“What are you going to do about those?” my aunt asked me. She pointed to the clusters of freckles perched on the peaks of my cheekbones. The last time we were together, I was a toddler with a light brown sprinkling around my nose. Now I am in my mid-twenties, and the spots that once peppered my skin have evolved into colonies of hyperpigmentation across my face. No amount of daily sunblock and whitening creams forced on me by my mother could stop the epidemic.
I stood before my aunt as a grown woman, but immediately channeled the same slew of excuses that I had been reciting since I was nine years old: Yes, I wear sunscreen every day; yes, I went to a dermatologist; no, I can’t laser them off because they’re genetic; no, the doctor said there’s nothing I can do.
To her, every freckle is a flaw. She has always hated her own freckles, which have blurred into a mix of the natural spots she inherited from my grandmother and damage from growing up under Thailand’s blazing sun. When I was a child, I spent mornings seated next to my mother’s feet, gazing up at her with a daughter’s fascination as she applied globs of skin-lightening creams. The lotions promised to wipe the color away and reveal a blank white canvas underneath.
She was repentant for a childhood spent outdoors near the equator, and her vanity table always reminded me of the luxurious makeup counters at high-end department stores. In first grade, she gave me my first bottle of sunscreen and instructed me to apply it every morning before I left the house. Wow, I thought. My very own cream to apply every morning. So I did, without question.
For years of my childhood, we lived in a predominantly white suburb outside of Washington D.C., where I was worried about more than a few light spots on my face. Instead, I spent my school days wondering why my classmates wholeheartedly enjoyed calling me Chinese at recess even when I told them I was Thai.
Freckles are considered “dirty” on a face that should be flawless, silky smooth, and preferably white. For every shelf lined with self-tanners at Target and CVS in the United States, there are aisles of whitening lotions at every drugstore in Bangkok, selling shades of white I had only ever seen in the paint department at Home Depot. The commercials on Thai television for these skin-lightening lotion brands almost always star a biracial actress (half Thai, half Caucasian is the standard) and a color gradient of her skin tone, from darkest to lightest.
Although I ‘d moved to Thailand with three years of daily sunscreen application already under my belt, I kept developing freckles. It wasn’t long before I too succumbed to the marketing ploys of skin-lightening creams; my mother, alarmed, took matters into her own spotted hands and bought a bottle for me at the supermarket.
The instructions, as my mother translated them to me, said to lather the cream all over my face and body twice a day. So I did, without question. But the freckles kept coming, along with the barrage of inquiries from my mother’s friends and other Asian moms in the P.T.A.
White skin was clean. Beautiful. Pristine. Suddenly, my tan and freckled skin wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t beautiful under any circumstance.
These days I wake up to my boyfriend. “Good morning, freckles,” he says. He covers my brown polka dots in kisses before rolling out of bed to greet the sun and his espresso maker. He tells me often that my freckles are his favorite thing about me. I remind him that I also have a great personality, to which he replies, “Oh, that too.”
I am now the proud aunt to two half-Thai, half-white nieces: three-year-old Amaya and one-year-old Adriana. Neither of the girls shows signs of freckling yet. Their mother is my cousin, and she enforces a strict ban on negative body image talk under their roof. Grandma is not allowed to tease the girls about their weight or features, and my cousin’s determination to raise strong women with positive body images is already paying off: I have only ever heard Amaya call someone “ugly” once, and “someone” happened to be a lizard crossing Dora the Explorer’s path on TV. She loves fair-skinned Ariel and Cinderella as much as she loves princesses of color like Tiana and Jasmine.
Most importantly, she is more concerned with catching the grasshoppers hiding out in the basement than fussing about her looks. Sometimes, I think about how many grasshoppers I could have caught in the years I lost lamenting my freckles.
I think about my mother and the many vacations we spent in Hawaii and on the sunny shores of southern Thailand. She spent them ducking in the shade with a visor on and shielding her face with a magazine, no matter how persistently my brothers and I begged for her to jump in the water with us. My dad always joined in on the fun, crashing into the waves for hours until he was sunburned to a crisp. He has fewer sun spots than my mother. He does not call them “sun damage.” In fact, he does not call them anything.
A few years ago, I saw a dermatologist who closed the case of my unstoppable freckling — he explained that my freckles are not sun damage but hereditary, and quite a unique feature for Asian skin.
There is nothing that can be done to mitigate the appearance of hereditary freckles, and to me, this called for celebration. It meant the end of an expensive, fruitless journey down countless skincare aisles. I couldn’t wait to share the news with my mother when I got home that evening.
“Ma! Guess what? Our freckles aren’t from sun damage. They’re hereditary,” I said, warming up for my victory lap around the living room.
Her face fell. “What do you mean?” she asked.
She paused. “Not even the laser?”
There was no celebration that followed. Victory lap canceled. My mother sat back in her chair, defeated. The idea of resigning herself to a life with freckles was not something she would ease in to — maybe not ever.
As for me, I try to remember that I am not damaged. I am unique without question.