So, I’ve finished my first full-length novel, and I’ve been puttering around with other short projects. It occurs to me that nowhere in my manuscript do I wax poetic about this person’s “peaches and cream” complexion or how that person has skin “like coffee with milk in it.” I just don’t think it’s relevant to know precisely what shade somebody is; I certainly don’t walk around in my actual life looking at people and trying to pick the appropriate food or beverage to describe them. And, yet, there’s a huge preoccupation, in romance-oriented fiction, with describing exact skin tone.
Personally, I don’t find it particularly useful in picturing a character. Going on about “the caramel expanse of Rahul’s chest” only serves to 1) Make me hungry and 2) Creep me out. Because here’s the thing: When you make it all about a character’s skin color, it becomes more about fetishizing them than it does about seeing them as an individual. It’s an external, sexual gaze rather than a more penetrating one about who they are on the inside. i.e. Rahul is hot because he’s this brawny, well-oiled exotic being and your gaze lingers on how different he is from you.
And there’s also a race/class issue at play that makes it even more uncomfortable. Lady Margaret, an English noble, is a prized commodity because she is “milk-white” and “her lips are like rosebuds.” So, what, if she happened to have a tan from playing in the back gardens all day, she wouldn’t be a viable heroine? There’s a sense that her paleness is a cherished trait, while a minority hero or heroine’s darker skin is something to be lusted after, because it’s forbidden.
I can only speak to my own experience as a writer, and the fact that I’m South Asian in origin. It doesn’t occur to me to lavish such erotic attention on the differences between my skin and somebody else’s. For me, there’s too much socio-political baggage attached. So, it’s not something I would use to get a character all revved up in the bedroom.
But clearly many authors do. And what spurs that impulse? I’m curious as to what shapes how people talk about race and skin color as an aphrodisiac of sorts. How much does a writer’s own racial perspective come into play? Is it acceptable if a non-white writer is writing that way but hinky if it’s a white writer? Is it just a default setting that nobody thinks too closely about?
Now please pardon me while I go drink some coffee with milk in it…