My freshman year of high school, for my PE credit, I signed up for an aerobics class. It took place in a cramped portable classroom, where about 20 girls and two boys jumping-jacked and grape-vined and step-touched our way to cardiovascular health while simultaneously praying the flimsy portable could withstand the extreme demands we placed upon it.
Midway through the semester, our instructor showed up looking as though she’d suffered a horrible, all-over burn on her face — from scalp to neck, her skin was bright red, and shiny like raw meat. She told us her dermatologist had given her a special chemical peel that, though it looked scary temporarily, would prevent future occurrences of skin cancer. Apparently she’d tanned a lot as a girl and was showing signs of impending melanoma.
We were all mortified for her and the general travesties of being elderly (she was, like, 40), but we made no plans to buy sunblock for our upcoming weekend beach outings. She begged us to wear hats and sunscreen. “Please,” she implored. “You don’t want to end up with premature wrinkles and skin cancer like me!”
Later, when we were changing back into school clothes, my friends and I discussed my teacher’s scary face and emphatic warnings. I uttered a sentence that has since come back to haunt me: “I don’t care if I’m all wrinkly when I’m 40. I’ll be old by then and won’t care!”
Ah, the brazen, witless arrogance of youth.
In college, I regularly made use of the local tanning salon. Students got a discount! The salon had these cute little stickers you could put on your body to make a little pale “stamp” on your skin — it was the one place besides my eyes that was protected from the cancer-causing UV rays.
I’m 41 now, and my chest is angry. It’s angry with me, and it’s angry with any dingaling who continues to purposefully bake themselves with harmful UV rays, be they from the sun or a tanning bed. I scorched myself in the sun for a solid 15 years, using accelerator and tilting my face so the rays could reach my neck too. God forbid I have a white neck. Today, my chest is not cute. Not cute at all.
Fortunately for me, for a white person, I have high levels of melanin. I tan easily and rarely burn, and am therefore somewhat protected from skin cancer in comparison to others with lighter skin. My sister is much fairer and has not been so lucky — she has already needed to have several chunks of skin surgically removed.
But that doesn’t mean I have escaped damage. I may still end up needing to have chunks of skin removed. And, of course, there is the appearance of my chest. And my neck. And hands. And forearms. All are prematurely aged. If I could go back in time and punch 14-year-old me in the face, I would. What a pompous, raging idiot that girl was, thinking she wouldn’t care how she looked by the time she reached 40.
I do care. I care that instead of cleavage, I have chest wrinkles. I can’t even make cleavage. It’s just a big, long, ugly wrinkle. My chest that used to gleam a poreless, warm brown, is now, at the youngish age of 41, permanently wrinkled, like a leather purse that’s been bent too many times. Lines mark the center of my chest even when I’m not “making cleavage” or lying on my side. The lines are there just staring in the mirror, or when I try to stretch my skin tight by pressing my chest out. Completely permanent.
And it may be superficial, but I care about this. I hate it. I’m not opposed to the idea of wrinkles as they naturally occur, but what I am experiencing is not natural. It’s the direct result of baking myself for years in the Florida sun and in tanning beds. I was a fucking idiot.
So when I see people using tanning beds, when I see young women spritzing themselves with suntan oil at the beach, I have a visceral reaction. I want to show them my chest. Look, I want to tell them. You think you won’t care, but you will fucking care.
But that’s just the superficial piece, a footnote to the larger issue, which is that tanning beds are death traps. In the U.S., over 400,000 cases of skin cancer are linked to indoor tanning, with melanoma being the second most common cause of cancer in females age 15-29 and the leading cause of cancer death in females age 25-29. Tanning indoors before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma up to 59%, and every use increases that risk. Some countries have made indoor tanning illegal, that’s how dangerous it is. And yet, here in the U.S., 7.8 million women and 1.9 million men continue to tan indoors. WTF.
Aside from the fact that it is weird as hell that white people have this intense fixation with changing their skin color, it is baffling that anyone continues to make these changes using such a dangerous method. Sunless tanning products have improved dramatically in the last few decades, with home methods generally being cheaper than using a cancer-causing tanning bed. If you want to change your skin color, fine, whatever, but why choose the method that will prematurely age you, cause you to need hunks of skin cut out, or possibly kill you? It’s fucking absurd.
It doesn’t matter how many acid peels I do on my chest — these wrinkles are deep and permanent. I hate that I did this to myself. I also have to assume that, despite my high melanin levels, because of the intensity and duration of the UV exposure I subjected myself to, it is very likely I will deal with some kind of carcinoma in my lifetime.
It’s easy when you’re young to tell yourself you won’t mind having a leathery chest in 20 years. It’s easy for people like me with higher melanin levels who “tan easily” to convince themselves that their risk of skin cancer is lower and that they’ll happily trade a few future wrinkles for beautiful, sun-kissed skin now. But take it from someone who’s been there and has the chest wrinkles and furious regret to prove it: You will mind. Take care of your fucking skin. Avoid UV rays. All of them, whether indoors or out.
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