After we arrived at the birthing home, had found our bedroom and unpacked a little, we sat down in the apartment to get to know a bit more about the girls we were living with for a month. One of the first things one of the other interns said to us – with a little bit of embarrassment – was “Wow, you guys are so... white. Is that normal where y’all come from?” It took a while to stumble an answer out (thank you jet lag, you do make me mince my words so). I felt like I needed to justify. Mumbled something-or-other and did my best to cover the huge range of cultures that makes up the New Zealand population spectrum (pick a skin colour - we have ‘kiwis’ in many, many shades...). And thinking: Yes. I am white, thank you for pointing it out. And then a shuddered mental reality-check: Wait - is this an issue? Will this influence my ability to connect with the women here?
It took a while longer for me to realise that the reason we were so ‘white’ compared to them was purely our timing - we had just come out of winter, while they of course were tacking on a few months to their American summer... and a nice tan to show for it.
Allow me to be shallow and self-absorbed for a moment; I have a confession to make. I was planning having a head-start on my summer glow after a month in the Philippines. I imagined midwifery down time being student-midwife-sun-time, and arriving home gently browned, much to the adoration of my still lily-white colleagues. Since summer in NZ = being outdoors, a good summer can be summed up in a glance – got your tan on? Oh, then you must have had a great summer...
Somewhat jolted by my apparent whiteness and the need to wear shorts and singlets to cope with the heat and humidity, I searched the local mall for the answer to my woes – fake tan. I searched. I asked. In many stores, to many shop assistants. Fake tan? Tan in a bottle? Do you have?
Same answer, every time: “Excuse me ma’am... I don’t understand... let me find someone else to help you...”
Inevitably, I was directed to the skincare products, and yes, there are many, many bottles of product to convert your skin colour to a more desirable tone. Only my desire was backwards and it became very clear why no-one could understand what I was trying to find...
We always want the opposite of what we’ve got – right?
Some weeks later, I was pushing my way through a busy open-air market. A young woman grabbed my arm as I walked past her market stall – not to get me to buy something as I was expecting, but to look at it. It being my arm. She was staring at my skin, turning my arm over and actually marvelling at the underside. I had relaxed enough to go along with it by this stage; we’d been stopped enough times by locals wanting a picture with us (“your eyes are pretty, your skin is so white... can I take a picture?”). And all these weeks, I’m looking at these beautiful brown-skinned mamas on our antenatal clinic days – lined up shades of caramel, mocha and toffee and thinking how gorgeous their skin is. Wanting a little touch of their colour. Why is it that we don’t appreciate the way each of us is uniquely made? Why do we always want the flipside of what we have, questioning the perfection of our design?
Whiter skin. That’s what sells in the Philippines. I was floored by the volume of skin whitening products on the market. We passed six-storey-high billboards from Dove and Olay advertising them. Skin whitening soaps. Skin lightening lotions. Skin refining (read lightening and whitening) gels. There are specialty products for lightening the skin on your knees, your elbows and under your arms. Even products specifically marketed for lightening the skin on your <ahem> nether regions. Really? I need that whiter? Whiter?
And fake tan? The stuff that takes up full wall displays at my local chemist? Not a single bottle to be found...