In a time before Tanning Mom, "tanorexia," obsessive SPF application and the over-saturation of self-tanners on the beauty market, I was a naïve intern at a major television station. It was the summer following my senior year in high school and the dawn of a new decade, the 1990s. My supervisor, Eric*, was a good 20 years my senior, auburn haired, tall, broad shouldered, jovial and seemingly powerful (though today, I cannot recall his actual job position). Eric walked me through the various accounting procedures that I would conduct in a monotonous daily fashion. He also made it a point to walk me through the halls where we occasionally met friendly, quasi-celebs like Maury Povich, who informed me his Hebrew name is "Moishe," as well as popular athletes of the day.
Feeling obligated to take a sheltered all-girls high school grad under his wing, Eric told me what type of hairstyles and makeup men preferred, as well as how much leg I should be showing (blatantly, more than I ever exhibited). "Sexual harassment" was not a term that was bandied about (as much) then and Eric never hesitated to enthusiastically state his approval of an outfit.
On one particular afternoon, Eric stuck his head in my cubicle and remarked "Goodness. Don't you ever see the sun?" As I pondered the Dalai Lama-esque meaning of his words, I realized he was pointing to the very legs he frequently encouraged -- well, goaded -- me to display. "You're ridiculously pale," he mused in a tone that would put Tim Gunn to shame. I remember feeling freakish. Was I so white that it was beyond the realm of social acceptance?
I had been hearing it all my life, especially when I would return from a vacation that I was obviously supposed to have come back from looking "tan." But in the home stretch between adolescence and adulthood, my obsession with streaky self-tanners, bronzers and hours of "sitting out" came to light. Of course, we began to hear more and more about skin cancer and the dangers of the sun as the '90s gave rise to a new decade. By 2001, mothers would obsessively slather their children in SPF 100, paying more money for higher numbers when in fact, anything above 30 really boiled down to the same potency under the sun's glare. But the information (to quote Fran Drescher: "Cancer Shmancer") hadn't yet gripped the nation. I remember going on a blind date and praying that I had concealed the orange when a self-tanner did the opposite of what it claimed it would not do ("This product won't turn you orange" was literally printed on the packaging). I discovered some great cosmetics and later, l had my makeup artist make me look suitably bronzed for my nuptials. Yes, I had actually found someone to love, honor and cherish my sallow self. However, I knew the honeymoon phase was over when my husband wiped the phones down, pointed to a tissue and commented "does every woman wear this much makeup?
As "goths" appeared on the Manhattan social circuit and in clubs, brazenly showcasing black lipstick to offset extremely white skin, I decided to embrace my pallor and go easy on the maquillages.
A new decade gave rise to the paler sort of woman and the power of her beauty. Reference: Shalom Harlow, Nicole Kidman, Dakota Fanning, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Regina Spektor...
Suddenly, everything was illuminated, and that didn't mean it was glowing in bronze. I purchased gold Prada spectacles to emphasize my pallor and enhance it. Then, the unbearable lightness of being took on new meaning through Jersey Shore's credo GTL (Gym, Tan, Laundry), shaming those of us who shunned the sun, or rather, the artificiality of its imitators' rays.
One New Jersey mother attempted to take this a step further by pressuring her ridiculously young daughter to bake in risk-laden tanning beds. As we know, anything that bakes for too long can certainly burn. Patricia Krentcil got in trouble for the evidence exposed on her daughter's epidermis. She became an SNL punchline and an eccentric TMZ target.
When I peruse Facebook, my glamorous, fashion-forward friends are the ones with the incredible spray tans that extend from temple to bikini to toe. They know enough not to soak outside, and have mastered the EBS approach -- Everything But... the (actual) Sun. Their routines consist of regular facials, full body exfoliation, seaweed wraps and, of course, spray tans followed by regular makeup applications. The last step amplifies the bronze that transforms them into aggravatingly adulated Athenas and Adonises.
It is these friends who turn to me and say "Are you sure you just returned from Florida?" Yes, I'm sure, I respond in the snarky way we pale girls do, but some of us aren't keeping up with the Kardashians -- as rebellious and unconventional as that might seem in this day and age. For some of us, "keeping up" is not a priority at all. We take pride in remaining "beyond the pale."
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