Sunday, February 7, 2010

I am Caucasian.

While Tyler was over at the D Street house installing our wall oven the other night, I was at home, flipping channels for company. I stumbled across TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras. What a seriously bizarre show. On this particular episode, the camera filmed as a three-year-old gagged while enduring a spray tan in preparation for a pageant. You’d think as a mother I would have felt some sense of outrage for this little girl, but instead I found myself too busy reliving my own failed attempts to satiate my vanity and alter my own skin color.

When it comes to my skin tone, I’ve always felt like I got the short end of the stick. Go ahead and tell me I have “porcelain” skin — giving it a pretty name doesn’t make it any less pasty-white. I might not have even noticed just how pale I am had my Eastern European grandmother not passed down her beautiful olive-toned skin to the other females in the family. Of course by the time I was conceived, the family melanin supply must have been depleted because I missed out in that category. Completely. I do not tan, despite my best efforts. I grew up in California, spent a significant amount of time in the pool, burned off several hundred layers of skin, but never achieved an amber glow. My sister, on the other hand, (who nicknamed me "Casper the friendly ghost") only has to think about sunshine in order to look like a Coppertone spokesperson. Still, I don’t think I began to feel self-conscious about it until I was a teenager. At the time, I was involved in our local theater community, and was cast in a role that required me wear costumes that didn’t provide much more coverage than a swimsuit would have. My all-too-honest director commented that my bare skin looked like Haley’s comet under all the stage lights and that I needed to do something about it. This was the mid-90's, and everywhere you looked there were advertisements for this new thing called “tanning lotion,” so after school one day, I headed over to a friend’s house with a bottle of drug-store lotion to transform from blinding white, to sexy brown. The next morning (remember when it took that long to process?) I awoke to find myself an orange, utter mess. It looked like a bag of Cheetos had thrown up on me, and if the color — and smell — weren’t bad enough, there were visible hand prints all over my back and neck. Not pretty. I had to wait a couple weeks for the color to wear off, and vowed never to try again.

But then prom rolled around. I was going to be wearing a lovely sleeveless gown with an exposed back and again found myself longing to be kissed by the sun. This time I decided to try a tanning booth. How could I go wrong there? It was practically natural, right? Just step in, perspire for 10 minutes, and after a couple visits you walk out tan. I went once, then twice, then three times — each visit increasing the amount of time I stayed in the booth. Of course the mistake I made was that I tried to do all of this the week before prom. At my final dress fitting, my mother finally commented on my lobster-red skin. In defense I said, “I’ve got a few days. The burn should turn into a tan, right?” Not on my skin. I go from white, to red, peel, then back to white. Luckily, prom arrived before the peeling began, so while I did look like a tomato, at least I didn’t look like a lizard.

I decided to give up my quest for a number of years. I was busy with life and didn’t have too many occasions to worry about it...until about a month before my wedding, I started to realize that the color of my dress was very similar to the color of my skin. This time I said, “I don’t want to be tan, I just want a tiny bit of color.” I already knew tanning lotion didn’t work, and I didn’t seem to get good results with the tanning booth, so this time I decided to try the time-honored tanning bed. I told myself I was going to start off slow — get the “base tan” people always talked about — and only shoot for the amount of color needed to look good in my dress. The method seemed to be working well. I wasn’t burning too badly, but I was concerned about tan lines (why, I’m not sure) so I decided to shed the bikini at my next visit. People do that, right? However, the thought of going commando gave me the heebie-jeebies. (Germs!!!) I thought a brilliant solution would be to take one of the post-treatment wipes they provided in each room and place it on the tanning bed where my behind would be. (man, I felt like such a good problem solver!) For some reason, my time was increased a bit too much that day, and wouldn’t you know it — I burned. Badly. It was one of those burns that you feel instantly. By the time the evening rolled around, my skin was on fire, I had the chills, a fever, vomiting... Who gets sick from a tanning bed-induced sunburn??? But to add insult to injury, when I surveyed the damage that night, I discovered a perfect 6x6 square of white skin in the middle of my butt. Every inch of my body was burned EXCEPT for that square! I knew the reality of burns well enough to know that while my sunburn would fade before my wedding day, that white square would not and would likely be a very unfashionable accessory on my honeymoon. Oh boy, did it stick around. For months.

At that point I swore off tanning altogether, until about three years later when one of my best friends was getting married. I found an adorable white pencil skirt to wear to the reception, but found myself in the same white-on-white predicament. This time I thought my next attempt would be foolproof: a spray booth. I heard people talk about spray tans all the time. It HAD to work. Why wouldn’t it? So I went, spent my 90 seconds in the booth, patted myself down, got dressed, and went home a happy gal. I admired my new tan in the mirror quite a bit that evening. I had finally beat the system!

And then the morning came.

I had been told that the tan solution was virtually waterproof…”virtually” obviously excludes sweat, and apparently, I sweat a lot that night. To my horror, there were drips marks all over my body — horrible streaks that looked like I had tie-dyed my skin in a drunken stupor. I was mortified. So with two hours on the clock before we had to leave for the wedding, I grabbed a loofah and scrubbed my skin raw. I suppose the streaky fake-tan was less noticeable due to my now red, irritated skin, but I still walked through that day in shame. And again, vowed to never try to alter my skin color again.

Lessons learned. Embarrassing, self-degrading, hard lessons. Can I truthfully say I haven’t tried a lotion or two since then? No, of course not. Not that my efforts have led to anything but disappointment. But such is the cost of vanity. I wish I were so comfortable with who I am that I could say that stuff doesn't matter. Unfortunately, there will always be little things about myself that I'd like to change. Chalk it up to being human, and female.

So now that I’m 30, I’m officially turning my focus from my skin color to skin aging. Who wants to place bets on the number of times I’m likely to blister part of my face while attempting to rid myself of crow’s feet?

I’ll take that bet. Whatever it is.


  1. White Skin! I've actually come to appreciate mine. Sure, everyone else that I know is tan, but one of my friends just had a skin cancer removed on her leg and she used to visit tanning beds regularly and another friend has skin that is starting to look like leather and she used to visit the tanning beds.

    My focus has definitely turned to aging. I've started applying sunscreen everyday and using retin A!

    By the way - I once tried a tanning bed and it gave me hives. Turns out I'm allergic to too much sun.

  2. Just love being white. I do. I remember when I went to a "doctor" for a physical and he asked me why I was so white since it was August. I couldn't believe he was advocating "getting some sun." He has since died, and therefore his advice is irrelevant. I think you are adorable, and have NEVER once thought your skin color was an eyesore.