The first time I cooked myself in a tanning bed, I was 15. The gym my family and I belonged to had a tanning salon, and sometimes I would pop in a bed after my sweat sesh. Although I only went a couple times a month, it was enough to make me feel like I had some kind of color since my naturally fair skin fell to a pale shade in the Winter months.
I was always fair-complected as a kid until the Summer, when I would spend all day outside swimming or playing and develop a solid tan (even with SPF!) and natural highlights. By the time Fall and Winter rolled around, my tan would fade again. As a kid, I didn’t think too much about it; since I was on the swim team and a pool rat, most of my friends would have tanner skin in the Summer and paler skin in the Winter. That’s just how it was in the Midwest.
It wasn’t until I hit high school that a year-round tan was something to covet. Some of the cool seniors frequented the tanning beds and it showed, save for the pale spot in the shape of a heart or a Playboy bunny on their hip where they would place a sticker to indicate how much darker they got. And it wasn’t just the girls in school; this was the early 2000s, when celebrities gracing the pages of my favorite magazines were also bronzed all year long. Just look at Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson – this was also when The O.C. was the most popular show on TV and girls in my small Southern Illinois town were eager to emulate the laid-back Southern California vibe.
I would up my frequency of fake tanning around homecoming and prom but didn’t give it much thought in high school, save for my Summers lifeguarding, when I would develop a deep tan I loved, and the obnoxious tan lines I didn’t. By the time I got to college, my obsession only grew and I wanted to hold on to the dark tan I developed over the Summer. The rec center on campus had a tanning salon where you could charge tanning packages that got tacked on to your tuition bills (sorry, Mom and Dad!), and since I was working out every day, I would typically end my workout with a trip to the tanning bed. It started out a few times a week, then it progressed to every day. And no matter how dark I got, I still thought I was pale. I craved the warmth of those UV rays on my skin and felt a rush of elation every time my fake-bake session ended.
There’s still some debate over whether or not being addicted to tanning is a real thing (in my experience, I was hooked), but there’s no denying I was, at best, aging my skin and, at worst, putting myself at risk for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Even with the knowledge that I was damaging my skin and increasing my chances of developing cancer, I couldn’t stop; if I wasn’t tan, I felt ugly. I would take a reprieve from the tanning beds, only to lather myself up in self-tanner or go get an airbrush tan. I felt like I had to have an orange glow all year long to fit in with all the other pretty sorority girls on campus.
Maybe it was because I was so young and my frontal cortex wasn’t fully developed yet, which hindered my decision-making capabilities – “anything can kill you,” I would think. Or maybe it was the poor self-esteem and self-image I struggled with my whole life. Even with disapproving comments from my friends and family, I still couldn’t stop.
It didn’t happen overnight, but sometime after I graduated college, I learned to give up my habit. I traded in UV beds for spray-tan booths, which was a start. It wasn’t until I moved to New York in October, where there was little sun and and being pale was the norm, that I learned to embrace my fair skin. For starters, New York had implemented a tax on tanning salons (which I am in full support of!), and I couldn’t afford to spend my editorial assistant paycheck on anything other than necessities. But also, my priorities shifted. I was more focused on my career and the goals I had set for myself and less concerned with my appearance. I preferred to spend my free time polishing my résumé, reaching out to professional contacts, and working on my portfolio than visiting tanning beds or spending hours in the sun.
As I traded in my too-dark foundation for proper shades in lighter hues, I learned to embrace the naturally fair skin I was born with. My mom has fair skin and has taken good care of it her whole life, always using sunscreen, wearing big hats, and staying in the shade. Now in her mid-60s, she looks a decade younger. And while I can get jealous of my dad and my sister, who have naturally olive skin and can develop a tan within minutes of being outside, I know that’s not in the cards for me – just like how I wasn’t born with great hand-eye coordination or vocal cords that rival Adele’s.
Now at age 30, I’m committed to protecting my skin. I traded in my tanning oil for a five-step skincare routine that includes SPF 50. After a few scary atypical moles and a giant missing chunk of skin on my arm after one had to be cut out, I stay out of the sun as much as possible and go to my dermatologist every six months for skin checks. I always find the shade and carry broad-spectrum sunscreen with me wherever I go if I know I’ll be outside. I have self-tanner that collects dust in my toiletry drawer, mostly because I don’t feel like I need it. Sometimes I’ll get a spray tan for special occasions, but I’m finally comfortable in my fair skin and know I don’t need a tan to feel beautiful. It’s more important to me to be happy and healthy and authentically me – and if that means I have to wear the fairest shade of It Cosmetics CC+ Cream (with SPF 50+!), then so be it.