As a teen-ager growing up in Los Angeles in the ’80s,
I understood that being tan was the most important thing in
the world. I spent my summers tanning at the beach or on the
lawn in my parents’ back yard, misting myself with a
spray bottle every few minutes so I could stand the heat and
increase the depth of my tan.
And while it may seem excessive, my obsession seemed normal
compared with those of my friends, who referred to the hours
of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. as “P.T.T.” – “Prime
Tanning Time.” Take my friend Shannon, for example.
One time on the way to the beach our car broke down. While
the rest of us tried thumping the starter, she extracted her
tanning chair from the truck, placed it in the middle of the
street and proceeded to sit there in her bikini. But the ultimate
sun goddess was Debbie, aka “Wessie” because she
would douse her body in Wesson vegetable oil to help cook
I guess it goes without saying that “sunscreen”
wasn’t in our vocabulary.
Then came a big change. I left L.A. after high school for
college in Syracuse, N.Y., a freezing cold place where skin
is rarely exposed. I became pale, my whole body as white as
my butt. No one was tan, and nobody cared. Talk about liberating!
Plus, my parents were thrilled to have a reprieve from scolding
me about my bad habit.
But the Syracuse winters were cold, especially for a SoCal
girl, so my junior year I applied to study abroad in Australia,
where I would trade in winter for tropical summer. My parents,
remembering my teen-aged obsession, sent me a Time article
about skin cancer in Australia, where the ozone layer has
a nice, large hole in it. The article included a photo of
a man who lost his entire nose to skin cancer and was holding
up his prosthetic one for the camera.
Once over in Australia, I became friends with a 17-year-old
from the “Gold Coast” with deep wrinkles around
her eyes and a fabulous tan. Soon after, I started wearing
hats and even invested in sunscreen.
Too little, too late. Last winter at a routine physical,
my doctor eyed my freckles and suggested I go to a dermatologist
to have some oddly shaped ones checked out “just to
be safe.” Sure enough, the dermatologist quickly identified
three suspicious moles on my back that had to be surgically
So there I was, 30 years old and lying on my stomach, listening
to her rail about George W. Bush while scraping out the precancerous
spots. She stitched them up and told me to use an antibiotic,
like Neosporin, to help them heal and reduce scarring. “Keep
them soupy,” she said.
I felt pretty.
I left, stocked up on some gauze bandages, loaded them with
Neosporin and taped them to my back – which is how I
learned I am extremely allergic to Neosporin. I won’t
go into details, but suffice to say I have three attractive
reminders of my surgery preserved for all time.
After that fun ordeal, it was particularly horrifying for
my pale winter skin to be burned to a lovely shade of pink
at outdoor concerts over Memorial Day weekend, despite my
efforts with sunscreen. I heard lots of helpful comments,
like, “Looks like you’ve got a sunburn,”
“That’s quite a burn” and my favorite: a
woman on a hiking trail who begged my boyfriend to “take
off your shirt and give it to her – look at her shoulders!”
The burn eventually faded to tan, and my stupidity was rewarded
back home in Durango with comments like, “Got some color
– it looks good!” Even stupider, I felt flattered.
In Victorian times, it was socially gauche to have a tan
because it meant you were a low-class laborer. Later, it became
attractive, a sign you were a person of leisure, wealthy enough
to lounge by a pool or on the deck of a yacht. In Durango,
it means time on the river or trail – something also
smiled upon. But I think the people we should admire are the
pasty ones who won’t resemble carpetbags when they’re
50. So, before you go mocking that pale tourist in the Aloha
shirt, thick white socks and tennis shoes, or his wife in
the oversized wicker sun hat, remember that in the end, they’ll
likely have the last laugh.
- Jen Reeder