It’s the end of February, and one of my friends is still sporting a summer tan. I know it’s phony—and she knows I know it’s phony—but I have long ago stopped teasing her about it. In her never-ending quest to appear to be beautiful and healthy, she has slathered skin tanning lotion into every pore of her body, laid out on roofs and beaches to catch whatever ray was passing by, and goes to a tanning salon once a week. I’m not sure she’s ever stepped into the surf.
For decades, I have endured the scorn of these fake-skin friends, their skin tanned to the color and consistency of obsidian, as they sweat their lives away. Nevertheless, I have always been content to know I don’t need to cremate myself on a rooftop to be healthy.
Once, women desperately wanted to look pale. Ashen was to be admired. Pallid was wonderful! The lighter the skin, the healthier they believed they were, even if it meant hiding in a basement and fighting any attempt by Vitamin D to force its way into their lives. These women would read Macbeth and admire the ghost. Any darkness of the skin reflected that they weren’t women of leisure, but (horrors!) working women—the kind who go out of doors and have to (shudder!) do things.
Then, in the 1920s fashion designer Coco Chanel became bronze, and the Western world decided that suntanned bodies identified women of leisure and privilege. When they couldn’t find enough sun to char their skin and fry their brains, they bought sunlamps, reflectors, and gallons of sprays, gels, powders, and amino acids, guaranteed to make their friends believe they had just returned from a decade in Bermuda—or Nigeria.
In the late 1970s tanning salons became popular in the United States. In the semi-privacy of a casket, people could pay a few bucks for a few minutes of UVA rays, slather on even more lotion, and look even healthier! Have you ever seen what a couple of hours a day in the sun can do to an unprotected body over a few years? If you don’t have to chase knife-wielding scouts from the Tandy Leather Factory from trying to skin you, then you have a chance to live until a ripe old age of at least 50. And if Tandy doesn’t get you, there’s a pile of melanoma waiting. Ever see what cancer of the eye or ear looks like? Ever see a jellyfish on a rotting log?
Cancer scare? There’s still sunblock. Just pick a number. Any low number. You’ll “protect” yourself and darken up just like that Bain de Soleil model—and look just as good. After all, would advertising agencies lie?
While many people desperately want to have dark skin, they aren’t willing to appear to be “ethnic.” So, just in case someone could confuse them with being Black, Hispanic, Jewish, or any other genetically dark-skinned type, they dye their hair screaming saffron blonde. Just as they believe that the advertising agencies wouldn’t deceive them, they believe blondes have more fun. If that great American philosopher Lady Clairol said it, it must be so. And, of course, there are about 65,000 solutions on the market just designed to make you have fun while you lose every follicle in your genetic pattern.
Because of genetics—and wise use of suntan lotion—I can spend hours splashing in the ocean and not have to endure boiling red skin, peeling off in painful layers, and spend half my week visiting expensive suntan parlors and dermatologists.
Sunday, at the annual Academy Awards show hundreds of women will have spray-tanned and baked themselves into looking like brownies. They will have hair styles and colors as natural as what passes as reality on the “Jersey Shore.” Having already gone on extreme diets to look more photogenic, they will stuff what’s left of themselves into designer dresses and designer shoes, and decorate themselves with jewelry that could finance a revolution in a small Asian country. Every woman nominated for an Oscar is talented, but they exist in an industry forged by hype and image.
The day after the awards ceremony, TV shows, both entertainment and news, will feature the stars; newspapers and magazines will open full pages to show tanned women in their $10,000 dresses.
Throughout America, giggly and awe-struck pre-teen girls, their lives fixated upon Disneyesque princesses, will be absorbed by what the mass media show as rich and successful. And they will want to look just like the stars, fake tans and everything else.
[In a 40-year journalism career, Walter Brasch has covered everything from the presidency to awards shows in California. His current book is Before the First Snow, an autobiographical novel set in the counter-culture.]