Fair skin and I have always had a tumultuous relationship. Growing up in Florida, my battle with sunburns started young. A fun filled day at the beach would end with me repeatedly pressing a finger into my bright pink forearm, and watching as the small, fingertip impression turned flesh colored for a quick moment before fading back to day glow fuchsia.
In the early years, my annoyance with my skin tone was do to the limitations it imposed, such as not being able to play on the beach the second day of vacation. But as I entered into the preteen years, it became clear that fair skin was not considered attractive, which was far more devastating than staying in a hotel room and killing time by reorganizing my sticker book. (Googly-eyed, scratch n’ sniff, puffy and unicorns – all on their own pages.)
I first discovered that my skin tone was a hindrance when SLAM books started appearing on 7th grade desks. When a few made their way to my desk, I noticed a theme developing on the pages with my name at the top. If you don’t remember SLAM book format, let me refresh your brain.
Page 1: Sign In
Pages 2-10: Random questions (What is your favorite TV show? Fave band? etc)
Pages 10, on: One person’s name would be written at the top and the space below was used for others to write their opinions on that person.
Whenever my name made it to the top of a page, the notations were usually the same. Nice, pretty cool, smart and pale (although it was usually spelled pail, bless their hearts). Some other comments of note were: PAIL AS HELL (written in all caps) as well as a Ghost, with a small drawing of a cartoon ghost saying, “boo!” As I read these comments my stomach sank. To make myself feel better, I snuck a comma in between the words pretty and cool to up my street cred for future readers.
There wasn’t much I could do about my paleness. If I went in the sun too much, I burned. But the summer of 1991 brought me more than my period and a sweet collection of cassette singles; it was the year that Mega Tan came into my life.
I read about this glorious self tanner in my Sassy magazine before I spotted it in the drug store. I could not wait to make my transformation from pasty to tawny. Hell, even eggshell or biscuit would be an improvement from my porcelain shade. After purchasing not one, but two bottles of Mega Tan, I headed out to my pool, settled onto my towel and lathered my exposed skin with the thick, pungent lotion. Mega Tan smells like a mixture of curdled milk, sour oranges and cat litter. But I didn’t care. By the time I finished reading my stack of Teen Bops and Tiger Beats people were going to assume I was of Puerto Rican decent. I could hardly wait. Unfortunately, I ended up looking more of Oompa Loompa decent than J Lo’s pretty cool cousin.
For years, I gave up. Resigned to my DNA for what is was. Until I decided that science may have caught up enough to actually turn me a tan-ish shade that wasn’t in the orange-hued family. It had only been 8 years since I bought Mega Tan, but a lot had changed. I had just graduated college, I had my own apartment and I now read Cosmo instead of Sassy. So when I noticed the cans of self-tanning sprays starting to line store shelves, my hope of passing for an ethnic woman was restored.
Every night after work, I would come home and get busy spraying myself in my small apartment bathroom. Stripped down to only my undies, I would stand in the tub and let the aerosol can perform its miracle. Starting at my toes and working up to my neck, I would smile as my skin darkened. The results were just as I hoped – brown! I was actually turning a light shade of brown! I could imagine it…after all these years my middle school classmates would bump into me at a bar and say, “Hey Autumn, nice tan.” The circle of life would be complete.
But what I gained in fake dark skin shade, I lacked in attention to detail. First of all, I never sprayed my face for fear of a gruesome breakout. This choice caused my face to be 10 shades lighter than the rest of my body, making me look like an upside down exclamation point. Additionally, I took no caution with the spots where skin tends to be drier, like elbows, hands and feet. The dried, sticky spray would bead up in those areas and make it look like I hadn’t scrubbed hard enough in the shower.
Then there was the odor. It was a smell that had more of an expression than it did a name. Like instead of saying, “You smell like hot dog water,” someone would just make a face like they were just forced to drink hot dog water. Again, I did not care. A nearly lifelong dream was coming true, I was tan-ish and I loved it.
It became an addiction. I stockpiled cans of home spray tanner in the cabinet under my bathroom sink. Every night I would engulf myself in a cloud of toxic fumes and chemicals until my nostrils became numb to the scent. When I blew my nose, the tissue turned brown. I would go to bed with gluey skin so it could really soak in and do the job right.
Until one day, my boss pulled me aside and asked, “Is everything OK?” She was a quiet British woman who typically left me alone, so I was confused by her sudden interest in me. “Yeah. Of course.” I answered, “Why?” With her hand guarding her nose, she took a deep breath and said, “Your skin does not look right, Autumn. Your face is so pale and your arms are so…” she trailed off. I guessed she was hinting that my multi-toned look did not read as professional.
I can’t remember how many showers it took before the tacky film of tanner wore off. And I try not to think about how many braincells I killed or the amount of carcinogens I absorbed in that bathroom. It’s too hideous to consider. For me, that time will always be warm with memories of an outer glow – albeit a little off kilter – and known as the four months of my life that I wasn’t PAIL AS HELL.