Freckles and doubt

Under the surface of freckled skins

Freckles are a thing of beauty — interesting and distinctive. But for the kids who stood out on the playground, it’s not always so easy to come around to loving your freckles.

Photograph by Bailey Foster / Flickr Creative Commons

The first time I realised I had freckles I was 29 years old. Now, I’d noticed the little brown dots sprinkled across my face, arms and shoulders before of course — I have eyes, and I know how to use a mirror. But I swear, the first moment I became truly aware of myself as a freckly person was as a (reasonably) grown woman, as my then-boyfriend peered down at me: “You have freckles on your eyelids!” My surprise must have translated into a blank stare, so he, concerned he’d offended me, was quick to add: “No no, it’s nice!”

He was right of course: freckles are very nice indeed, and they add character and distinction. But freckles are also a contentious issue, I’ve since learned, particularly in the US and the UK, where I’ve lived for the past 15 years. Dorothy Parker put it thus: “Four be the things I’d have been better without: love, curiosity, freckles and doubt.” Freckled souls will often recall childhood bullying, attempts to bleach the clusters of melanin off their face with lemon juice, or having pleaded for concealing makeup. Even when people come around to loving their freckles, it’s often at the end of a long, sore process.

The place I grew up — Norway — is by no means a paradise where kids don’t get picked on for being different, but having freckles probably won’t an issue. I realised this as I was talking to my friend Allan Hinton, a travelling photographer whose gorgeous red hair and intense freckling makes him stand out pretty much everywhere he goes. But when Allan asked me if Norway has a lot of gingers, I said no, I didn’t think so. This was just as we were about to go to Norway, and we’d been there no more than two hours when Allan informed me: “Jess, I’ve never seen so many ginger people in one place in my life!” Stunned, I looked around and realised he was right: ginger, red, copper, strawberry blonde people milling about — and freckles galore. So that was the reason I’d never noticed my freckles before: where I come from, almost everyone has them.

I feel very lucky that I get to love my freckles without ever having felt any other way about them, because that’s really not the case for so many people. Now that summer is here, I get to watch as my freckles spread and take over my arms, and simply associate it with sunny weather. But as I have brown hair and only moderate freckling, I reached out to Ida Rindal Ree, my ginger cousin who’s a florist in Norway, to ask if her childhood was similarly devoid of freckle-hate. “I was conscious of having freckles, but never thought about it as a bad thing. I can’t remember ever getting any negative comments about it,” Ida tells me in Norwegian. “Freckles are a sign of fresh, healthy skin!” This is telling: Norwegians associate ‘fresh’ with being outside, staying active, and catching the sun. If you lump freckles in with this, no wonder they’re considered an asset.

If Ida can’t remember being bullied in school it’s pretty safe to assume she wasn’t, and I’m very happy for her. Because as anyone who’s ever been bullied will attest to: it’s not something you forget. My freckles never came up on the playground — as far as I can remember, the bullies’ accusations were more generic: “You’re ugly.” It seems silly now, but at the time it was devastating, and I was well into my teens before I actually understood it wasn’t true.

“There was a very redheaded girl at my school who was teased so mercilessly about her pale skin and prominent freckles that she changed schools,” says Summer Brennan, an author in New York. Young Summer only had a moderate amount of freckles (which she liked), but the bullies found other points of difference to latch onto: “I was mercilessly bullied in middle school, and the easiest target seemed to be my paleness. Kids threw things at me and called me ‘vampire legs’ if I wore shorts.” Growing up in California meant a Baywatch-tan was the beauty ideal: “I was always chasing some skin colour that doesn’t come naturally to me.”

The presence of women like Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore made Summer feel better about her looks, but as she succinctly puts it: “Children are cruel beasts.” Talking to people about this subject has made one thing clear: hardly anyone dislikes their freckles on merit — it’s almost always because it’s what made them stand out as kids. My friend Ross Smart, a graphic designer in London, resented his heavily freckled skin for this very reason: “Kids don’t normally want to stand out much, do they.” Ross wasn’t actually picked on for being freckly, but he’s quick to point out that bullies had lower-hanging fruit: he grew up poor, and his mother was gay. “But now that I’m a grown-up, I like having a unique feature such as uneven skin pigmentation,” he says. “My only irk is that it’s not a great canvas for tattoos.”

Seeing photos of Natasha Culzac, a model and writer in London, is one of those moments when you truly appreciate just how gorgeous freckles can be. Natasha is featured in photographer Brock Elbank’s incredible “Freckles” series, which will be exhibited next year. But Natasha, who’s mixed race, didn’t always love her ginger afro and heavily freckled skin: “I remember deeply hating them. I wanted to get rid of them.” The beauty ideal was Jennifer Aniston, Alicia Silverstone, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch — no one on screen looked like Natasha. “I wanted nothing more than to have a clear complexion and caucasian, flowing locks. I wanted to be the Girl Next Door.”

Natasha says her resentment about her appearance didn’t result from bullying, but from feeling unattractive and different. She remembers taking her mother to buy skin whitening cream in a desperate attempt to get rid of her freckles, but thankfully, that feeling didn’t last long. “I think my turning point of not caring was when I decided I wasn’t going to try and ‘fit in’ anymore. I’d started hanging out with skaters and people into punk and grunge music. My clothes and entire outlook changed.”

My own freckles aren’t as visible as they used to be anymore, at least not on my face — I’d love it if they came back. Ida says she hopes her toddler son, who’s inherited her red hair, will get freckles as he grows up. Ross laughs when I ask if women tend to like his freckles, before confirming he’s had a fair share of compliments: “Gingerlust is a thing! Maybe because it’s disarming and a bit boyish?” Summer also wishes she was more freckly, as they make her think of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: “Glory be to God for dappled things … All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled.”

Natasha hopes the emergence of models like herself will make a difference to freckly kids, and to others who feel like they don’t fit in: “When I tried to enter the modelling world in 2007, I was told by a few agencies that I wouldn’t be booked because photographers don’t like freckles. Oh how it’s all changed! Now we’re all out [embracing] gap teeth, armpit hair, and body positivity.” Change happens slowly, adds Natasha, but she thinks kids are already better off: “They’re a lot more sorted when it comes to identity, and being confident enough to be themselves.”