One of the very special and memorable times of my childhood was vacationing during Christmas break every year as a family. Being from Detroit, there was nothing better than escaping the frigid temperatures and traveling to sunshine and tropical weather. Each year, my goal remained the same, and it was to see how tan I could get in one week. Therefore, the bottles of sunscreen were gathering dust, and containers of aloe vera gel were on hand and conveniently accessible. In fact, more than not applying sunscreen, I brought tanning oil to lather all over my body before finding the perfect lounge chair that exposed me to the most sun. The one thing I did wear, though, was my watch…well, for two reasons. One, to track the time I laid on my stomach and on my back—needed to make sure it was even. And, two, to see evidence that I was, in fact, getting color.
It was inevitable that after the first night’s shower, I stood in front of the mirror assessing a painful, and unattractive sunburn. However, I pushed through knowing it would soon peel, and turn into a beautiful, radiant sun tan—and, that to me, was worth it.
I wish I could say that our vacation week in the Caribbean was the only time I worked so hard on my complexion. Admittedly, this mentality was year round. In the summers, I laid by the pool, in the winters I had a membership to our local tanning salon, and, the remainder of the year was spent outside—playing soccer… all without sunscreening.
I always believed that suntanning was healthy. How could it not be? I was getting Vitamin D, the sun had a way of making me feel happier, whatever acne I had completely cleared up, and, ultimately, being tanned always gave me a sense of confidence. I felt more desirable and, most importantly, thinner.
My theory on suntanning was validated by the media every time I opened a magazine or turned on the television. Almost every model in just about every advertisement had flawless sun-tanned skin. Their radiant complexion made me wish and hope that if I could achieve this glow, I’d be more attractive.
Then, my brother went into the area of medicine I knew was going to reveal the ugly truth about these bad habits: Dermatology.
My family happened to have been in Mexico the winter before I turned 25 years old. Dressed in a bikini around the clock, my brother stood behind me in the pool, and noticed a spot in the center of my back. After inspecting it to the best of his ability, he recommended I see a dermatologist when I got back to look at it. I listened and followed through with scheduling an appointment immediately upon returning home. My dermatologist ‘scraped’ it, and proceeded to tell me they would call with the results soon.
I was 26 years old and sitting in my office doing work at the time. My phone rang, and without even thinking, I answered it. All I recalled from the conversation was that the spot came back positive, and I had a basal cell carcinoma—a form of skin cancer—that would need to be removed right away. Though I was told it was a common type of skin cancer, I still was terrified and hysterical.
It was at this point I realized a suntan had significant health risks, and I was subjecting my body to these dangers. Thankfully my initial scare was treatable, but because of the finding, I now need to be followed up with a dermatologist often.
As I was attempting to conceal any imperfections by tanning, I am currently dealing with the consequences. I had multiple sunburns as a kid, and spent an obscene amount of time in the sun. As a result, I have permanent darkening of my skin, dark spots, and wrinkles.
Was suntanning, or essentially burning my body for beauty worth it? Not at all. Today, I apply sunscreen everyday in hopes of preventing any more damage, and the possibility of reversing some of the harm I have already done. Media’s message that the “tan” look is beautiful and healthy is misleading and wrong. It is far more beautiful to be cancer-free, wrinkle-free, and spot-free.