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.