Saturday, April 13, 2024

I Get Why Everyone’s Obsessed With Suntanning Again Because I Was, Too

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I wasn’t surprised when the baby tees and butterfly clips I wore in my youth reappeared on the shelves at Target and Olivia Rodrigo started dressing like a page out of a Delia’s catalog. I wasn’t shocked by the return of low-rise denim, silver eye shadow, or chunky highlights. But seeing young people in tanning beds all over my TikTok For You Page? That was shocking.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that tanning has made such a significant comeback in recent years, given the revival of all things Y2K on the red carpet and on social media. But, maybe because I’ve been living in a beauty writer bubble for so long, I really thought tanning had become a bit of a relic. We know the risks. We hear about them constantly — via social media, from our doctors, in extremely graphic photos of skin cancer lesions, via our favorite publications, everywhere! Besides, Gen Z grew up on a steady diet of skin care YouTube; this is the generation that knows their way around an ingredient list and can speak fluent SPF. They’re much more educated about skin health than we millennials were at that age, not to mention notoriously preoccupied with aging, which tanning can exacerbate prematurely.

And yet, every time I scroll I’m haunted by reflections of my former self: young people flaunting their love of tanning. Today, they go viral for videos filmed in a tanning bed, lip-syncing “Oh tanning bed, oh tanning bed, I’m going to take my chances,” directly acknowledging the risk while still soaking up the faux sun. They reminisce about the feeling of a beach vacation from the comfort of a tanning salon, show off their tan lines, and share their tips for a deep, dark tan — videos my teenage self would absolutely have posted, had TikTok and Instagram existed at the time. There are more than 300,000 videos tagged #tanning on TikTok as of this writing, and the phenomenon has been building for a few years. In 2023, bronzing hacks like using beer as a tanning accelerator — yes, pouring beer on your skin and soaking in it — went viral, inspiring a new generation to bake their skin to a golden-brown crisp the old-fashioned way. Just like jelly shoes and body glitter, tanning is back, baby.

Before you scoff and swipe out of this window expecting a lecture on the dangers of suntanning, know this: I get it, one thousand percent.

In my happy place back in 2009.

I used to love tanning. I still love tanning deep in my heart, though I know it’s not good for me. I gave up the tanning bed years ago, though I constantly think about that warm enclosure where nothing could bother me and I was alone with my thoughts for a blissful 15 minutes. I felt like the best version of myself with a tan: My skin tone looked more even, my body appeared thinner to me, my cellulite seemed diminished. In my mind, I was a golden 1970s Bond Girl.

My obsession with being tan started when I was a little girl, no older than four or five. My mom and aunts were often sprawled on the deck of my grandma’s house, soaking up sun and sucking down Marlboro Lights, rolling up their shorts and sleeves to prevent tan lines. To me, this was the epitome of glamorous, enviable adulthood. It was the “Just Say No” ‘90s, so the cigarette thing didn’t appeal to me, but the tanning? That certainly did, even if I didn’t understand why yet.

I grew up in a tanning world. I vaguely remember using sunscreen in my youth, though we called it “suntan lotion” and didn’t pay attention to the number on the bottle. I wanted to get tan just like the adults in my life: farmers with baked-in color from 12-hour days in a combine harvester with zero sunscreen, women with perma-tans from the sun in the summers and the sunbed in the winters. At just 11, I would take pride in my tan lines and share my tanning wisdom with my cousins, who always burned.

In the aughts, everyone tanned. It was just a thing you did: developing “base tans” before trips to Mexico, going for regular fake bake sessions before prom. It was such a popular activity that in 2007, E! cashed in with a reality show called Sunset Tan about a Los Angeles tanning salon. You could even find tanning beds at the gym and the laundromat. Sunless tanning products were a thing, sure, but the results were generally streaky and orange, more Ross on that one episode of Friends than a J.Lo glow. If you were a white girl in the Y2K era, you had to be two things to be considered hot: thin and tan.

So I tanned my way through high school, singing along with The Chicks and Christina Aguilera while baking in my friend’s neon-green at-home tanning bed before cheerleading practice. I drove with a pack of classmates to tan after school was dismissed for the day. I had a blazing white, heart-shaped spot on my hip from wearing a sticker in the same spot every time I tanned to track my progress. (The Playboy bunny head was also popular but not my vibe.) I tanned indoors and outdoors, sometimes floating in our inflatable pool for hours.

I continued tanning through college in the late 2000s. I once double-dipped at two salons in one day and wound up radiating heat and itching out of my skin for hours after. I paid $18 a month for unlimited tanning at the campus spot and often paid extra to upgrade to the better beds, the ones that looked more like UFOs than clamshells and were supposed to give you a darker tan in less time. (They definitely did.) I also laid out anywhere and everywhere and rarely gave a thought to SPF — despite the fact that tanning’s relation to cancer and other health risks were well known by this time. “Oh, it has SPF,” I’d say of my tanning potion of the week. “I think it’s SPF 8.” Call it the blithe attitude of youth, the flippant “it’ll never happen to me” shrug I gave back then.

Now that my youth has passed, I’m starting to see the effects of my prior tanning habit playing out on my 36-year-old skin. I used to brag that I wanted to be a wrinkled, super-tan old lady in the desert someday — but that future feels much closer than it did when I was 20, and now I’m having second thoughts.

Sunspots dot my chest and arms; they’re not that notable now, but I know they will be in the future. I pay hundreds of dollars for regular Botox for the fine lines around my eyes, which were definitely exacerbated by UV exposure. Instead of fading my acne scars, my sun habit just baked them into my skin for longer. I’ve spent entire nights spiraling over a big mole on the tip of my earlobe, and others over a pink dot on my thigh. I remember the feeling of the doctor’s razor slicing off a precancerous spot on my underarm and hearing of friends and family members having moles removed from their faces and chests, year after year. Did you know that someone who first uses a tanning bed before age 35 increases their melanoma risk by a whopping 75 percent, and that 80 percent of skin aging comes from the sun? I sure didn’t, but if I had — and if I had known how my skin would look in my 30s — would I have hit pause on my youthful pursuits? I’m not so sure.

Even back then, I dealt with occasional painful red sunburns, heat rash, and peeling skin, plus way gnarlier stuff like the tinnea versicolor fungus I got in my collegiate tanning bed days, resulting in little white spots all over my back that I had to wash away with Selsun Blue dandruff shampoo. And yet I felt like my tan was worth it all. If Adult Kara could visit Teen Kara and give her the lowdown on what to expect, I highly doubt she’d care; those blinders of youth are hard to tug off.

Tan me (far left) and friends circa 2004.

Maybe tanning is so popular again because it never really went away in the first place. The tanning industrial complex is a behemoth; even when we’re in an anti-suntanning era, she’s still chugging away selling bronzers and self-tanning products to create the illusion of a tan at home. Though they’re not as prevalent as they were when I was in my teens and early twenties, tanning salons still exist, which means people are still going to them.

We all know that you don’t have to head to a tanning salon, slather yourself in “tingle” lotion, or lay out for hours to get a tan anymore — so this can’t be about aesthetics alone. The self-tanning industry has come a long, long way since those patchy orange lotions and potions of my teens. Celebrities depend on spray tans for red carpets and events, and you can get a similar look at a local airbrush tanning salon or at home if you’re patient and thorough and use the right products. The brand Vacation built an entire product line on the laissez-faire resort-goer aesthetic of decades past, though their oils and browning lotions are always infused with SPF 30 — a nod to our modern attitude about UV protection. Sunscreen has become cool, thanks to an ongoing cultural obsession with skin care and brands like Supergoop, which makes daily sun protection feel fun and fancy.

There are a few reasons people want to get a real tan no matter how many scary stats they read, says Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Connecticut. “Number one: In the winter, people get depressed, particularly in the Northeast, and they like ultraviolet light. Two: They like the way it makes them look,” she says. “There’s very few things that make you look and feel better at the same time.” Studies have suggested that tanning can be addictive, in part because of the mood boost you get from relaxing in a warm space.

The fact that you’re not supposed to use your phone in tanning beds doesn’t hurt, either; those uninterrupted 15-minute increments in there were my first true exposure to the joy of meditation. The more technology progresses, the more we’re all attached to our phones. Having a space where it’s OK to set it aside and stop the scroll, even for a few minutes, can be a restful experience in the ever-changing, often negative and stressful online world. I get why you’d want to go back to that “safe” space again and again — because I did it, too.

The harsh truth is that when you’re young, you feel invincible, and no number of anti-tanning PSAs can sway you from what you want to do, especially if the thing you’re doing boosts your mood in the moment. But you will age, and even if you don’t get any suspicious moles or marks, you will see the impact of tanning written across your skin. I have, and now I have to question why my tanning obsession began in the first place. Who decided that tan skin was better-looking than pale skin? (I know it’s often attributed to Coco Chanel, but she’s not that powerful.) Why do we put ourselves at such risks for a golden glow? Is it because it actually makes us feel good, or is it because it helps us achieve some unrealistic beauty standard we know is silly but keep reaching for anyway — or both? It’s a vicious cycle of vanity: You think you look better with a tan, but then wrinkles pop up so you spend a bunch of money on products and treatments, then tan again on vacation, and the cycle repeats.

Me circa 2008, probably fresh out of a tanning bed.

When I look back at my tanning days, I feel a swirl of nostalgia and regret — something I think many former tanners can probably relate to. It’s one of multiple ways I abused my body under the spell of youth, like drinking way too much, staying out all night, and eating cheese puffs for dinner. Tanning was something I did to make myself happy and alleviate my own insecurities, only to have it come back and haunt me in a different way years later. And today, as I chase my toddler around the yard spraying him down with SPF and reminding him to put on his hat, cursing myself when his cheeks turn even the subtlest hint of pink, I can’t help but feel shame and think, “Why didn’t I extend this same care to myself?”

Thirty-six-year-old Kara still loves to lounge in the sun with a good book, but I try to be mindful of when the UV index is at its highest. I’ve swapped my Maui Babe Browning Lotion for Sun Bum sunscreen with SPF 30 and Supergoop Glow Screen with SPF 40 on my face. I wear a sun hat, and I certainly won’t be hopping into a tanning bed anytime soon, even when the Minnesota winter makes me question my entire existence.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss the old days when I only cared about living in the moment and didn’t think about wrinkles and sun damage. I do, and I’ll probably always feel my best with a tan. Despite our extensive knowledge of what too much time in the sun or in a tanning bed can do to you both internally and externally, people will keep tanning. Regardless of your age, it can feel thrilling to do something you know is bad for you, especially when it feels so good. It’s easy to be blinded by the untouchable spirit of youth, but I promise you, it doesn’t last forever. One day you’re 22 and the next you’re 36 with crow’s feet and sun spots on your cleavage. And I’ll repeat: Using a tanning bed dramatically increases your risk for melanoma, a disease that kills thousands of people every year. Like I said before, this isn’t a lecture, but more like a heads-up from someone who has been there, tanned that, and realized that even the most blissful moments bathed in UV light aren’t worth the risk.

Clearly, I don’t have the answers to this age-old conundrum of how to convince people not to tan — but I do know that I see myself in this new generation of youthful sun worshippers, and I care about them! Maybe it’s the whole “I’m a mom now” aspect, or maybe it’s just a side effect of aging, but I can’t help but hope these younger versions of me stop their tanning habit before it’s too late. The facts are coming at us from all angles, so why aren’t we listening? My mom told me not to repeat her mistakes and start smoking, and I heeded that advice; I’m hopeful that one day we’ll see tanning in a similar light. If this (former) Tan Mom can share any advice, it’s to say see ya to the sun bed and hello to SPF.


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