That’s a common Public Service Announcement tag line here. I’m sure the people in my life are sick to death of hearing me talk about tanning and skin protection, but it’s important. Skin cancer is the most preventable form of cancer.
Let me tell you about my English friend’s girlfriend. They spent four months traveling the world, stopping off in my little corner of the planet for a few days. I’d never met the girl before. Lets call her Ivy. She’s a London hedge fund lawyer and I’m an American provincial. I picked my friend and Ivy up at the train station, wearing my hemp sun-jacket on a suffocating hot day. She was so brown I was actually startled, but put it down to her being English. (A local game: “Spot the Englishman” on the beach. You look for someone burnt to a crisp, ask them where they’re from and they’ll be English 9 times out of 10.)
After several days of watching me slather on sunscreen and put on my hat, jacket and sunglasses every time we went out, I think she snapped. Especially since everyone else slathered on the sunscreen like it was a religious rite and at least wore a hat. She had made herself the odd man out and probably thought we were all crazy.
We were sitting around my in-laws’ pool after dinner, drinking wine and talking in the velvety tropical night. She took a big gulp of wine, set her wineglass on the table and aprubtly declared “I think you’re all just being lazy.”
I looked around the table and back to her. We three (her boyfriend, my husband and I) glowed white in the moonlight; I could only make out her outline and the whites of her eyes.
“Pardon?” her boyfriend asked. I wondered if this was a common tiff between them.
“Lazy. All of you. If you’d just try a little harder, you could all have a nice dark tan like me.” I thought she was trying to be funny, but her words had a sharp edge.
“I-uhm… I like my skin this way. I get hives if I’m in the sun too much, and anyway the sun here will give you cancer before you’re 30.”
“That’s not true! It’s good to have a tan, so gorgeous and you just waste all this lovely sunshine covering up. You don’t have to burn, just tan a little at a time then you won’t burn and won’t get cancer. It takes so much work to have a tan, you’re just being lazy.”
Her boyfriend tried again. “Ivy, that’s not true. Tanning is skin damage, period.”
“No it isn’t! It’s healthy and beautiful! You people just don’t know.” She retreated into her wine glass and went to bed early. I didn’t say anything to her, I could see she wouldn’t listen to me and I wasn’t about to change my habits, either. Her words rankled me slightly. How could she witness the great lengths I go to for sun protection and call me lazy? Why is artificially darkening your skin thought to be beautiful, anyway?
Let’s go back to Coco Chanel.
In the 20’s, Chanel launched tanning as a 20th century beauty practice, almost single-handedly. Up to that time, a tan implied you had to work out in the sun, probably hard manual labor. Upper class citizens (and aspirants) kept their skin carefully shielded from the sun, to avoid an appearance of vulgarity. Chanel changed that, apparently with one delicious tan:
“The popularity of tanning can be traced to a single moment in 1923. After cruising from Paris to Cannes, designer Coco Chanel stepped off the Duke of Wellington’s yacht with a startling suntan. Chanel had apparently gotten too much sun by accident, but the press and fashion world assumed the immensely influential Frenchwoman was making a fashion statement. ‘I think she may have invented sunbathing,’ Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucigne said. ‘At that time, she invented everything.’ Soon, daring women in Europe and America were baring their skin to the sun.”
This is quoted from a dubious website, but I’ve run across the story in several of Chanel’s biographies.
Tanning began to have other implications- being “hep” and the luxury of time for sunbathing. A tan stood for youth and health, since young people first adopted tanning, probably through activities like swimming and yachting. The change didn’t happen over night, but became firmly entrenched in the 40’s and 50’s.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, tanning still carries a connotation of health and vitality. I suggest looking out for people who have tanned every day of their lives for 60 years, compared to those of the same age who have not done much sun-worshipping. The difference is striking, and that’s just the physical effects of sun damage.
What about spray-tans? You can’t get cancer from a spray tan….
We’ve all seen this before- that dreaded shade Oompa-Loompa Orange. I’m sorry, there’s nothing glamorous about this level of artifice. And what about Orange Palm Syndrome from applying bottled bronzer? Why bother? Why can’t we just allow ourselves to be the color we’re meant to be? Why is it so important to hold on to this destructive fashion practice? It seems so excessive to me. Perhaps one day tanned skin (not to be confused with naturally tan-colored skin) will carry the same stigma as a smoker’s cough.
What do you think? Is tanning hot and sexy, or a destructive, anachronistic habit? Do you think pale skin is beautiful, or do you strive for golden brown perfection no matter the cost? If you are a dedicated tanner, I’m curious to know why? This could be framed as a debate between natural (pale skin) vs. contrived (tanned skin) beauty. Do you think so?
Will tanned skin go the way of lead face cream, arsenic makeup and smoking?