I used to worship the sun. My friends and I would wear as little clothing as legal, and go outside when the sun was at its peak. Ask any tanner, and she’ll know when that is. Ten a.m. till two p.m., even later during daylight savings time.
When I was younger, I thought I was lucky. Some people – poor them – could lay out all day and never get a tan to show for it. I felt sorry for them. Others would burn, but it would “turn into” a tan, so the pain and redness of the burn were something they put up with, stoically. Me? No problem. I would put a beach towel down, make sure I was nowhere near the shade of our backyard tree, take off my sunglasses, and bake. Hours later, I would get up, slightly dazed, and go downstairs to the shower. Peeling off my swimsuit, I’d look with satisfaction in the mirror. The greater the difference between my covered and uncovered skin, the better.
For many years, two events defined my summers. One was Girl Scout Camp; the other, my extended family’s trip to a perfect lake in Minnesota. It really bothered me if camp came before Lake Ada. At camp, we had to wear a uniform of green shorts and striped green t-shirts. We were out in the sun most of the day, and I would develop a farmer tan – white arms where my sleeves fell, white ankles where my (required) socks landed. That meant I had to go on vacation looking silly.
Tanning was, of course, all about looks. Once, at the lake, I met a girl – from one of the few families not related to me – who gasped after my first day of power tanning. “Are you wearing makeup?” she asked admiringly. “You look great!” With a deeply bronzed face, a girl didn’t need any makeup. It would have been redundant, and besides, the pale foundation I wore during the school year would not have matched at all.
The sun even brought my freckles out, and I loved my freckles. One early autumn day, when I was in college and still “laying out,” as we called it, my freckles made a mailman swoon. “Oh!” he said, smiling. “Your freckles remind me of the ones my wife used to have.” I had made his day.
In my nuclear family, I was the champion tanner. My poor mom and sister would try their darndest, rubbing themselves with baby oil, sweating through the hottest, most humid Iowa days, for little more than a one-percent upgrade. My dad got very brown, but he suffered for it, burning his back so often it became a summer ritual to help him remove the peeling skin from his shoulders. I know, it sounds gross, but back then it was normal.
I used that word, “nuclear,” purposely. I know – a lot of us know, whether we want to or not – that what the sun actually does is irradiate our skin. Sun exposure, the experts tell us, is the primary cause of skin cancer, be it squamous cell, basal cell, or, the star of the show, melanoma. I know you’ve hear this before, but let me remind you: Melanoma kills. According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, every eight minutes, someone in the U.S. will be given a melanoma diagnosis. Every hour of every day, someone will die from it.
That could be me. I’ve already had a weird, black mole appear that had to be removed. My dermatologist told me it was precancerous, and the kind of cancer it could have turned into was, you guessed it, melanoma.
My friend Beth had a different, less deadly kind. Still, it had to come off, and it left her missing a little part of her nose. Her sunny childhood caught up with her more than once, and I cringed at just how many pieces of her face would have to be carved off to keep her safe. (As it was, another kind of cancer killed her, in her mid-50s. Did the sun have anything to do with it? We’ll never know, but I’ll always wonder.)
Even if it doesn’t kill you, a tan is the kind of beauty that will turn on you as the years go by. My cousin Sue was beautiful, a swimmer who loved to waterski. Combining the sun with water is a killer app, worse than lacing baby oil with iodine – and she did both. By the time she was 40, Sue’s pretty face was covered in fine lines, destined to become deeper and more disfiguring. Look at your brown leather purse: Do you want your fact to look like that? Tanning without sunglasses contributes to macular degeneration, too. Is a good tan worth risking blindness?
We used to joke that we were baking in the sun, but now, from my years of cooking chicken, I’d say it’s more like a thorough roast. You know how golden the turkey looks in that famous Norman Rockwell painting? That’s how a tan looks to me now. “Tan, don’t burn,” used to be the slogan of Coppertone suntan lotion. Notice the name – suntan, not sunscreen.
Now, we know better. I’ve been using moisturizer and makeup with a high SPF for decades. Better late than never. Some fashion models and starlets are sporting the untanned look, and they look lovely. They’ll look better when they’re older, too.
Young people – in their teens and 20s – still lay out, and they flock to tanning salons, forking over money for their radiation. Many states have outlawed indoor tanning for kids under 18. It shouldn’t take a law to knock some sense into our heads. Dying to be beautiful? You just might be. And I think you look much better as is.