Nations’ people who use tanning beds to enhance their skin and distinctive features. The few I know that tan are quite dark to begin with, but they desire to have even darker skin — often as a sign of ethnic pride. Sure their skin may darken to a beautiful, rich brown, but I still don’t trust tanning beds.

Then there are my white friends who like to darken their skin with sun tanning, self-tanners, bronzers and tanning beds too. Some of my friends don’t tan, they just burn, but I’ve never met a friend who loved the color of her porcelain skin so much that she would protect it the way a Taiwanese woman protects her skin.

Once a black friend of mine asked me why fair people like to tan. I was quite unprepared for the question and blurted out “Uh, because dark skin makes you look skinnier.” When I later repeated this to my mother she shook her head and disagreed. She believed that people liked to tan because it made them look healthier and more attractive. Pale people, she said, look sickly and fatigued.

That was one way to look at it, but it sure didn’t help me feel better about my fair skin.

I was probably about 16 years old when I stood in front of the mirror and decided I loved the colour of my skin. I was tired of defending my skin colour and being embarrassed because I wasn’t born three shades darker. I stared at my light complexion until I believed deep down in my soul that it was the perfect colour for me. It was a difficult exercise to do, but I felt happier afterward and was then able to laugh it off when people suggested I tan. Years later, though, I somehow bought into the idea of self-tanners. Perhaps it’s no one’s fault but my own. I needed to be more vigilant about my self-acceptance. No one could do that for me.

I think it’s difficult to live in a world where we strive to accept each other’s skin colour, but we also allow and encourage bizarre ideas to float about concerning light vs. dark complexions.

How can we accept anyone’s skin color if we are never happy with our own? If we leave room to judge our own skin, then we are likely to judge another’s. If, on the other hand, we accept ourselves, pale or dark, maybe we can rejoice in the myriad natural human colors that surround us.

I used to think that using a self-tanner now and then was a fun change — but I’ve begun to see this as a problem. Why should I ever need to change my skin colour? I think it’s time to throw out my self-tanners and stare into the mirror once again.

It seems obvious to me that the only thing we need to change is our crazy and unrealistic ideals. 

Geographic location: Taiwan, Asia

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