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I seem to remember my French teacher telling us that you don't usually say "Il a la peau pâle" to simply mean that "he has pale skin," and that it is more commonly used to refer to people who should have darker skin but actually have pale skin, like, for instance, a black person.

Is this true, or am I just misremebering?

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Il a la peau pâle means that he is not his usual self or not feeling well, it could describe a medical condition:

[exsangue] pale, pallid

  • être pâle comme la mort to be as pale as death
  • être pâle comme un linge to be as white as a sheet (Larousse)

More often than not it will carry a negative connotation, and it will express the fact that the person described, in their normal (maybe healthier) state, have more colour in their skin than that. You can become pâle because of fear, shock, despair, or sickness.

Consider this definition and example from Littré:

Qui a perdu sa couleur vive et animée, en parlant du visage et de la peau.

  • Un très insupportable bruit à ceux qui naviguent de nuit, Le rendait pâle comme un linge (SCARRON Virg. V)
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The first part is correct, it is not used to describe a normal skin colour; the second is wrong, it is not used to refer to a divergence from a common standard but instead to refer to the temporarily abnormal colour of one single person, the reasons for such a change to a lighter hue being various, for instance, fear, sickness, unusual diet. It wouldn't be used for people with dark coloured skin as such variations are probably not often detectable.

It is moreover very often used in speaking of someone's face, (forehead, cheeks) and hands and not so often about the other parts of the skin.

(TLFi) 1. [En parlant du teint, de la peau, d'une partie du corps et en partic. du visage] Qui a perdu sa couleur ou qui, naturellement, n'a pas ou a peu de couleur. Anton. coloré, vif, animé, rouge, rosé.Face, front pâle; mains pâles.

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In addition to what has been replied, note that in European-French folklore, pâle was used to describe the color of white people skin in the visage-pâle compound word (pale-face) and opposed to the skin color of native americans who were named peaux-rouges (redskins).

These obsolete usages survived for a while in Western movies.

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