I always got a great tan. Tanned legs like you wouldn’t believe. As a kid at summer camp I used to tell the new campers my father was black. They knew my mom was white because they saw her every day as the camp’s director, but I was safe with that fib about my dad. I knew they’d never meet him, anymore than I ever had, that guy with the map-of-Ireland-face and the blue blue eyes. Anyway it explained the tan, which I loved for how glamorous it made me feel.
I guess that’s all light-skinned folks ever wanted from a tan: that “wow” moment when they entered a room.
Tanned skin was once the sign of an outdoor laborer, but when most jobs moved indoors it came to signify leisure. Then they really came into fashion in the early 1920s, just after World War I and the great Spanish Influenza of 1918 -1919. Americans wanted a return to “normalcy,” as Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding called it, and so they elected him. Maybe they just wanted to forget death and go out in the sun a while.
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, living in Paris in those years, journeyed to the South of France as often as they could for the purpose of “browning ourselves,” as Zelda wrote. Later, in the big love scene in her novel Save Me the Waltz, she describes the moon “cradling the tanned face” of her heroine. More glamour!
Right on through the 60s and 70s the message remained clear: a healthy tan was a great thing. Certainly Coppertone made millions with that ad showing the waistband of a small child’s bathing-suit bottom being tugged down in back by a frisky pup, revealing how pale she was under her clothes; how burnished where the clothes didn’t cover.
They called it a tanline; in Playboy centerfolds it was as erotic as anything else on the page.
This is the world lots of us grew up in.
The summer before college I lifeguarded at a city pool and patrolled all day under the sun. The soles of my bare feet grew as tough as horse’s hooves and my skin turned a dark mahogany brown.
Then the next decade found me sunbathing on the hot tar roofs of various apartment buildings in quest of further bronzing. And of course like everyone else I wrapped tinfoil around an album cover and held it under my chin, the better to reflect the sun’s rays onto my face and chest.
Eventually in the 80s, I began to hear more about sunscreen and I used it. I think. Sort of.Anyway I was using it last week when the call came from the dermatologist’s office to say “the biopsy we did on your leg? It came back positive. Basal cell carcinoma.” A surgeon will excise it next week.
I asked this kind nurse practitioner if she had any advice for me as I await the scalpel.
“Wear a hat. Wear sunglasses. Use sunscreens with an SPF factor of 40.” (She said an SPF any higher than that was fear-mongering.) “And for heaven’s sake, steer clear of the ones with an SPF of 15. They don’t protect you at all!”
“How about the Coppertone with an SPF of 4 that I’ve been using?” I asked, mostly to get the laugh.
I got the laugh all right. She didn’t know I was speaking the truth.
No one is laughing now, I can tell you, least of all me. Who said it first? We really are too soon old and too late smart.