When I think about what summer smells like, I think about salt and heat. There’s the steady tang of sweat and the sweet stench of sun-ripened fruit. When I think about the smell of summer, I think also of the cloying cologne of sunshine in clothes, in hair, and in the air. In my house, the smell of sunshine had the ever-constant trail of sunscreen right behind it. Truth be told, you can smell sunscreen in our house throughout the entire year, even when there has been no sun to speak of for weeks. My mother believed that even a hint of those darkening rays warranted an application. Merely the potential for our skin to absorb vitamin D, necessitated the wearing of facial moisturizer that also had UV blocking protection built in. The smell is just volumes stronger in the summer as sun is almost always a guarantee.  

I was a more half-hearted subscriber to the suntan clan. Less committed to applying the lotion religiously perhaps because of the mixed messages I received regarding its purpose. Sometimes I was reminded that suntan lotion was “dermatologist-recommended” for daily use, and could prevent cancer. Sometimes potential wrinkles in the distant future were employed to scare me into applying sunscreen on a daily basis (even though we all know that black don’t crack). Other times, most often when I had failed to put sunblock on, the reminder was accompanied with a sucking of teeth and an air of lamentation: it was such a shame that I hadn’t put any suntan lotion on. It was quite unfortunate that I had allowed myself to get so dark.

With the almost metallic smell of sunblock came the coppery essence of colorism.

So every summer, sometimes early spring, I would find myself lathering layers of the lotion on in fear of magnifying my melanin. When that failed to block the sun’s effects, I could be found forcibly sloughing the darker skin off in the shower with a loofah. I would praise my younger sister for her paler complexion, placing value in how much lighter her skin was than mine. And so, I helped perpetuate the subliminal putting down of brown skin.  With the almost metallic smell of sunblock came the coppery essence of colorism. I joined the family members who praised pale and degraded dark. I looked forward to the effortless fading of my skin that occurred every winter because I received subliminal messages that I ought to. I felt I was more approachable during those months, and definitely easier on the eyes.

Only recently have I been able to decolonize my mind and realize that melanin is magnificent in all shades. Anyone believing otherwise is simply reinforcing Eurocentric standards of beauty. Furthermore, I have rejected the idea that the only way to be considered beautiful, like those we see on magazines and on billboards, is to be as pale as possible. Colorism is essentially the permeation of these standards even deeper into the midst of our brown communities. We perpetuate these false standards of beauty that none of us can ever fulfill.

This summer was the first where I was able to throw off this mentality. The first summer where I didn’t panic if I got a few shades darker. The first summer where I didn’t reach for a loofah after a day lying by the pool. I celebrated when my sister came home from Disney World shades darker, telling her she was beautiful. She needed to hear it because the rest of the world often tries to tell us brown girls differently, tan or no tan. I am happy to say that this summer smelled strongly of salt, sweat, and sun-kissed skin.

by Mia King

photo by Yemi Kolawole

What We ThinkMia King