During the summer, I used to alternate among three skin colors: ghost white, beet red and spotted. The only hue that eluded me was a rich, buttery mocha. My girlfriends could spend two hours in the sun and glow like golden goddesses. I'd spend 15 minutes in the sun and turn into a speckled trout. After a half-hour, I'd be a red, peeling speckled trout.
This was back in the innocent '70s - long before terms such as UV rays and melanoma had become a part of the vernacular and tanning was practically a sport. Armed with baby oil and iodine, my girlfriends and I would spread our beach towels in the front yard and surrender our bodies to the yellow fireball in the sky. We'd carry egg timers so we could flip from our tummies to our backs at regular intervals, and whoever looked the most like beef jerky by the end of the day was the winner.
Our hero was a woman named Mrs. Gordon, who approached tanning with the seriousness of an Olympic athlete. She'd begin her bronzing in March, braving blustery weather in order to soak up the first weak rays of spring. She constantly adjusted her lawn chair for optimal sun exposure and contorted her body into unnatural positions so she'd tan on her insoles and inner arms.
One summer she took me under her wing, and I was finally able to achieve a beige shade similar to the color of a manila envelope. I immediately bought a white bikini and pranced around the swimming pool as though I were as dark as George Hamilton.
That was my one summer of glory. All the other years, I felt like a social misfit. If I covered up, people said, "Are you nuts? Why are your wearing jeans and long sleeves in this heat?"
If I wore shorts and exposed my white skin, my friends would say, "Eek! Give me some sunglasses; you're blinding me."
A "fake bake" wasn't an option because sunless tanning products were primitive. I once tried QT (Quick Tan) and looked like I'd just eaten 100 carrots.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic when pale skin came back into vogue. Now instead of hearing people remark, "Hey, frog belly, when did you crawl out from under your rock?" they say, "What lovely alabaster skin you have. How did you manage to achieve that bloodless effect?"
Fair-skinned women such as Nicole Kidman and Scarlett Johansson, who once would have been cast as zombies in The Night of the Living Dead, are now revered as beauties. Almost everyone is on a quest for the sunblock with the highest SPF factor, too.
Finally, I've made peace with my pasty skin. I look forward to many more pallid summers, but with medical science, one never knows. One day I might wake up to see the following story in my morning newspaper:
"We goofed!" says the surgeon general. "Tanning is actually healthy for your skin. Pale people are headed for an early grave."
AUGUSTA RESIDENT KARIN GILLESPIE IS THE AUTHOR OF BET YOUR BOTTOM DOLLAR AND A DOLLAR SHORT (SIMON & SCHUSTER). SHE CAN BE REACHED at www.karingillespie.com.
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