How I learned to love my pale skin

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I don’t remember when being pale wasn’t a problem. 

When I was younger, the threat of sunburn was forever hanging over my head. My mother was always coaxing me out of the pool for more sunscreen or - even worse - making me wear a t-shirt over my bathing suit. 

As I grew up, it wasn’t only that being pale was a problem but NOT being tan was a curse.

I remember a close friend in middle school excitedly reporting that my #1 crush might consider going out with me if I got a tan. The truly excruciating aspect was my reaction was one of excitement as well. It seemed doable. If I worked hard enough, surely even I could get a tan!

I’m assuming this experience, along with being surrounded by deeply tanned friends, is what led my 7th grade self to add “Get a dark tan” to her list of life goals. It is also what led me to try in vain all through high school to achieve that goal.


My best friend and I would lay out on my black asphalt driveway every afternoon. She would slather on baby oil and turn a deep dark brown after a few days. I would push the limits with 5 SPF tanning oil and check my swimsuit line day after day only to see the slightest change in pigment.

My mother (very wisely) threatened to take my car keys away from me should I ever so much as cross the threshold of a tanning salon. I still snuck two visits in during journalism camp (sorry, Mom!) where I spent my hard-earned money on 5 minute sessions - the max the owner recommended for me. I left the salon poorer, hotter, but no tanner.

It wasn’t until I got to college that my opinion of my skin began to change.  

Suddenly, I wasn’t the lone pale girl in a sea of tans. I had lots of friends with lots of different complexions and lots of concerns far beyond getting and keeping a tan. I’m sure there were girls I went to college with who went to the tanning bed but I don’t remember hearing them talk about it. The pursuit of the almighty tan just didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar. 

My skin stopped begin a problem. 

Well, not completely. I still had to avoid sunburns and still for many years I tried to achieve “a little bit of color.” Tanning beds became passé, but self-tans and spray tans presented a seemingly acceptable alternative. After all, peers are influential but overcoming the steady beat of a beauty industry that tells you pale skin isn’t beautiful doesn't come easy.

Slowly a combination of age, maturity, and plain old laziness has produced my current state of acceptance. I love my pale skin and I could give two shits about a tan. I don’t even see it as a “problem” anymore thanks to my new favorite product OF ALL TIME - the rash guard. This little thing has CHANGED. MY. LIFE. Do you have any idea how much mental energy (not to mention money) I spent every summer trying not to get burned?


Then, I met this wonderful woman at the lake one summer (wish I remembered your name special lady who changed my life!!!) who had on super-adorable rash guard from Athleta. She told me and my equally pale mother how much she loved it and suddenly it clicked!

I put my kids in this magical SPF clothing why didn’t I get one for myself!

Game. Changer. Now, I throw that baby on and go. If I’m out of the water, I sit in the shade or cover my legs with a towel. I also always wear a hat. And I am never, ever embarrassed. 

In fact, I’ve become a bit of a disciple about accepting the skin you’re in. I’ll never forget reading a fabulous post on Jezebel last year about tans entitled Tanning Is a Young, White, Female Problem. And It's Deadly. In particular, I was struck at the way the author’s criticism extended beyond the dangers of tanning to the idea that we all had to be tan.

Where did we get this idea that fair skin is embarrassing, unflattering or a flaw in need of fixing by desperate means? By “desperate means,” we’re referring to baking in an indoor cancer coffin (a.k.a. tanning bed), lying unclothed in the blinding sun on a lava-hot lawn chair/trampoline/beach (a.k.a, sun bathing), paying good money to get hosed down with orangey-brown skin dye that sheds off in patches within 5-10 days (a.k.a. spray tanning), or slathering yourself in smelly orangey-brown solutions at home twice a day for two weeks while not touching any fabric or light walls for an hour because you will leave a distinctly “sun-kissed” look on everything (a.k.a. self-tanners).

I know what you’re thinking. “No one uses those sun reflectors anymore!” (And I hope you’re right.) And also, “You’ve obviously never tried [insert favorite brand] tanning lotion/spray/skin suit! Pasty skin problems solved!” But that’s all beside the point. The point is that tan skin is a manufactured beauty ideal, and people are literally paying for it with their lives, or at least with huge areas of skin and debilitating treatments.

And she’s right! The beauty industry is making billions of dollars a year because they have convinced us our skin isn’t beautiful JUST THE WAY IT IS.

And that is Grade A bullshit. 

Thankfully, people seem to be coming around. The Atlantic recently published a piece entitled, The End of Tanning? Tanning beds are thankfully becoming a thing of the past but also the proliferation of pale skinned celebrities who embrace their hues seems to indicate a shifting beauty idea as well.

And I sure as hell hope so. Women have real problems - equal pay, work/life balance, lack of political representation, how to make Amy Poehler our best friend (wait, is that just me?) - BUT being pale is not one of them. 

Are you pale or naturally tan? Do you feel pressure to change the skin you're in?

P.S. Why how we view women's bodies matters and the importance of embracing our post-baby bodies.