Beyond The Pale
One Woman Hits Sunburn Rock Bottom and Embraces Her Fair SkinBy Emili Vesilind
As moments of clarity go, this one was particularly painful. Over the course of an afternoon, the skin covering at least half my body was scorched as pink and glistening as a chewed-up wad of Bubble Yum.
Earlier that day, I'd been cruising Cape Cod's coastline on someone's dad's boat. I was 19 years old, carefree and frolicking in my Esther Williams one-piece without a smidgen of sunscreen on my hyper-fair skin. At one point, I actually pressed a finger into my arm, looked at my friends and said, "Does it look like I'm getting some color?"
Boy, did I get color. And now, back on solid ground, I was paying, the same way I'd paid countless times before in my lifelong quest to rid myself of my Nordic pallor and get a "healthy tan." Waist deep in an Aveeno bath thick with soggy oats, my body trembled with the gnawing, itchy pain particular to severe sunburn. I winced as I gently lapped the oat-y water over my tender crimson arms.
These days, it might be hard to imagine a trio of college girls spending an afternoon in the blazing sun without passing around a tube of SPF 30. (Or maybe not—maybe college-age girls are still as short-sighted and stubborn as I had been.) But one thing is for certain. In 1994, the year of my historic burn, sunscreen was still in its infancy.
The American Academy of Dermatology didn't even release its warnings against sun damage until 1985. A year later, the first SPF sun block was introduced, although it wasn't until the early '90s that products with SPF 30 hit the shelves. In short, I was part of the final generation to be in the dark about the dangers of too much sunlight.
During my teens and early 20s, tanning was still very much an institution—a holdover from its late 1970s heyday, when a braided Bo Derek set the new standard "golden girls." Everyone I knew "laid out" in their backyards after school. It was just what you did.
Of course, tanning wasn't always in vogue. Before Coco Chanel helped usher in the trend of bronzed skin in the 1920s (when her jaunt on a yacht resulted in a sporty golden patina), pale, near-translucent skin was commonplace. Fair-skinned women walked under parasols and wore wide-brimmed hats to maintain their complexions.
Cowering in that Aveeno bath so many summers ago, I felt like an alcoholic hitting bottom. Physical pain, coupled with a cringe-inducing feeling of embarrassment and stupidity, seared through my body, implanting a single, inexorable fact into my young adult mind: I can never do this again.
I threw in the towel that day on tanning (well, burning). But, predictably, it would take me another decade to truly embrace my pasty legs and chalk-white face. Perma-pale celebs, including Nicole Kidman, Joan Jett and a slew of '90s models would partly inspire the path—as would my parents, who've both had pre-cancerous spots removed from their faces, payment for years of zooming around with the top down.
And now, in a true reversal of heart, I rarely step outside before rubbing on a mask of SPF 40. I've even been known to buy pricey whitening products in an attempt to maintain an even, splotch-free skin tone. Though sometimes, even this feels like a losing battle.
Just the other day, I had a moment with a MAC counter girl, who pointedly informed me that my go-to concealer of many years was "at least a full shade too light." After decades of automatically buying the very palest shade of foundation and concealer in any given makeup line, my skin now matches the second- or even third-lightest hue.
I like to think it's not that my skin that has changed, but that the cosmetics industry has widened its range to include more variations on "deathly pale." Because that would mean there are fewer young, sun-ravaged bodies slipping into Aveeno baths. It would mean they figured out, early on, how to be comfortable in their own skin, whatever shade it may be.
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Writer Emili Vesilind doesn't mind if you call her Casper.Courtesy of subject