Tanning and its legacy

Beginning around age 13, everything else took a back seat when the warm spring sunshine finally began to wash down on my family’s backyard.

I, and bastions like me, would arm myself with a spray bottle full of ice water, grab the baby oil tinted with iodine, cover my lips with zinc oxide, throw on a pair of shorts and a tank top (if it wasn’t quite warm enough for the swimsuit) and arrange myself so that no shadows could touch me for as many hours as the sun beat down on a towel on our back patio.  Every 20 minutes or so, it would be time to check out the tan line – a surefire way to monitor progress.

This was no frivolous activity. Our tans were serious stuff in those days.  Skin that had been covered during the cold season revealed itself in the spring to appear pasty white to those of us without olive skin or darker, so we gave ourselves no choice.  Shorts and bare arms required a tan—period.

Whether it was hearing songs of California, “where the girls all get so tan” or worshipping the pages of bronzed beauties in Seventeen Magazine, we understood at a young age that un-tanned legs, especially, represented pale unattractiveness (boys in my classes would actually cluck and call them ‘chicken-legs’ . . )

Arms, legs, and face, at a minimum, had to become a shade of brown dark enough to hide flaws and give us what we considered an outdoor, healthy look while clearing up any unsightly ‘zit’ activity in the process.

So we stayed at it – until suddenly reports began to come out about the thinning Ozone layer as well as the number of people being diagnosed with skin cancers.  The aging and damaging effects that tanning causes seemed to have been understood by women in Europe and Asia for some time. Americans, it seemed were among the last to figure this out and some continue to bake on beaches and poolsides anyway.

I no longer tan. I may sit outside for 20 minutes or so to soak up some D-rays with a protective SPF factor slathered on, but have retired all natural suntan products altogether.  How my face fared so well after ravaging it for so many years must be a function of heredity, so I am one of the fortunate ones in terms of wrinkles.  Trust me, I don’t take that part for granted.

The aftereffects of those years, I am finding,  have manifested themselves in me both psychologically as well as physically.  For example,  I can’t, to this day, look down at my un-tanned legs and feel I can display them in a skirt or shorts without getting a spray tan.  I can’t, in all good conscience, wear a sleeveless shirt or sweater because for so long I detested my “pasty” skin tone, reinforced by a shallow ex-husband’s cutting remarks when I needed them least. It is both a curse and a handicap, however I’m not at all sure if therapy would be worth it at this point.

Thankfully, my daughter’s generation doesn’t seem to have these hang-ups. Pale skin and a peaches-and-cream complexion, devoid of even blush or bronzer is a badge of beauty now. In magazines, tanned skin seems to be rarely featured and chances are, the tan sported by the models depicted in those ads is not natural — or they no doubt would be robbing themselves of precious career years.

Although my face was spared, other parts of me were not.  A few years back I noticed a strangely shaped mole appearing on the inside of thigh just above my right knee.  I have moles all over me (in my Greek background, moles are called tiny “olives” and considered attractive), so there had to be something very different looking about this one for me to show it to my doctor.

The doc sent me to a dermatologist, where a biopsy was performed. Before long, I got the news.  There are three common types of skin cancer – basal cell, squamous cell and the dreaded melanoma.  My mole revealed that the third, most serious type was at play.

Another round of surgery went deeper, requiring a plastic surgeoon’s skilled hands to take a wider portion of skin and pull together the tolerance areas around it, forming a scar in the shape of an ‘S’.

To my relief, I was told that they were able to collect any of the cancerous cells, dubbing surrounding skin free of them.

Two years later, another such mole arrived on the opposite thigh, however, and I went through the same trauma.

I am indeed a survivor, evidenced by scars on both thighs. I now see a dermatologist every six months for a complete, head-to-toe body scan, hoping against hope that whatever else may surface can be caught at early stages, like the first two.

My point here?  If you, like me, spent an inordinate amount of time in the sun in your younger years, whether you burned frequently or not, seeing a dermatologist for a scan at least once a year is an excellent idea.  The effects of the sun’s rays from our childhood and teenaged years can creep up when we least expect it – take it from someone who thought that her Mediterranean heritage would protect her from it.

I wish you sunshine and smiles. But bask in the first one rarely while indulging in the second one often.

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Filed under Dena's Lady Boomer Column and personal musings

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