My mother tells me the recipe for the first time when I am eight or nine. Two spoonfuls of sugar, the juice of one or two limes. It’s the same day that she notices a deep, pungent smell under my arms. Together we stand in front of her bathroom mirror and mime the motions of applying a stick of deodorant. I stare at her reflection as she tells me she used to use lime for this same purpose as a kid. She then remembers the state of my knees. I’ve been neglecting them, and they’ve darkened with dirt. She decides it’s time to give the recipe a try.
My mother squeezes a lime over my knees and instructs me to sprinkle some of the sugar over each one. The lime and sugar mix together, turning into a viscous mix that scratches away at my skin. My mother wraps her fingers with a damp towel and scrubs my knees until the paste turns dark. Así, con fuerza. I repeat the process on my elbows, heeding my mother’s instructions to scrub hard. Though we’ve learnt better methods since then (namely to exfoliate with caution), it’s the first time we’ve done this together — and perhaps I just want to please her. Se ven sucias. So I scrub, con fuerza.
In the shower, the paste rinses off, pooling in the drain for just a moment. It leaves behind raw, reddened patches of skin. But the next morning when the sunlight hits my legs, the skin looks even, clear. Mom tells me to moisturize them and to not forget, Never let them get this bad again.
My mother grew up in a large family in Mexico City. As the youngest daughter, she inherited beauty secrets developed out of necessity and ingenuity by her mother and four sisters. She learned to heat up spoons with her breath to curl her eyelashes and how to lighten her body hair with hydrogen peroxide. She learned to turn her hands into silk by mixing sugar and cream. And she learned to rub half-cut limes under her arms as makeshift deodorant.
Lime, like many things, came to Mexico by way of colonialism. The myth says Cristóbal Colón, on his second trip to the American continent, carried limonero seeds right there, in his pocket. Today limes are essential ingredients in all sorts of savory dishes, in deserts, in cocktails, in home remedies. In the realm of beauty, lime is said to be useful to exfoliate lips, clarify skin, and clean excess oil in hair.
Once, my mother used the juice of a lime to rid her fingers of the scent of smelly food. I remembered the moment months later, and decided to give it a try. At some point afterward, I scratched my cheek. I walked around for weeks with a hyperpigmented, perfectly delineated spot on my face. It was thin, the size of my index finger. My mother made it too go away with lime. She dipped a slice in baking soda and rubbed it furiously on my cheek. We let the residue sit for an hour, and when I finally washed my face, the spot was gone.
After that experience, my mother gave me new rules to follow: No lime near the face; no sun exposure after handling any citrus; and no more DIY tricks without her supervision. I co-sign those maxims to this day.
Years later, I break my promises and return to lime and sugar when depression runs deep, when hygiene and maintenance seem miles away. Isolation has taken a toll on the usual ways I care for my body. My shins — hidden underneath the same pair of so-called loungewear sets — have turned pale, scaly almost. My knees have darkened. When I look down, I hear my mother’s voice telling me it’s time to take a deep breath and get myself together. My mother taught me that to be beautiful is to be clean, to take care of the smallest blemishes. It’s never been about science or skincare for her, but the effort put forth. Con fuerza.
So I steal a bit of sugar from the kitchen azucarero and mix it with lime juice. The paste gives off its tangy smell, touching my skin with its familiar sting. I make note of the permanent marks on my knees — the eerily round scar from a fall on artificial turf, the stains left behind by the desert sun, the scratches here and there from moving about the world. Part of me hopes that I can clean the marks all away, that I can get rid of them and the grime, the stains of the last 10 months: the time I spent exploring the outdoors, the make-shift workouts on hardwood floors, the days I felt too weak to shower.
In the shower now, I scrub the sugar away with a washcloth made of ixtle, a fiber obtained from agave. The fibers dry under the sun for a few days and then are woven together (sometimes in the shape of mittens) providing a soft exfoliating tool with no plastic. My mother recommends it, saying I can scrub with less force.
As I massage the sugar mixture over my body, I imagine my mother fidgeting outside the door like she did when I was a child. I envision how, when she would finally enter the bathroom, her figure would break through the steam, and she would place a cup of raw ginger tea next to me, to start anew. ¡Qué limpias! she would say directly to my knees, after the water would wash away the lime paste. A weight would lift, and I felt clean.