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Growing up, I was always told I was Mexican.
I wasn’t too sure what that meant, only that everyone around me was moreno, which means “dark-skinned.” I was never told that I would have certain privileges in my life because of my light complexion – privileges that darker women like my great grandmother would never have. She was Mexican and was never allowed into certain establishments due to her dark brown skin. I look very different from her and my culture – my entire world – is different.
My light skin and hazel eyes have caused some misconceptions over the years. I am Mexican-American. I speak Spanish proficiently.
“Mira, yo estoy ordenando sus tacos porque ella no sabe como hablar en español.” So you should probably look at me and not my friend with the dark complexion because she doesn’t know Spanish or understand what you are saying.
I understand now as an adult that my skin has given me some “privileges,” many of which are simply the avoidance of racial profiling. I don’t get those glances by store associates when I stay in an aisle for too long, and I’m trusted more. If I really wanted to, I could dye my hair bright auburn or strawberry blond and try to pass for white. But that’s not who I am.
I may be too light for my culture but I’m definitely not light enough for another.
I have been bullied. They call me “transparent,” “blank wall,” “you’re so white it hurts my eyes,” or am compared to a blank piece of paper. Someone questioned me, “Is that’s your mom?” A boy told me that he didn’t like “blancas.” I wasn’t dark enough for him. Yes, it could have been much worse, but things like this took a toll on me.
I recall wishing that I could at least be tan like my mother or brothers. One of my brothers is moreno. I thought I must be a one-in-a-million case. I’ve never heard about a light-skinned girl wanting to be dark skinned. I couldn’t tell anybody because it sounded strange: Why would I want dark skin? Why would I invite discrimination?
Growing up, I felt disconnected from my own people. I was an outsider.
“You don’t know the struggle because you’re not dark.”
These are words that echo in my head from people I thought were friends. “Poor little light-skinned girl crying about how she’s not dark and discriminated against, what could you possibly have to complain about?” They were into the “Latina Strong and Proud” and “Brown is beautiful” movements. Well, I may not be brown, but I stand with you.
When I was 12 or so, I would use self-tanning spray. I put it on in the privacy of my room. I began to spray my entire torso, then my upper thighs. I didn’t exactly read the directions. I just sprayed. I wondered how long it would take for me to become tan and I impatiently sprayed on more. Disgust came shortly after. It was streaky, patchy, and overall wrong. My sensitive skin broke out in hives. I’m not exactly sure how much Benadryl I ingested but it did stop the reaction.
Why did I do it?
It wasn’t until I watched a TV show that I realized I may have been suffering from an illness called Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).
As written in an article titled Prevalence of BDD by Dr. Katharine Phillips, Body Dysmorphic Disorder affects 1.7–2.4% of the general population. That’s about one in 50 people. BDD is about as common as obsessive-compulsive disorder. This means that more than 5 million people to about 7.5 million people in the United States have BDD, and half of them are women.
Could that be what’s wrong with me? Am I going crazy by self-diagnosing myself? Why do I feel like this about my skin? Why don’t I look like my family?
I watched telenovelas my entire life. I help my mother embarrar tamales every year. I embrace my culture, but I felt different. I felt pushed out. Even my great grandmother had a distaste for me. I grew up repulsed by the way my skin couldn’t cover my dark hair, the way acne showed up so easily on my body. My skin had become a sheet of just utter hate on my body that I wanted to tear it off. But I couldn’t. I had to live with it. I couldn’t walk from my house to the car without feeling a sunburn forming – how was I ever going to tan?
It took me far too long to feel good in my skin and in my own culture. Instead of thinking “My skin is unattractive,” I had to change my perception. There’s more to me than what you see. I began to focus on the things I love about myself and my culture. I’ve learned that there are things that make you unique and beautiful regardless of the color of your skin.
Don’t let those negative thoughts and the words of others affect your ability to accept yourself. BDD is real – you may not know you have it. For me, acceptance was a wild roller coaster ride, but now I honestly enjoy my pasty, transparent, reflective skin, and appreciate my differences.
I am light-skinned, but I also am Mexican-American.
Top image: The Flores family. From left: Misty, Rene, Linda, and Juan. Photo courtesy of Misty P. Flores.