First things first: I admit that I speak from a bit of a biased perspective on this, as I am a class 1 ginger who has never been able to attain a color between translucent and magenta in my life. I have never known the joy of a nice, even tan, only the unforgiving agony of entire sheets of skin coming off of every extremity as punishment for your brief enjoyment of the sun. That being said, for a while, I tried to go against the undeniable redness of my hair and get at least a bit of color during the summer. I even — three times in my life, maybe — went to a tanning salon. (Which, by the way, resulted in only a mild sunburn.) All through my adolescence and even into the beginning of my twenties, I was still trying to follow the general rule that a bit of bronze during the summer months makes you look less like a cadaver.
But in the past few weeks, I’ve read several skin-cancer related stories about young people whose love for a deep orange glow resulted in serious illness, and even death. Of course, it’s not surprising the stories are coming out now — it’s almost May, time to scare the kids into putting at least 1 SPF on the baby oil they slather over themselves. And though these stories aren’t new, they have been compounded by the photos of a few acquaintances from high school that only reinforce the negative consequences of the sun. A few girls and guys who were extreme sun babies, never seen (even in the depths of winter) without a deep, rotisserie-esque sheen, have aged… like milk. It was pretty shocking seeing the way, at only 22-24, their skin has already taken on a leathery texture, is folding into wrinkles around their eyes and on their forehead, and generally adds about 10 years to their overall appearance.
And of course, some people simply have different skin, and not everyone who tans will see cancer or alligator skin in their twenties, but we know there’s a good chance they will. We know what tanning does, we know how bad it is, and we know that — even for aesthetic purposes — it’s pretty short-lived in terms of benefits. There is a way to exist healthfully in the sun, and we know that slathering yourself with lotion and “laying out” for hours at a time is not it. (By the way, I really think “laying out” is my least favorite expression in the world. I have yet to meet a single person who announces that they are going to “lay out” that isn’t an enormous tool. But I digress.) Why is it that, like every summer before, we’re inundated with images of people the shade of roasted sweet potatoes and the implication that we, too, should be getting out there and getting sun? Why are we continuing to do it?
I know that, evolutionarily speaking or whatever, a nice glow is supposed to represent health, youth, fertility, or other such things that would have made us slightly more attractive than the pallid cave-person next to us at the speed dating event, but we are past that now. We can accept that a dusting of sun is good, but that repeated, heavy amounts of us holds about the same return on investment as smoking. And speaking of which, how are people who get all high and mighty about smoking and eating delicious, crappy food are often totally okay with burning to a crisp come summer time? I don’t care how in touch with nature you are, it does not magically make your skin immune to UV rays. It’s just not an excusable vice if we want to even give the illusion of concern for our health.
And yet, it remains pretty acceptable. And come summer, those of us who remain pale — by choice or by genetics — are going to be the lepers of the pool party. People will mock our pasty thighs and pink shoulders, and we’ll have to take it like adults because society still thinks we would be more beautiful if we sat in the sun until we were nice and golden-brown. I guess I’ll just have to hold out until they invent a self-tanner that doesn’t look like you smeared used motor oil all over yourself. Here’s hoping