On Pale Skin

We all learned in Women’s Studies classes that the dominant beauty norms are exclusionary and repressive. Can it be any surprise that subcultures can form their own equally exclusionary beauty ideals? Though often goth positions itself as a shadow of the dominant beauty–a negative image of what is meant to be desirable, it still retains the underlying paradigms of the mainstream. No matter how far one attempts to stray from the mainstream, nothing trumps young, thin, symmetrical and smooth. Goth forms an interesting paradox in its elevation of pallor to its beauty pantheon. Pale skin is a reaction in opposition to what the mainstream considers beautiful. Pale skin is also a reinstatement of historical signifiers of status. In this post, I wish to explore the troubled meaning of pale skin.

One look at Sargent’s portrait of Madame X shows the cold allure of white skin swathed in dark clothing. Her shoulders nearly glow white. Her skin is like marble. One imagines those hands icy to the touch. Pale skin makes dark hair and clothing seem deeper. In winter, everyone swaddled in black tends to look a bit goth as the chill chases the blood from their faces. Light skin has been revered in the past as a sign that its bearer could afford to stay indoors, letting someone else dig up the food they ate. Is it the connection with those aristocrats–who, after all, were the aesthetes–that makes pale skin attractive to a movement that prizes images of the past and appreciation of melancholy art? Perhaps. I suspect the connection is to the figure of the romantic consumptive. Goth tends to draw from the Victorian era. Here is a  culture not so removed from ours as to be impractical, but invested in mourning, romanticizing loss and wearing elaborate black garments. Lizzie Siddal in widow’s weeds. The romantic consumptive has a hollow, pale face. He or she is young, doomed, and probably looks great coughing into a handkerchief of white linen bordered with black lace. Not the son or daughter of laborers, the ideal romantic consumptive has time to write poetry and ponder his or her impending mortality, all while safely guarded from sunlight by velvet curtains.

This brings me to the other meaning of pale skin: illness. Pale skin suits the sick child who can’t–or won’t–go  play outside with others. Cultivating pale skin is a protest against happy, healthy, tan American robustness. It says you’d rather look sick. An ironic aside here: I’m not white. Or at least, not entirely. The reality is that there are plenty of goths who’ll never have pale skin. That doesn’t make them any less goth. That much is obvious. But there’s no denying that the ideal image of the goth is of a person who’s worked hard to stay out of the sun. With the same ethic that some people put into their tans, goths approach the regimen of sunscreen, long sleeves or parasols. Even those of us who will never be absolutely pale try to avoid the air of wholesome outdoorsiness that sun-flushed cheeks give. In a Barbie world, we’d rather be Jane Eyres.

Bronzer, get thee behind me.

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One Response to “On Pale Skin”

  1. “Pale skin makes dark hair and clothing seem deeper” – I think a lot of it is to do with chasing a strict monochrome aesthetic, almost becoming a living black-and-white photograph, true white goes best with true black, no hints of colour, no warm tones to the skin, no greens, browns or blues in the blacks. Real life, though, is not a black and white photograph. We cannot walk into a film noir with altered contrast levels, shot all in black and white. I do wish there’d be more room for the appreciation of other skin tones, and that people didn’t slather on the white makeup (especially as it rarely looks flattering).

    Strangely enough I’m an outdoorsy person who tries her best to keep her naturally very pale skin very pale (mostly because anything other than spray-tan would probably end up with me having miserable sunburn.)

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