09 July, 2018

Rocking the Pasty-Ass-White-Boy Look: Thoughts on Sun Exposure and Prejudicial Views of Pale People

The distinction between needs and wants, as in: "You need to get you some sun, white boy." I could write a fucking dissertation. Instead, I just lie. It's easier to tell someone that my fair complexion is the necessary result of — not a condition, exactly, but a propensity to crisp. I reference my last sunburn. September of 2002. Purpling was involved. Afterward, dramatic peeling. I pulled small, thick sheets of skin from my agonized scalp and neck for days. (Oddly, my arms were unaffected.) This I got from a half hour outside, on a not particularly bright afternoon.

My account of sunstroke usually does the trick, eliciting sympathies from melanin-rich interlocutors who can't imagine a life deprived of regular, prolonged direct sunlight, and lets me go about my day in the shade.

Let's get this straight now: I'm not freakishly pale. Placed in a lineup of albinos, I'd stand out prominently — even wearing pink contact lenses. I'm just not what you could call tan. Not by a long shot. And I happen to take pride in my pallor. It's at least part of the reason that people take me for younger than I am. (Someone very recently guessed that I was twenty-eight, a full eleven years off.) Sure, it's probably mostly genetic, but my legs haven't seen daylight since Bill Clinton was in office, so I'm giving circumstances some credit.

What's this fixation that Americans have with tans? In many Asian cultures, deeper skin tones have historically signified lower status. Field workers toiled under the harsh glare of Sol; the high-born's milk-white hue was the product of pampered indoor lives. Look at any Renaissance painting — go on, I'll wait — and you'll see the same standard of beauty at work, with every fair young maiden and overfed king as white and luminous as the moon. The West wasn't always obsessed with appearing sautéed.

All racist interpretations (which, for the record, are bullshit) aside, there's good reason to appreciate paleness. Skin tans because it's working to protect itself from further harm. Calluses form for the same reason, but who thinks those are sexy? Hands that labor's rendered as numb and inflexible as a catcher's mitt shouldn't be any less attractive than epidermis discolored by damage. I find this a counterintuitive, just plain weird double standard.

And don't get me started on bronzer, spray tans, or fake-baking in general. Pourquoi the aesthetic appeal of the Oompa Loompa? As out-of-place as my whiteness makes me in a crowd of sun-worshippers, at least I come by it honestly without resorting to chemical or otherwise extraordinary measures. The same vain people of gold who flock to tanning salons today will tomorrow populate dermatologists' and plastic surgeons' waiting rooms, desperate to repair the signs of abuse — premature wrinkles, dark spots, sagging, disconcertingly shaped moles. Mine is the body pristine. This guarantees nothing, of course, but a life in the shadows definitely improves my odds. (Plus, my shirt collars don't discolor, and I can walk through sudden rainstorms without fear of streaking.)

Regarding the down side of extra-whiteness, the endless comments, I remain baffled. A certain lack of pigmentation invites "helpful" criticism like no case of leather-face will.

"You know, you're allowed to come outside once in a while."

"Damn, you're white!"

"Sunshine's free, dude."

"Did you ever see that movie, Powder?"

"What are you, a vampire or something?"

And so on, often not as polite. Not even ridiculous, extreme, or outré hairstyles, the closest analog I can think of, meet with others' outspoken opinions on such a regular basis. Most remarks about someone's 'do happen, mercifully, behind that person's back. Whispers about my skin tone would be preferable. They're at least proof that those doing the psst-psst-psst recognize the limits of acceptable behavior.