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.