Skin-coloured skin

I didn’t know when I started this blog what I would be writing. And then, hey presto – a news story I can comfortably bang on about.

I won’t be saying anything here that hasn’t been said elsewhere (a disclaimer I could, I’m sure, include on any of my posts). But here we go.

Tesco have announced that they will be providing plasters in a range of skin tones. Responses seem to fit into one of three camps: About Time; I Never Even Thought About That; and WHY ARE YOU RUINING MY COUNTRY.

I won’t bother addressing the latter – I’ve actively avoided reading those opinions, and can be sure that this is one of those stories where not reading the comments is self-care.

I’m firmly in camp About Time.

Growing up, there was a moment when suddenly my peers became grown up, and started wearing skin-coloured tights. Classy. Adult. Showing skin and yet not. Toying with the boundaries of the uniform rules.

For all of secondary school I had been comfortable (albeit cripplingly unsexy) in the bottle green tights all winter, bottle green ankle socks all summer. But when sixth form arrived, with its “office wear” code, suddenly nude, or skin-coloured, tights were on the menu. And they just weren’t an option for me. So I would swelter in black tights until I was sure the weather was warm enough for bare legs to be considered decent.

My friends would ask why I didn’t wear skin-coloured tights. And my response remained the same from school to the workplace, with varying levels of sarcasm: I don’t have skin-coloured skin.

It was a throwaway line, but ultimately, it was what I believed. I didn’t grow up in a diverse, multicultural metropolis. My friends would helpfully point out that different skin tone tights existed, but even the darkest available made me look like I had leg dandruff.

It was one reminder among many that I was not the norm. I was Other. If not an overt statement that I didn’t look the way I was “supposed” to, a gentle hint that what was available to “normal” people was not always going to be available to me.

It could be a blessing sometimes. My aversion to make up, which I can now pass off as a feminist stance (yawn) is down to the fact that I simply had no way of doing it. No older sister to show me how, and rarely if ever would the right tones be available in the North Devon shops in the 90s. Cosmo or whatever trash was being passed around that week would hardly ever address the idea that different skin tones might suit different things, and if they did it was a “feature.” I remember a slight rush of excitement, I think in a waiting room, when I saw a cover proudly announcing “looks for every skin tone.”

Now I know not to get excited at these. In the early 2000s, these could be summarised as: English Rose; some more tanned version of white; black. If you were lucky, they’d throw in olive. The continent of Asia never really featured in my experience. (And since when was there one tone of “black”?)

So now, plasters. I have to admit, I was quite “lucky” (hold your optimism until you read the rest of the sentence, it’s a pretty bleak statement) to be relatively pale for a person of colour. In winter, I can roughly blend into an Elastoplast. I can be plaster-passing. But in summer, when the melanocytes stretch and wake up and make me unmistakably non-white, the “normal” plasters stick out on a sore thumb.

Malorie Blackman, in her 2001 novel Noughts and Crosses (or elsewhere in that series) describes a topsy-turvy world where there is systematic oppression of white people by black people. (I loved these books growing up although now I despair slightly – is this really what white people need to be fed to help them work out that racism is wrong?) Anyway, she describes in passing the humiliation or silliness felt by a white person sticking on a darker toned plaster, which in that world was the default. And that was when plasters were added to the list of things I hadn’t noticed were meant to match, and didn’t. The ways in which I was other.

I’ve had years of colouring in my face with the colour everyone else was using, before realising it didn’t match me at all – whether it was a primary school drawing or an attempt at teenage contouring. I don’t have skin-coloured skin.

So I’m overjoyed to see Tesco expanding its range. Darker toned plasters have been available for a while, but not being available in a large supermarket makes them niche, specialist, reinforces the normalcy of the paler version, emphasises our otherness.

Don’t get me wrong. I will be watching like a hawk. Any difference in pricing, any indication that the pale plasters are the default, and I’ll be up on the highest of chestnut-brown horses before you can say “structural racism.” You might think it excessive, but companies have form on this. Dove’s misguided campaign which labelled moisturiser for “normal to dark” skin is a reminder of how quickly these attempts to provide for a diverse audience can turn into active othering, rather than othering by omission.

The advent of Heist and other hosiery companies which provide a range of tones in tights as the default has opened up a whole new world for me. A world where I can wear tights in spring and autumn, make myself look summery while keeping my legs warm. And now it’s a world where I can cover up a cut without it being visible from metres away. What tiny, tiny victories, you might think. And if you’re thinking it, I’ll bet it’s because you’ve never even had to consider it. Because you have skin-coloured skin.

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