I got back from vacation in Tulum, Mexico, and a friend accused me of wanting to have dinner this week just so I could show off my tan.
Ha! Shows how much he knows.
I haven’t been tan in
20 25 years. [Updated for 2019]
First of all, all my melanin has shut down. You don’t hear of that much, you hear of organs shutting down. But skin is the body’s largest organ, and for me, its tanning properties have left the building. My outer layer has forgotten it’s Jewish, and now just burns like an Irish-Albino lass raised in a basement.
I used to tan like a mofo, which was very important, because in my family, and in the 1980s, tan-ness was a valid metric of self-worth, in an equation summed up thusly:
You’re either tan, or you’re nobody.
My dad supported this worldview. When I was ten or so, after a week in the Caribbean, Dad looked at me and my sister side by side, and said, “Wow, Laura, you are TAN. Marian, you’re less so.” He might as well have said, “Laura, you’re an exceptional person. Marian, eh.”
Marian cried all day, my mother reminding her what I had to do to get that tan. “You got to have fun while Laura stayed inside with her eyes swelled shut from sun poisoning. If it comes down to that, wouldn’t you rather be a little less tan?”
Wrong question. More crying.
On every vacation, my father would put his arm next to mine and whistle at how I was out-tanning him. The pupil had surpassed the master. “Back in the army, we’d cover ourselves in iodine,” he told me. “Nothing beats iodine for a dark tan.” Iodine wasn’t safe, so I used good ol’ baby oil.
I’d always rush it.
Back then, when we knew better but like to say we didn’t, the skin-protection science was: you’ve got to get your base going, start with the SPF 4 Hawaiian Tropic till you’re safely the color of an aged book page, then go full throttle with the Johnson & Johnson’s. Many times I thought I was too good for the build-up phase, and my tanning hubris bought me a day of chills, painful-as-a-million-dagger showers, peeling, and the aforementioned closed-to-little-slits puffy eye look.
Here’s proof. I’m the one standing. The one who can’t see.
A setback like that is devastating when you’ve only got 7 days to achieve what’s most important:
Tannest in your class.
A white or turquoise t-shirt will only do so much on that first day back in school, when that’s the same thing everyone’s wearing and you’re all comparing forearms. Some girls in my class wore silver jewelry from Tiffany’s for an extra edge. Damn them!
I used to feel so sorry for the skiers, who only got face tans. Some of them with the reverse-racoon goggle tans. So sad.
My worst tanning disaster was Spring Break of 10th grade.
We were at Club Med in Turks and Caicos, along with two of my tallest, blondest, golden-tan-est friends from school. While they got instantly brown, I slathered on the SPF — neglecting some key spots — and lay out that first day till the sun went down.
When we got dressed to go to “Hands Up,” the nightly staff-led singalong hour with choreographed hand movements (sort of an early Macarena), my friends looked magnificent and I looked like someone had painted my armpit-pudge area bright red. I attempted to even it out with baby powder, which worked about as well as you think.
The last day of this vacation, jealous of my friends’ beautifully even, head-to-toe walnut-brown glory, I spent the last hour before our flight kneeling in the shallow water of the Caribbean sea, baby oil on my face and arms, offering myself to the sun like a human sacrifice.
Fittingly, I boarded the plane in the form of a burnt offering.
I’m not exaggerating when I say the skin on my arms was bubbling like a cheese skillet they serve you at a Mexican restaurant and say, “don’t touch.”
The blisters formed a sort of tan, which I prolonged with the help of the tanning bed they’d just installed in the neighborhood aerobics studio I belonged to. “You’re brown as a berry,” the owner would say as I purchased more tanning sessions. “Keep it up.”
My second-worst tanning event was courtesy of QT.
That was Coppertone’s sunless tanning product product, which they hadn’t quite nailed. On a normal day, it turned you orange. But when you have carotene poisoning from eating a pound of carrots a day, as I did through most of college [*cough** low-level eating disorder*] it turned you the color of an Oompa Loompa. Or weeping Republican John Boehner.
I stopped tanning around 1994.
I was still living at home, and my summer schedules had been artfully arranged around PTH (Prime Tanning Hours, if you didn’t grow up in tanning culture). If I was working, I’d spend my lunch hour alone on a bench, baby-tee cap sleeves pushed up to my shoulders, face to the sun. Taking someone with me would just hold me back, because I’d have to turn my face to talk to them.
If I was between jobs (OK, recently fired), I’d spend 12-2 pm, without fail, on my parents’ terrace with a mirror under my neck, aimed up at my face.
What’s sadder than using a makeshift, old-lady-in-Florida sun reflector?
Wanting to be tan so badly that you’ll gladly inhale the scent of dog poop and urine for two hours a day. That’s what the terrace smelled like, because it had a doggie door for our Cairn Terrier, Cinnamon, so she could go out there and do her business, requiring us to walk her only once a day.
To this day, the terrace goes by the family nickname Poo Poo Palace — and in the name of sexy tan, I used to lie on it.
And then, I gave it up.
I guess I had the foresight to know I’d be glad for it in my 40s. But I’ve never been the type to act on foresight. If I were, I’d have figured out what a hedge fund was when everyone started talking about them, and gone to hedge fund school.
I think I was just tired. Tired of the shit and piss smell. Tired of all the stress around a goal I now had permission to give up, because Kelly and Brenda on 90210 were white as chalk.
That pale look worked better with a velvet choker. And freed up so much time to accomplish my dreams and goals.
(Or, to watch All My Children and One Life to Live.)
Do you tan? Did you used to? Any disasters?
TELL ME IN THE COMMENTS.
But have you ever heard of Hell’s Itch… ?
i still have a permanent line etched on the back of both legs from surfing and being splayed on a board paddling around for many years … sign of HEALTH right? RIGHT???
i grew up in hawaii but now, living in Oregon, my future self is like hey GOOD JOB because i’m basically forced inside half the year and have to wear a damn wetsuit when i do surf, once in a blue moon (i now flop around like a toddler who looks like she will never learn to stand)
once tho, back in the how-i-got-etched days, me and a friend went surfing on a particularly sunny (and BEST WAVE) day. sans sunscreen. for six hours or so. we had both built some melanin defenses or whatever but not enough for THAT. so, we sat out afterward, realizing how scalded we looked. wrapped towels around our heads to, uh? block the sun? a news crew came and captured us in this glory.
later that night my friend realized she had burned her EYEBALLS. as i slathered myself in lidocaine aloe gel she would routinely visit the freezer, open wide and stick her face in, for some—ANY—eyeball relief.
this apparently does not solve the issue.
but at least i have a solid memory BURNED in my brain. and can still see it, even if my eyes stop working.
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Oh gosh! Tanning!
At least you can say that your melanin shut down because it realized that the sun in the States isn’t as strong as your cells remember (cell have memory, right?) from your cultural origins in hotter places.
I was born and raised in the southern Mediterranean and my melanin NEVER kicked in. The aunt who used to take care of me when my mom worked, proudly tells me how she used to put put my stroller on the veranda, face towards the sun, so I could get some color into my ghostly face. How’s that for an early tanner?
Oh and the family’s favorite joke whenever they couldn’t find me was that I was probably standing next to the wall…
But I did desperately try to tan. When I was 15 I got so burned in all the places my bikini wasn’t covering, I had to sleep sitting down. Not fun. Or comfortable. I think when I was about 20 I finally accepted that no matter how much sun I got I would never tan. Just burn. Plus, even the pale yellow-tannish color I managed to get by the end of the summer just made me look the way everyone else did in winter. So I was still asked “Why don’t you tan?” all the time.
So I gave up. But now I’m super popular on the first weekends of beach weather. Everyone wants to go to the beach with me so they can look like they’ve already been tanning by strategically placing their towels just outside my umbrella shade.
Tanning is fun. (Not!)
Exactly! People like us, we’re used for contrast to play up other people’s tans. We are the human form of a white shirt.
Aren’t you glad you were at least wearing that bikini?
Haha. Yes, indeed, glad for that bikini. Way to see the positive in that!
I am too horrified to write anything.
As you should be. At least I didn’t grow up with granite countertops, if that makes it any better.
Mom Belgray says
Oh – the things I didn’t know — like your attendance at tanning salons! I sure remember those painful sunburns and puffy eyes. I could barely touch you, but sun poisoning never seemed to phase you for long. And you still manage to make it all funny.
You didn’t know I was using the tanning bed at Thea Korek? I guess, why would you – why would I have told you that? I wouldn’t have. I would’ve said it was the magic of moisturizer that kept my tan going. Or the pier, because that particular year, it was 80 degrees in March, and we all lay out during gym instead of jogging.
Randle Browning says
Yeah, I remember when being tan was the only metric for success as a human. I used to think the kids with their own pools were cheating at the game.
But either way, all my competitive tanning ended at age 16, when I developed a minor sun allergy (tragedy!). Luckily, Delia’s was cool and chokers were in.
Now I can only tan if I shock my skin down by getting in and out of the water every 10 minutes. It’s fine, but I think it’s unsettling to all the chill sunbathers who lay there for hours and hours.
I was working that strategy until a couple years ago in Italy, when I got a sizzler sunburn (like your bubbly cheese arms) and a whole new set of permanent freckles (they’re not sunspots, okay). Now I wear a straw hat indoors, just to be safe. I wonder when velvet chokers will be a thing again?
You can “shock your skin down”? What IS that? I wonder if it’d work for me.
Never mind. Because wrinkles.
Kids who had their own pools were indeed cheating, and should be penalized for it in some way. Maybe they have to wear full-body zinc.
Um, yes. Chokers will be a thing. Because those kids in Greenpoint and Bushwick, Bklyn will leave no ’90s fashion stone unturned.