Heading home from my gym in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, I had often passed a luxury tanning salon courting new customers. I would brush off the marketers who seemed to waste my time and theirs by trying to hand me coupon cards for discounts on luxury tans. But I became more and more curious each time. What was it like to go to a tanning salon? Determined to spread the word about their services like church people handing out ministry tracts, they drew me in. On a whim one day, I finally took one.
Like Icarus, the mythological Greek figure who was given wings but warned not to fly too close to the water or to the sun, black Americans, conforming to social norms, often hide our hair from water and our skin from the sun, the two ingredients most essential for life.
Colorism, the belief that the darker one is, the less worthy they are of love or admiration, is a way of thinking that has infected much of the world, like polio does the body. Growing up, my sister and I were sheltered from the language and value judgments of colorism within the home. My parents couldn’t prevent its spread through billboards and things we’d hear in the school yard, but they did build us up and teach us to recognize it as foreign, the same way that doctors vaccinate small children by exposing them to tiny doses of a disease that would otherwise kill them.
With a father whose color was that of the most rare and exquisite high-cacao chocolate and a mother whose skin tone rivals the Sahara’s golden sands, I could’ve been any shade in the book. My rich, cocoa brown hue is the one that was made for me. I am well aware of the hostile relationship that much of this world has with my color – and those with my color often have with themselves – and yet I’ve never felt that my complexion has blocked me from any opportunity or relationship I was meant to have.
But certain attitudes have a way of seeping in. As I held the tanning coupon in my hand, I recalled being at the beach with people I know, also African-American, watching them slather on sunblock, confine themselves to the perimeter of the beach umbrella, and announce that they didn’t want to get “too dark.” They thought nothing of telling this to me, someone several shades darker than they’ll ever be. I wanted to ask them, “What are you afraid will happen to you?” This is how colorism works. It can make a person see the sun’s enhancement of their beautiful skin as somehow a mark of misfortune, the darkening of one’s skin as something to be feared or disdained.
Fear of the sun, I decided, has no place in my life. With that in mind, I took the trip to cash in my ticket. As I waited for the salon’s concierge, nagging questions came to mind. Would the people at the salon turn me away? Would they ignore me for not representing their imagined target demographic, as though they were the brand new, Steve Stoute-styled Carol’s Daughter? Would they look at me strangely or snicker behind my back, amused by the thought of a black person wanting to (go well past) tan?
Just as my doubts were bubbling to the surface, I was greeted by a friendly hipster named Jarod. He chatted me up, taking a keen interest in my film career, and was amazed that the only time I had ever been sunburned was during my study abroad trip to Kenya. “We get black customers,” he bragged. I later learned that this is a refrain among salons that shows they’re the best of the best, their services desired even by those who don’t “need” tans. Jarod spoke of the black men, Asians and Latinos who ranked among their clients. I was his first black female customer. The black men, he said, enjoyed the tanning bed’s ability to even out their complexions and reduce the appearance of scars. But of course! Hydroquinone creams and sun avoidance versus tanning for an even complexion. Which would you choose?
As I walked along the polished mahogany walls and luxurious, spa-like atmosphere, I became entranced, even more so when I stepped into the dimly lit room. There I was spellbound by a glowing, glass chamber with futuristic, hazy turquoise-purple light. I got naked, revealing my own mahogany-colored skin. Like a suspect behind an interrogation room’s one-way mirror, I looked around for signs that I was secretly being watched. What if I was, I smiled slyly to myself, letting my inner exhibitionist take over. I turned on the timer and stretched out my body on the tanning bed, placing the reflective tabs over my eyes for protection. I relaxed completely, imagining myself on the sunny beach of some other planet, maybe the first or second rock from the sun.
Preventing skin cancer is a valid concern, but so is raising awareness about the long-term health benefits of getting ample amounts of Vitamin D through sunlight. Even the Skin Cancer Foundation, staunch advocates of limiting people’s exposure to the sun, admits to the dilemma that comes with avoiding ultraviolet rays. “Vitamin D produced in the body by solar ultraviolet (UV) exposure may help prevent prostate, colon, breast, and other cancers, as well as bone diseases,” they state. Could controlled UV exposure in tanning beds help prevent chronic disease? It’s worth some serious study.
Fifteen minutes of heaven passed by before I realized it. The gentle buzz of the timer awoke me from my coma-like sleep. Scientists have theorized that tanning is so addictive because the ultraviolet light releases endorphins, or pleasure hormones. I can attest to feeling that same light-headed high I get after a good jog or… other pleasurable activities.
I got dressed and headed out, getting a warm “Thank you and please come again.” As I stepped out onto the street, I saw two black folks who I greeted with a bright hello. “Are you from California?” they asked. “No. Brooklyn. Why?” “Because you seem so vibrant.”
I danced with my shadow over the next two days as my skin continued to brown in the same way that fresh-baked sweets continue to cook several minutes after being pulled from the oven. Getting to know my skin better fascinated me. Soaking up rays, whether at a salon or by the sun above, is an adventure and a pleasure; the results are a delight to be enjoyed. Being built to withstand the sun’s power, we should damn well be free to partake of it.
Emboldened by my experience, I purchased a frosty purple lipstick that set off my richer hue just right. I decided to call up the salon to make another appointment. I need to do this sort of thing more often.
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My Trip to a Tanning Salon, Copyright 2011 by Olufunmilayo Gittens, is registered with the Writers Guild of America East