Monday, June 22, 2009

Dark Knees

Zoe has refused to wear short shorts all summer, and idiot that I am, I couldn't figure out why. I thought it was a modesty thing, maybe a product of Catholic school, since I connected it to her perpetual concern during the school year that her uniform jumpers were too short. I've asked her why, but she wouldn't give me an answer -- my fault, since I probably asked quite impatiently as she asked for a different jumper in the morning just as we needed to leave for school.

Yesterday she put on a summer dress that is designed to be longer in the back and shorter in the front. I kept seeing her tugging on it, to get it to cover her knees in front, and a little bell rang in my head. "Zoe," I asked, "are you worried about showing your knees for some reason?" Yep, nailed it. She said she doesn't want to show her knees because they are darker than the rest of her skin, so "they look dirty and ugly."

Whew. That one has been stewing for months, and I didn't see it. I admit, I'm always telling her to scrub her knees in the bathtub, but I've been thinking exfoliation, and she's been thinking "dirty." We've talked about moisturizers before, especially in the winter, and have moisturized her knees, though not with any consistency.

I explained to her that people's skin is thicker at the knees (and elbows), so there is more skin pigment there, but knowing WHY her knees are darker doesn't help much, especially since neither Maya nor I have knees that are appreciably darker than the rest of our skin. But we pulled out a bottle of good moisturizer for her to keep by her bed -- she wants to use it morning and night. She was happy when she rubbed it on, because her knees looked smoother if not lighter.

After the kids were in bed, I typed into Google, "asian skin dark knees," seeing if there were some other suggestions. I kept running across questions in online forums like this one: "I am an Asian with pale yellow skin color. But the nape, elbows and my knees are dark so it's difficult for me to wear short dresses and shorts in summer. . . . It's very embarrassing. Can anyone suggest me anything?" An online dermatologist answers a similar question with a suggestion about a skin-lightening lotion. And then I found THIS forum, where people are suggesting the use of household bleach and Brillo pads. And others are saying, "I'm going to try it!" How disturbing is that?

Any talk about skin bleaching or skin whitening makes my skin crawl. I think about Michael Jackson, for one thing! And it throws me back to Zoe's little 3-year-old voice saying, as we stood in line at the grocery store, "I wish my skin was light." Wow, that was much younger than I expected a racial identity crisis!

I struggled with an answer then, not wanting to minimize her concern with tempting responses like, "Skin color doesn't matter," since it so obviously mattered to her. Or by suggesting that she was far lighter than other people, because that seemed to reinforce the idea that light skin was, indeed, better. I settled then on asking her why (so she'd look like her friend, Charlie), and telling her I loved her skin. And then signing her up for Chinese School and applying to teach in China, where she could see lots and lots of people with her same beautiful skin tone (0ver-react much?!).

Now at 8, Zoe's talking about only one part of her skin she wishes was lighter -- is this different? An improvement? Maybe so, since she's saying she wants her knees to be the same honey-gold color as the rest of her skin. After all, light-skinned people have that same desire -- I'm always looking for products to make the red blotches on my face fade away, become undetectable against my fair skin.

But with an Asian child, a minority in this country, the meaning of skin color is different, racially charged, part of racial identity formation. We fight daily against all the explicit and implicit messages that lighter is better (Remember the Barbie-like Mulan doll? Zoe was excited when she got one: "Look! Her hair is black like mine. But her skin is light.")

I preached exfoliation and moisturizing. I think I'm preaching about skin being better, not lighter, in the same way I'd have no qualms offering my teens acne remedies if needed. But it's a fine line, isn't it? I think my former attempts have sent her a different message, that her knees are "dirty." That dark is "ugly."

Today we had more of a discussion than we could when she was 3 (it's not like we haven't talked skin color since then, but this is the first time since where I remember her despairing about her skin color). I said I didn't know if the moisturizer would make her knees lighter, but I thought they'd look better. And just like when she was 3, I said, "I love your skin." I said, "I love your knees!" And Zoe giggled as I kissed them.

I want my kids to be comfortable in the skin they're in, as the commercial goes. But it's a continual struggle to help them get there.


Lisa said...

"I think my former attempts have sent her a different message, that her knees are "dirty." That dark is "ugly.""

Being a parent who worries about our societal problem with racism and the glorification of "whiteness": I think you are being too hard on yourself. You were helping her, she came to the conclusion that she basically didn't like the appearance of her knees. I have had the benefit of seeing them, and they look fine. Now, I'll give you that by prompting her to take care of her skin, she may have come to that conclusion on her own.

Our girls are at an age (entering 3rd grade) where girls / boys start comparing and may become self conscious. And, she didn't say "dark is ugly."

It sounds like the appearance of her uneven skin tone is bothering her. My daughter (same age) does things like that. She worries that her hair is too frizzy (it's straight and silky), her teeth are too yellow (she brushes so well) and the irregular appearance of her bug bites (sorry, I have to treat them but I didn't say they are unsightely).

AndieO said...

I'm coming to the blog a little late, but thought I'd comment none-the-less. My daughter is very sensative about her perceived (and commented upon at school) mustache.

I've tried telling (and show her in pictures) that she doesn't have a mustache and has the same amount of facial hair as her friends. We've also talked about how her body will change (she's going into 3rd grade in the fall) as she gets older.

Finally after this comes up many many times. I sat down and talked with her again. We went over all the things we talked about before. Then I said, its just hair. And if when she's older and her body has finished changing and she still feels its a problem we can look at grown up solutions like laser hair removal.

Of course I still take every opportunity to show her how beautiful she is in the now. :)

AndieO said...

Malinda - I'm so glad I followed the link to here from your facebook account. This is SO exciting to hear.

I remember us comparing notes in China. Like you, I told Sage about the note but always down played it.

I can't wait to dig the red note out this week and look at it again. I'm going to see if I can have a friend translate it.

Sage and my mom are going to be so excited to hear about this.

Anonymous said...

I just skimmed this, since I googled "knees are darker" and it came up. Just wanted to say I am white, as I am of English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French, German and Swiss ancestry. I used porcelain ivory make up. My knees and elbows are significantly darker than my arms and legs. It's not a race thing.


Amerasian said...

I am Amerasian (Korean mother / English-Danish father) and my mother & all of my Korean women relatives are obsessed with lightness... this includes those who are Americanized as well as those still living in Korea. It is not a product of Western influence (as many whities assume)... it is actually a BIG part of Asian culture (and it is very ancient and USED to be a common element of female beauty in all cultures.) Why? Because rich/high class women don't work out in fields in the sun & do not get tanned. Throughout history, in cultures from ancient Egypt to Rome to Europe, Asia & beyond, lightness=status/beauty for women. Read Song of Solomon in the Bible (the woman laments because she is low-class & has worked outside her whole life & is dark-skinned). It wasn't until Coco Channel came back from the South of France in the 1920s with a 'tan' that darker complexions became more popular. Then you had the "Beach Boy" era of the 1960s and the half-naked hippies of the 1970s, and now a 'tan' implies that you have the $ and free time to tan (either naturally or in tanning beds) so the status symbol has flipped... now women want to be tan in America. Not everything is truly about race. Actually, if you have $, if you are rich and powerful... you are admired & emulated. The best thing for your daughter is to get an education, make lots of money & become powerful & marry a powerful and famous person... then everyone else will try to paint their knees dark to copy her and appear wealthy & high-status.