03/21/2008 03:24 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Tale of Two (Panama) Cities

When I was younger, I remember watching MTV Spring Break with the kind of slack jawed attention usually reserved for a child staring glassy-eyed through the bakery shop window at gooey chocolate cupcakes.

Oh, how I longed to be there. Jamaica, Panama City, Lake Havasu - wherever Bill Bellamy and Salt N Pepa were, I wanted in. Mind you, I had never even been kissed...but I knew that this was the definition of sexy, of cool, of hot.

Heaving throngs of lubed-up young adults, all six-packs and pecs and bleach blonde hair, converged around a stage as Marky Mark danced and grinded - coming oh-so-perilously close to losing his Calvins. PM Dawn sang their swoon-worthy "Set Adrift On Memory Bliss" and Pauly Shore stuttered through his seemingly pot-produced jokes. I remember inane, insane competitions in which girls and guys teams had to switch outfits in aboveground, see-through pools and total strangers would hook up on stage in very not-make-your-mother-proud ways.

One image that will forever remain burned in my mind: During a swimsuit fashion show featuring women "discovered" on the beach, a young lady (very naturally pretty in the face, perhaps surgically altered in the chest) emerged from backstage wearing what I suppose could be described as a swimsuit: Picture two white strips of fabric starting at the shoulder, extending over the nipples and converging, thong like, at the bottom. The cheers and howls which greeted her were deafening, drilling into my psyche that hot, popular girls wear skimpy bathing suits, and they do it on Spring break.

As the years progressed and Spring break became increasingly Jerry Springer-ized, the stunts took on newer, more lascivious meaning. Girls got splattered with sour cream and beans, wrapped up in gigantic burritos and "eaten" by their male teammates. Girls made out on stage while drinks were poured over their white tee shirts. Girls bungee jumped naked over throngs of drunken, puka shell necklace-clad male onlookers. Couples created whipped cream bathing suits for each other...all beneath Cancun's blazing 90 degree sun.

When I was a freshman in college, many of my friends began hatching Spring Break plans approximately three weeks after classes started and before the leaves had even begun to turn red and orange. This was important. Once the trip was secured, preparations began. For many, this meant constant exercising, tanning (you know, to prevent burning), waxing, manicures, and vigilant wardrobe selection.

As for me, I was in the midst of an eating disorder and for the first time in my entire life, was ashamed of showing my body on the beach -- not because I thought I was fat, but because, thanks to my foray into therapy, I realized I was scarily skinny. I was allowed to go on Spring break - to Panama City, of all places - but my vay-cay was surely unlike many of my friends'. I went with my roommate, her boyfriend and a close male friend of ours (now my husband!) and as luck would have it, my then-boyfriend and his crew booked tickets last minute. He and I went for long walks on the frisbee and condom-strewn beach, kissed in the moonlight and even said I love you to each other for the first time. We did not have sex (a virgin in Panama City? Say it ain't so!), making us quite possibly the only two individuals in the entire state of Florida who did not do the deed that week. Ah, the irony.

Other things I (thankfully) did not do on my Spring break:
Participate in a wet t-shirt contest
Do a keg stand
Don a stars-and-stripes bikini (startlingly common)
Get my ID taken from me
Wake up in a stranger's hotel room Contract bed bugs

Thank God.

All in all, rather boring, I suppose. At the time, of course, my parents did not know how innocent I was. They would recall newscasters reporting live from "the scene," the anchorman starting out his newscast with "Parents of students on Spring break in Panama City, you may want to turn off your television sets" as 18-year-olds pounded beers and body surfed behind him. But they needn't have worried. I was busy grocery shopping at the strip mall across from my raunchy hotel for cereal, fruit and other healthy foods to keep my weight up. I was telling my boyfriend I loved him. I was not sleeping seven to a room and waking up with my head smushed against a toilet. Sure, I held my share of red plastic cups and flashed my wristband (just my wristband!) for bouncers, but I did not kiss more than one person at a time or enter a coed, no-hands-allowed balloon-popping contest.

Nonetheless, I did have fun. It was a sentinel experience I think most college students should get under their belt in some form (just keep that belt buckled...or at the very least, use a condom). A few tips I might suggest:

* Don't let yourself be filmed or photographed (See: Girls Gone Wild; Ashley Alexandra Dupre). Whatever happens in Mazatlan does not necessarily stay in Mazatlan. And a free trucker hat is not worth a lifetime of humiliation.

* Keep tabs on your girlfriends. Horrible shit happens (See: Natalee Holloway; Stepha Henry.)

* The Triple Kiss is played out. And unsanitary.

* You can and will get an STD if you have unprotected sex, and perhaps even if you do use protection.

* Understand you don't HAVE to start drinking at 9am just because it's there. And don't avoid eating during the day just so you can get drunker faster that night. (See: Drunkorexia)

* Also, while it's common sense to not do drugs, surely don't do them to lose weight. As I wrote on HuffPo a while back, while recently on a college speaking tour for my book, I stopped at a Midwestern Big Ten university. A freshman girl was crying alone as the audience emptied out. The reason: Her friends were "all doing cocaine" in an effort to stay slim for Spring break, she told me between sobs, and the pressure was starting to get to her.

Hmm, I wonder why. Maybe they saw those same early images of girls in dental floss parading on stage that I originally did and, like me, the pressure started to get to them, too.