Skin Sisters: A story for women about making peace with skin colour

About the story

I created this story for a women’s day celebration on a wine farm just outside Stellembosch. In our audience were women with their domestic helper and other women from all walks of life who came to celebrate each other.

Skin Sisters

I was always very embarrassed about my skin. It wasn’t the kind of skin that could tan evenly and become a golden brown in the sun. It wasn’t the kind of skin that freckled evenly like my sister’s either. It was not even the kind of white skin that was milky and smooth all over. It was the kind of skin that was a see through white that turned red in the sun and when the red was gone, there would be the occasional dark large ugly freckle.

When I was around 11 or 12, I found a way to fold my arms so that I could cover the ugliest spots with my hands and spread out fingers without looking too unnatural. I used this hold especially when there were good looking boys around: in the bus on the way home from school mostly.

All through high school I cringed in summer when the girls would line up against the wall sitting with their legs straight in front of them, pulling up their school dresses as high as individual chastity allowed and waited for the tan… Everyone wanted to be as golden brown and gorgeous as Susan, the blonde bombshell 2 years ahead of me.

Having left school and having made peace with most of my teenage demons, I entered the era of sunscreen and umbrellas. If I couldn’t tan, I would bleach. Every morning I would cover myself with factor 40, take up my red umbrella and walk to class or shops and later to work. I would smile and wink at my landlady’s domestic help, Miriam, every morning as she came to work and I left – each with an umbrella in hand. I giggled with my Pedi students about the fact that black girls all wanted to stay as light as possible and all white girls wanted to become as dark as possible. “We all gravitate to the same colour”, one laughed.

Years later when I was in hospital with my miscarriage, I finally found peace. I did not have medical aid then and ended up in the better of the two state Hospitals in my town, Pietermaritzburg. Next to me on the bed was Gertrude, a gorgeous golden brown woman, proud of her half Indian half koi san heritage. She was in for an ovarian cyst removal. We were both in pain after our procedures, we both needed a bath and there was a staff shortage. Somehow we made up our minds to help each other get clean. Side by side we stumbled out of bed, down the corridor to the next bath room, the closest one was out of order, and into the small room. Side by side we removed our hospital gowns, ran the bath and took turns getting in, and scrubbing each other.

I saw with surprise that what looked on the outside like a smooth golden brown skin was mottled in places, rough in others and even speckled here and there. Gertrude remarked that she  had never seen so much white skin in one go. Exhausted from the exertion, we collapsed on the side of the bath side by side clutching our sides giggling at the relief of years and years of unspoken truths around skin colour. And as I looked at the two of us side by side on the edge of the bath, I saw that next to Gertrude’s gorgeous golden brown skin my own white skin had never looked more beautiful


Petro Janse van Vuuren.