SKIN

Tuesday, March 8, 2016 - 7:23pm

Is it possible to grow up simultaneously being aware of your skin and feeling detached from it?

Skin was always important.

It’s not just what covers your internal wiring and keeps you from spilling out onto the street.

It’s not just that thin, vulnerable layer above your blood and bones and organs.

Skin has always been important, but at the same time not.

My skin was always my skin. Not important because i wasn’t important.

But important to everyone else, for some reason.

***

“Why are you so hairy and dark?”

Said by one of the few darker-skinned girls in my elementary school, one who always hung out with the thin, blonde white girls who were never really my friends, but i still needed their approval. What could i say to that question? Did i point to my mixed family background? Did i explain away why i looked different from my fair-skinned father and sister? i pulled my plaid uniform down to cover as much skin as possible and said nothing to a girl who looked more like me than she wanted to admit. That night, i begged my mom to let me shave my legs for the first time, hating how my coarse, black hairs only made me look darker.

“Cinnamon.”

Was it in fourth grade when i first heard that word? A spice with which i apparently shared an outer coloring? It confused me. i would stare at the brown of my arms, the fading scars, and wonder what it meant to be “like cinnamon.” Was i just a spice? Was i simply flavoring for a society that empowers those who are not like me? If i was cinnamon, what did that make them? Cream? Flour? Milk? Were we all ingredients in some dysfunctional recipe; was our skin the most important thing we had to contribute to this dessert?

“Nice mustache!”

Yelled by a boy whom i had never spoken to before. He was a grade above me and had a reputation for being a poor student. His brother was in my grade and didn’t like that i had to tutor him in every subject. The teachers all liked me; i could have told someone, anyone, about his constant insults, but i stayed silent and cried into my bagged lunch. A year later, my mom took me for my first session of full-body laser hair removal. The technician told me i had to stay out of the sun for as long as i did the treatment, and that combined with the laser could cause depigmentation. i was 12. The treatments lasted for two years.

***

Skin has always been important, but at the same time not.

“How do you stay so tan in Michigan? What salon do you go to?”

“I just came back from a week at the beach, I’m almost the same color as you!”

“You’re so lucky you’re olive! I bet you don’t burn at all!”

Now, wait. i am olive? i stare at my face, searching for the resemblance. Could i be both Olive and Cinnamon? How could i explain what it felt to be constantly defined as food? Was my skin meant to be devoured, chewed on and spit back out with a description that was easier to digest?

The importance of skin was how easily i could tear it off.

My school skirt hid the scratch marks on my thighs. My mother’s strong skin passed down to me kept the scars from staying too long before disappearing among the dark freckles and sun spots.

How could i feel comfortable in my own skin, when no one around could seem to agree on its significance? Am i my skin? Am i nothing more?

“You have to tan,” my mother would say, “you’re too pale,” my mother would say, as if staying out of the sun for too long would cause my Latina-ness to slip away from me.

How could i feel comfortable in my own skin?

How could i feel anything other than desperation, wishing i could shed it for new, uncomplicated, easy-to-define skin?

How could i do anything other than tear at it over and over, digging in sharpened nails, wishing i could be nothing more than a skeleton?

***

This is the identity crisis of being unsure of your identity. When your identity is said to be tied to your skin, but no one is clear when they try to define it.

“You’re not Latina, you’re white.”

“So, are you, like, half-White?”

“What exactly are you?”

i stare blankly at these words that have no meaning, that serve no purpose but to send me spiraling into a confused wreck. the disconnect between my dark skin that othered me as a child and the lighter skin that allowed me to sometimes blend in with the rest as an adult created an abyss inside me into which i fell deeper and deeper with each contradictory descriptor.

i am olive? i am cinnamon? i am white? i am brown?

i am Dark when it is convenient to them, when they call me Exotic and Ethnic and Different.

When they make jokes about my emotions, my anger, my desire to see myself represented in society. When they equate my success to my skin tone, as if my hard work is invalid because my skin is different from theirs.

“Why aren’t there scholarships for white people?”

“I bet I would have gotten accepted to Ivy Leagues, too, if I was like you — if I wasn’t white.”

“Yeah, I knew you weren’t from here, that’s why you got into Michigan.”

i am White when my skin makes them uncomfortable, when they want to call me “One Of Them,” and laugh and nudge me in solidarity and i don’t say anything about how them doing this is tearing me apart, about how i feel like my stomach is going to empty itself involuntarily when they say our skin is the same because they don’t have to sit and listen while the covering of their bones is turned into a fetish, when they’re told they’re not really “American” because they look and speak differently, when their skin is given terms like “Cafe con Leche,” like “Caramel,” like “Light Mocha,” like “Chai,” like “Cinnamon,” like “Olive,” like anything but what it is which is mine it is my skin and it is treated like an item for consumption.

***

Skin was always important, wasn’t it?