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It Was Never a Tan
I always thought my "tan" was something I could control, until I learned it had never been a tan at all.
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“I wish I had your tan.”
”You know, people pay good money to have your coloring.”
”You’re so lucky to be tan all the time.”
These comments shaped my identity. I heard them all the time as a little girl. Growing up, I thought my skin was a tan, something that I could control. And in truth, I could to a degree. I was 40 before I realized it was never a tan.
We all have a favorite season. As a little girl, mine was definitely summer. The final school bell meant lazy summer days splashing around in my above-ground, backyard pool. By Memorial Day, a new plastic pool was unfolded from its cardboard box and filled to the brim by my mom holding our garden hose. Sure Mom took me to the local pool too, but from June until the end of August, my backyard pool was my oasis from the brutal heat and humidity of a Midwest summer.
“I wish I had your coloring.”
“Your skin coloring is just beautiful,” the ladies would say in the church lobby.
“I wish I had a tan like that.”
Church wasn’t the only place I heard these comments. Almost everywhere my mom and I went in our small Ohio town, people would “compliment” my tan. “People pay good money to have a tan like that,” they would remind me.
I didn’t have words for what I felt then, and as an adult, I would be too timid to speak my mind (I know, hard to believe, but I can be shy). I often wanted to say, “Do you really wish you had my tan? Because I don’t think you’d like everything that comes with it. Do you also want the questions, teasing, and comments? Or the isolation? What about being beautiful enough to compliment but too dark to date? Or offered a position because there’s a quota to fill, not because they even looked at your accomplishments? Do you really want all that? Or do you just want a tan?”
These “compliments” always came from adults. I can’t remember one time when a peer ever said anything positive about my skin. All I knew was this "tan” seemed to be the thing that kept me from ever fitting in. Adults found it exotic and beautiful. Classmates found it strange and mysterious.
I learned this coveted tan had limits when I returned to school one fall several shades darker from all of my backyard pool days. The barrage of questions and comments flew like firey arrows. At the tender age of 10, I didn’t have the language or understanding to craft a comeback or witty response. So I internalized their words, allowing them to dictate what I could and couldn’t do from that point forward.
As I got older, I traded my summer pool time for air-conditioned video games, claiming it was too hot to be outside. I traded shorts and T-shirts for long sleeves and pants. My attempt had little to do with the heat and humidity. I needed to make sure classmates had other things to talk about in August besides my skin tone.
I remember my senior year of high school. All the girls were buying tanning packages to get ready for our junior/senior banquet. (I went to a small Christian school. No dancing meant no prom. So instead we got dressed up, went to the Holiday Inn banquet room, and had dinner. Yes, it was as lame as it sounds. But I digress…)
I desperately wanted to get a tanning package too. My dilemma - how many visits to buy? Truth be told, I didn’t need any. But I wanted some. I wanted to do what the other girls were doing. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to belong.
I can’t remember how many I bought. What I do remember is the smell of Australian Gold lotion lathered on my arms and legs before crawling into the ultraviolet cacoon for a quick 5-minute nap. Those beds might be dangerous, but they sure are relaxing.
I spent the next 20+ years trying not to get tan. It’s easier to hide as an adult. You can make all kinds of excuses - it’s too hot, gotta protect our skin from skin cancer, the kids need me inside, there are household chores to do - the list is endless.
As God has been transforming me from the inside out, He’s revealed a lot about how he created me vs. how I learned to view myself. It has felt a bit like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. One epiphany after another, revealing truths I either chose to ignore or never realized. One of these epiphanies happened just a couple of years ago.
I have an incredible group of friends who are the best encouragers, prayer warriors, and cheerleaders a girl could want. Jessica is one of those friends. She has held my hand, processed with me, cried with me, listened to me, celebrated with me, laughed with me, prayed with me, and truly shepherded me through this transformation.
One day I stopped by her desk which is on the opposite side of the office from mine, so we have to make an effort to see one another at work. We were chatting away, when I looked down, catching a glimpse of my arm, right at the bend of my elbow which tends to be my darkest spot. It was like a bolt of lightning hit me.
I looked up with a shocked expression, interrupting her story, and said, “Jessica, it’s not a tan.” Because she’s biracial and shares many of my same experiences, I didn’t need to explain any further. She knew exactly what I meant. With her sweet, kind smile, she looked at me and said, “No, Torrie, it never was.”
That was the first time I realized my skin wasn’t a tan or something for me to manage anymore.
There’s something special about having a friend who just gets you. I’ve never had a mixed or biracial friend until JJ. Together we’ve shared stories and experiences. She’s taught me I’m not alone in this world and that my experiences matter.
And so do yours.
I’m excited to step into this summer with freedom. Freedom to enjoy my family and friends. Freedom to jump in the pool on a hot day. Freedom to vacation in Flordia in June without obsessing about the humidity’s effects on my hair. Freedom to live and love the skin I’m in…the skin God ordained for me.
Maybe you’re not Mixed. Maybe skin color or hair texture hasn’t kept you from belonging. But chances are, something has…and you secretly know what that thing is for you.
What would it look like for you to be free from that? To embrace yourself just the way God created you? To stop trying to control parts of yourself that were never meant to be controlled?
It can feel like an elusive freedom that you’ll never actually achieve. But Friend, God wants more for you. He wants you to see yourself as He sees you - loved, beautiful, forgiven…and free.
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A Little Something Extra…
Each week, I like to share a little something extra, something I’ve found fun or helpful. It might be a post, book, podcast, tv show, movie, song, Bible verse…or something else I think you’ll enjoy.
This week I’m featuring my friend and new author, Tasha Jun. I met Tasha last year in a mentor group for women writers of color. Immediately I was struck by her calm, peaceful presence. She is authentic and grace-filled, with a quiet confidence that inspires me. She has become a dear friend who is equal parts encourager, truth-teller, and cheerleader.
Her first book, a memoir, launched a couple of weeks ago and trust me, if you love storytelling as much as I do, this is a must-read! Tell Me the Dream Again invites us into Tasha’s story as she discusses what it is to be a biracial Korean American and how we can find healing when we learn to embrace our entire story.
“I’ve always felt unfit as a Korean,” Tasha writes. “But somehow too Korean everywhere else.”
Insert our own culture or physical feature, and I think this statement resonates with just about everyone. We all long to fit in, to belong. And when you’re mixed, that can feel like a constant tug-of-war.
Grab your copy on Amazon or you can listen to Tasha tell her story on Audible.
And don’t forget to follow Tasha on Instagram. I’m sure you’ll be encouraged!
And if you’re a social media fan, don’t forget to follow Mixed.ology on Instagram for daily posts, videos, and more!
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