Tanorexia: My Brush With the American Affliction

I’m from California; lounge chairs and swimming pools are my natural habitat. My first fetish was peeling off sunburns. My favorite scent is still Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Oil. As a kid, my skin was the color of Cocoa Pebbles. But sometime around puberty, I got pale as hell. I’m not sure if it was my family’s newly enforced veganism or my increased addiction to AOL chat rooms — more likely, some combination of the two.

My translucent-skinned coming of age was matched by the rise of self-tanner. Be it Shalom Harlow and Amber Valletta on MTV Style or Jump magazine, the media encouraged me to stay out of the sun while achieving a Pamela Anderson glow with a self-tan. So, I’d put on the Hanson “MMMbop” single and dye my body with an orange, chemically liquid as the healthy alternative. Along with the streaks on my knees and hands, it left stains on my Express tank tops and on the pastel flowers between the toes of my flip flops. I got over the scam by high school, and embraced my fair complexion. By that time I was more interested in looking like Winona Ryder anyway.

Tanning salons wouldn’t enter into my life until I was 20 and living in the Czech Republic. Anything magical I’d imagined about eastern Europe disappeared as soon as I arrived. It was a cold, wet and dark winter. I didn’t know the language, and I missed my friends from school. In my dorm there was a group of Middlebury boys who were smart, but exclusive with their fake Czech rap group. Then there was a group of JAP-y sorority girls from the University of Michigan who favored tequila sunrises and diet tips. They were both fun but there was a limit to how much I could engage with either of them.

Then I met two equally miserable NYU girls from my film class at director Jan Svankmajer’s studio. They impressed me by stealing a roll of toilet paper from his bathroom that was a bizarre shade of forest green.

One day after school, we grabbed a bite at Peach Pit, which was modeled after the hangout in 90210. However, the inside is decorated like your typical dive bar, with pictures of the original 90210 cast ripped out from Czech teeny bopper magazines taped up on the wall. Imagine Jason Priestly in a zoot suit, riding on a scooter, smoking a cigarette, if you will. In Prague, cigarettes were a mere $3 a pop, and you could light up in restaurants with no problem. Since most of the food turned me off, smoking had actually become my single source of pleasure.

There was a jukebox, but the music selection was completely all over the place, like everything in Prague. Think Hoobastank’s “The Reason” followed by a traditional Czech folk song followed by Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be.”  As we started talking about people in class, I ordered a “milky shake,” which ended up being just a foul glass of milk with sugar and ice cubes.

Something came up about how tan the group of girls from Michigan were, especially one in particular.

“I call her Tanny,” I admitted.

“I call her Blackey,” revealed my new friend.

“I just want to make it through the rest of the semester without committing suicide,” she added. We nodded in agreement.

“I just want,” began my other new friend, “to smoke mad cigarettes and get tan as fuck.”

“Have you ever been to a salon before?”

None of us had. We decided in that moment to have a tan-off: against each other, against the sorority girls, against the world at large. Like the Peaches song, we would tan the pain away. We just needed to figure out how to translate “tanning salon.”

Our key word was solarium. We found one in the downstairs of part of a racquetball club in Wenceslas Square. It started off as a weekly thing. Wednesdays we’d tan and smoke and dance at Nebe. We wore keffiyehs and little boy blazers. We got tan. We looked good. We didn’t tell anyone what we were doing, but we seemed healthy.

Soon we weren’t just weekly, and it was several times a week. I ran into my friend outside the racquetball club and she said she couldn’t stop thinking about going. I agreed – I’d wake up and it was the only thing I had to look forward to. It was the only way to relax with all the snow and cold people in that country. The lavender UV lights, feeling like an infant being warmed in an incubator, seeing childhood freckles come out – nothing felt as good. It was the only way to meditate.

And just like that, one weekend it became warm, and the semester was over. It felt like a whole new city. I thank everyday I left the country to travel for the summer before I turned full-blown Jersey Shore.

I had used tanning salons a few times during the winter in New York, but quit a while ago. I keep telling myself to buy a sunlamp instead. My last experience tanning was last summer, and it came in the form of a complimentary spray tan – a more efficient version of the self-tan – which was offered to me before I went to a surf camp for a story.

My spray tanner was a bubbly young woman, who warned me, while I was naked except for goggles and a provided paper G-string, that people love spray tanning so much it can become addicting. Unfortunately, nobody told me I was supposed to exfoliate beforehand. As I left, brown smears were sweating off my body, and I went home, scrubbed everything off as best as possible. When I woke up in the morning, I thought I would wake up to it all gone, but it was even darker.

“I just wanted my skin back to normal!” I thought to myself, and I have remembered that moment ever since. I had to go to an interview at Conde Nast with an alien glow, but eventually it did wash off. But fucking up your skin from the sun won’t wash off, and it won’t ever go back to normal.

Sometimes I look at pictures of myself when I was little, and I think it’s not just that I’ve just grown older, but I’ve also somehow turned into the film negative version of myself. But that’s ok too. I’ll take the ghost jokes with ease, listen to Procul Harum “Turn a Whiter Shade of Pale” and call it a day.