At the lake in the late afternoon, tired from swimming all the way to the dock and running in the grass with my brother, I curl my five-year-old self on the striped towel, my head of lake-wet brown hair drips on my mother’s lap, and she pretends to count my freckles. The touch of her finger on my cheek, my forehead, my sunpink nose, and her soft voice, one hundred twenty-six, one hundred twenty-seven, mixes with the sun’s warmth, bakes me in love. I can feel the lake water evaporate from my navy-blue bathing suit with a dark red daisy and free-flapping petals at the chest. My mother moves to my shoulders, two hundred sixty-three, two hundred sixty-four.
After initiating a woman into witchery, the devil branded her to seal her allegiance and servitude. The scar appeared as a faint freckle, nearly invisible. In the 17th century when men determined to cleanse their community of witches, witch prickers used sewing needles, large pins, and small knives to test suspicious marks. A pricked freckle that did not bleed or cause undue pain proved a woman had made a deal with the devil. Initially clergymen and town leaders took responsibility for rooting out the witchery but slowly a cottage industry of traveling witch prickers developed. In England, Scotland, the colonies, witch prickers earned as much as 300 pounds per discovered witch. Does it shock anyone, then, that they devised retractable blades that disappeared into ornate handles when pressed against skin and thus never caused pain nor drew blood? Can we feign surprise that nearly every tested freckle revealed a devil’s mark?
Babies are born without freckles. My newborn photos, squished pale white face, sprout of dark hair, clear gaze, attest to what science insists: without exposure to the sun, freckles do not exist. But still, these marks are so much me that I squint hard, wonder if it’s a trick of the light. Just a couple years later, in another picture, I stand chubby knee deep in the lake, arms upstretched, one little hand held by each parent. Splashed over my small nose and spilling onto my cheeks, barely visible but visible, a handful of tiny freckles.
The two kinds of freckles, ephelides and solar lentigines, both result from sun exposure and hyperactive melanocytes. Ephelides come in all shades of brown, from very light tan to nearly red to super dark. Most common in people with fair skin and red hair, they also cover plenty of us with other hair colors and different shades of skin. The result of genetics and sun exposure, they appear in children as young as two years old. While ephelides darken and multiply in the sun then fade in winter, solar lentigines arrive and stay. The sun births them itself, no genetic predisposition necessary.
Melanocytes rest just between the dermis and epidermis and distribute melanin through long dendrites. In the freckle-free, melanin spreads smoothly—plentiful in the dark-skinned, less in the light-skinned—and the sun’s effect is steady (uneven distribution of sunscreen notwithstanding), but in us freckled folk melanin pools in spots of intense concentration. I imagine my melanin as chunky peanut butter, each little nut a freckle, versus someone else’s smooth. Just a little human variation, these spots of darker skin, but not without power.
At eight, when people say, “Your freckles are multiplying!” I take it as a compliment.
By twelve, my freckles in the mirror give me pause. Comparisons to Pippi Longstocking no longer affirm me as quirky, independent, or special. Judy Blume’s book, Freckle Juice, inspires classmates to ask so many times if I’d tried rubbing lemons, pickle juice or baking soda on my face. The picture of my girlhood I’d held for so long: braids, freckles, skirting the edge of tomboy but never landing fully there, fades, becomes illegible.
That same year a new freckle-free friend asks, “Don’t you just hate your freckles?” We stand in her mother’s marble bathroom trying to match one of her seventeen shades of foundation to our skin. Her words pierce, burn. I want the clear skin of every model, movie star, popular girl. Hating my freckles curdles in my throat like betrayal. Conflict with my own flesh not yet part of my daily experience, not yet a link to women everywhere.
I am thirteen when Karen Allen’s face as Marion Ravenswood in Raiders of the Lost Ark shines across the wide screen, her freckles not daintily scattered over the bridge of her nose and perfect cheeks, but everywhere on her face, her arms, dancing along her collar bones, and she, as pretty as anyone, prettier. It matters, too, that she plays someone feisty and free. In my air-conditioned seat, popcorn slathered with fake butter, hundreds of freckles sigh with relief.
A year later or so, Allen stars as Helen Keller in a Broadway drama. I beg to see my favorite actress live. My grandparents take me over the winter holidays, despite warnings that the content is too adult. I don’t remember the dark portrayal of Helen’s sexual awakening or the tumult of the dissolution of Helen and Annie Sullivan’s bond. I remember sitting between my grandparents, waiting, waiting for Karen Allen to appear and then the heartsinking disappointment that her stage makeup obscures her freckles, except for one. And one freckle is a beauty mark, the opposite of ugly. Why do so many beauty marks erase their beauty?
And at fifteen, I lie in the blazing sun slathered with oil, imagining I can tan my peach skin to the precise brown of my freckles and render them, at least temporarily, at least for the summer, invisible. The thin skin on my chest blisters, four bubbles of seared skin ooze painfully when I cannot keep my fingers from piercing them, the clear serum sticky on my finger, the raw skin burns. My freckles meanwhile multiply and darken, each one declaring the unblemished skin of the beautiful will never be mine.
Ancient Egyptians tried fenugreek to render their freckles invisible. Medieval women preferred elderberry. Throughout history: bleach, ammonia, mercury, lead white, carbolic acid. Today: vitamin C, retinoid cream, salicylic acid, kojoic acid, azelaic acid, hydroquinone, hyaluronic acid, lasers, dermal erasers, fibroblast skin pens, and on and on and on. In under one second, Google supplies 48 million ideas for freckle removal.
For centuries freckles signaled low social status, exposing the bearer as someone who had to work outdoors in the sun. But look deeper and of course there’s more to it than that. How poverty and ugliness remain markers of unworthiness, for one. And how society attributes witchiness to women considered both beautiful and ugly, especially those with power. The word witch derived from wicca, connected to wisdom. Women’s wisdom threatens. Our beauty bewitches, casts a spell, the truth behind any success. Our ugliness a manifestation of evil, a desire to overpower, the source of bitterness, and maybe worse, the butt of so much humor. What’s funnier, after all, than an ugly woman? How better to undercut than turn her looks into a joke?
Genetics are weird, unpredictable, and so is time. Rare alleles of the MC1R gene correlate (but don’t fully align) with a high concentration of freckles, deep melanin pools in the epidermis’ basal level waiting for the sun to kiss single freckles into color. In our youth, people mistook me and my brother for twins, eighteen-months apart, similarly freckled, we jockeyed around the same height until he turned eleven and left me permanently behind and below. Over a decade after his birth, our parents, the same ones, the same starting set of genes, had a second set, two more brothers in quick succession. Both of them unfreckled, barely a casual dusting in summer’s height. The youngest nearly olive to our palest pink.
In 2019 a Zara lipstick ad on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, featured model Jing Wen and her freckles. An immediate backlash accused the western company of trying to assert the notion that Chinese people are ugly, insinuating in some cases that the freckles had been added or darkened to highlight the ugliness. Some insisted the choice of a freckled model reflected the chasm between Western and Eastern beauty standards, that a culturally sensitive ad campaign would have airbrushed the freckles away. Still others characterized the response as narrow-minded and a sign of internalized cultural inferiority. Not a small Twitter war, over half a billion people viewed the debate under the hashtag Insult to China.
Meanwhile, fake freckles trend on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok where young women share the pros and cons of henna, eyeliner, permanent marker, a specially designed tool called “the Freck,” or investing in freckle tattoos. Using semi-permanent ink and the stick-and-poke method, freckle tattoos heal in about a week and can last two years. In 2021, a spate of DIY videos inspired Australian influencer and reality TV star, Tillie Whitfield, to stab her face with sewing needles and lead-filled internet-supplied ink. The resulting infection required hospitalization, threatened her eyesight, spread dark purple scars across her cheeks. Nine months later her skin remains unhealed.
Easy enough to consider this particular to social media, but think about standards of beauty everywhere and forever. Think about the outsized impact of melanin, what’s been done under the fiction that dark skin, those active melanocytes, rendered the bearers less than human.
A handful of pinprick freckles sprinkle across the dermatologist’s nose. Tiny dots on her brown skin, you would miss them if her face weren’t so close, close enough to count freckles. She confirms: your father had a melanoma, and your mother, too? Anyone else? My brother, I supply. She reviews the risk factors for melanoma. Family history, check. Dark hair, light eyes, lighter skin, check. Sun damage, check. Multiple sunburns in adolescence, check. And, of course, freckles, check, check, check. The paper gown crushed down to expose shoulders, upper back, she lightly brushes a gloved finger across my skin, looking for the places the melanin, there to protect, lost its battle with the sun. She pricks a suspicious mark, a pinch, then burn, then numb, before she snags a piece. Two weeks later, melanoma confirmed, she cuts it right off, leaves a pale scar against pale skin.
Nine and counting.
Every summer the sun burnishes my daughter’s amber brown skin to copper, mahogany. So far, her thick spread of melanin has protected her better than the sunscreen we rub, spray, nag over her skin. I want nothing more than for her to love her brown skin, her super curly hair, symbols of her Blackness. And I’m relieved that she will be so much less susceptible to burns, melanoma, basal cell carcinomas than I. Still, each year of her young life the internal and external violence of racism pierces her world. Neither melanin nor sunscreen shield her from society’s worst dangers.
She’s yet to burn until today, the first hot day summer delivers. At eight-years-old she marries the blue pool, swims the length underwater again and again, jumps in a thousand times, climbs out, lingers on the edge only for sustenance. By evening the skin on her small nose pulls tight, hurts when she smiles too hard. By morning the top layer crinkles and peels. She runs from the bathroom to my bed. “Look, Mama! I have freckles, too.” I count them for her. Seven, eight, nine.