Growing up in my family, tanning was pastime, pleasure and competitive sport. Pale was pejorative. My parents, both great tanners in their youth, lived in East Africa in the early ’70s, before I was born. That time in their lives seemed to me fabulously glamorous—never mind the fact that my sister, a baby then, contracted malaria and nearly died—because for two years, they were tanned. Deeply tanned. Not the amateur-hour suntan you might obtain after a week in Fort Lauderdale, the kind of profound, layered tan that makes you look like another person—an exceptionally well-leisured one.
I remember the four of us in the ’80s, lying on a quartet of loungers and passing the Hawaiian Tropic SPF 4 down the line like a familial baton. If my friends enjoyed splashing around in swimming pools and lakes, I liked lying down next to them, and nowhere in the vicinity of a sun-blocking parasol. Parasols were meant for other people, the ones who took long luncheons in the shade during prime UV time. (I preferred to feast on rays.)
When my sister and I had a productive tanning day, we’d high-five each other as the sun sank into the horizon and our freckles settled into our still-warm cheeks. A tan, like the travel that furnished it, was an escape from our regular selves, a gilded (if short-lived) costume.
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