For years, I always had a tan, until I finally had to face how much I hated how I looked without one—and get over it.
I got addicted to tanning while working as a lifeguard the summer after my senior year of high school. This was at the height of my teenage insecurity. After that summer, I fled for college in Florida, where I slow-roasted myself at the pool every chance I got. I'd lay in the sun with my laptop for six hours at a time. As the pigment on my skin intensified, so did my general feelings of self-worth. Being tan made me look smoother, brighter and overall better—my face and my body appearing more defined.
I craved the feeling of baking in the sun. I rarely burned, but even the toasty sensation on the tops of my cheeks gave me comfort—it meant the transformation was working. The next day I would be able to pass for pretty—enough.
While other people seemed at ease with their complexions, I never gave natural beauty or that "be yourself" philosophy much thought. The idea of going more than one day without the sun made me anxious. When it rained, I'd drag myself to a tanning bed. I still spent my summers in New York as a lifeguard, so keeping a death grip on my perpetually dark skin was easy.
After graduation, I returned to the East Coast. A part time position lifeguarding was no longer a feasible career path. I had to come to terms with my pale skin when there weren't school-free hours to laze on a lounge chair.
In time, my contoured cheekbones were gone—and all my flaws resurfaced. Suddenly, I had dark circles, bumps and lumps. Bronzer couldn't replace my old sun-kissed glow. I barely recognized and despised this new girl. She was killing my confidence.
If those melatonin injections didn't cause the whole death side-effect, I'd have lined right up. Every addict finds a way—so I found my new vice at a Brazilian day spa that served supermarket wine. Pale and Vitamin D deprived, there was nothing else to do but pay a beautiful Polish woman to gun me down with dark brown St. Tropez spray. I loved how she turned me the color of hot chocolate.
Sometimes, it looked perfect, like my tanning glory days. But if the spa was closed, I'd have to settle for places that made me look ridiculous. I'd try to touch up with self-tanner at home, but it spread to my palms and armpits. Mysterious orange zebra stripes would appear on my neck after a few days. I smelled like microwaved roses.
On a particularly orange day, a colleague from Guyana made fun of women who are obsessed with tanning. "Oh Ashley, love yourself," she said.
What I heard was that I needed to rush home, shower, and then go back out to get sprayed that night if I wanted to maintain my hue.
One night, a few years after college, I was feeling especially unattractive in a short dress, so I had my whole body sprayed and went to an amusement park the next day. Shortly after arriving—actually glowing—a storm erupted.
There was nowhere to retreat. The pummeling rain left haphazard clumps of spray along my arms. The diluted brown liquid dripped down my legs until my fake tan revealed itself to be just that. I was exposed. I finally laughed at how ridiculous I had become.
Once I started working longer hours, I couldn't make it to the spa before closing time. I started getting fewer and fewer spray tans, until I only did it for special occasions. Eventually, I just couldn't be bothered to waste my time with it.
I miss how I used to look. I still have a tough time facing my reflection, especially on really sleep-deprived days. But tanning stopped being important to me.
Accepting my skin without sun damage or a faux tan has made life simpler. I've learned to appreciate the act of using soap and water on my face. I discovered that I liked how clean my skin felt. I'm not begging for skin disease anymore now, and I can work out without melting my mask off. Buying makeup is less of a conundrum. I don't have to find seven shades of foundation for the various states of my identity crisis. I can be me.
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