The idols of my youth had golden, brown skin that made dark, smokey eyes and blonde hair stand out in music videos and movies. The “I’m a white girl who just left the California beach” look was the hot ticket, which, for me meant my pale skin was not so desirable.
My mom tells the story of when she’d take me to swimming lessons when I was 3-years-old, sit me on the side of the pool with the other children, step back and immediately pick me out because I was at least two shades whiter than the other children. As a teenager, when I would put on shorts for the first time in Spring, my dad and older brother would make comments like “woah Terrah, you need to tan, your legs are blinding me.”
So, I laid outside in my bakini for hours at a time, sweating, uncomfortable, checking my tan line to see if I had gotten any darker. When my dad married a woman who had Native American ancestory, and also tanned regularly, she knew no better way of bonding with me than taking me tanning for the first time at age 15, because in her eyes she was doing me a favor, helping me to get rid of my pale skin. The first time I laid in the tanning bed for what I was told was the minimum for results — 7 minutes — I came out red as a lobster, unable to comfortably sit down for several days. Still, I sought golden brown skin, but could never quite reach, or maintain, the color I longed to be.
When I looked on TV, in music videos, magazines, the Internet, books, around me at my more “desirable” peers, everyone was tan, so I thought I had to be too. To be too pale (or too dark for others) meant to be uncool, unsexy, it meant you couldn’t afford tanning, it meant you didn’t spend the required amount of time primping to satisfy social standards.
As it turns out, I am not the only one who suffered from tan-skin envy, or rather too-pale, too-dark, too-blotchy, not-enough-this-or-that skin insecurity. How do I know? Because like me, a large number of people are being diagnosed with skin cancer each year, and it has become the fastest growing cancer among young women ages 18 – 30 — a 200 percent increase in squamous cell carcinoma cases over the last three decades.
Skin cancer is the most common of cancers — over 2 million people are diagnosed annually. While population growth, tanning beds and increased UV rays due to global warming are some of the top discussed causes of the increased number of skin cancer cases, I’d like to argue that distorted self-image and a lack of proper knowledge is among the worst, yet most beneficial to overcome.
At the ripe old age of 28, I too have been diagnosed with a small spot of squamous cell skin cancer on the top, middle of my nose. Not only will I now have to pay out my high deductible (which was supposed to be money for a house) to fix this slow growing cancer, I will have a permanent scar as a reminder of my troubles.
When I make a mistake, or something goes wrong, I like to learn from it. What I’ve learned from this experience, that I’d like to pass on to others is this: 1. The things we do to our body now, will — despite what your young mind tells you — come back to haunt you, and like everything, has consequences. 2. Tanning beds are a waste of money, time, resources and are most importantly dangerous. And 3. The things a child sees and hears do affect their perception. If we could get over declaring and judging by an “ideal” image, and embrace all skin types, dark, light, spotted, we’d all be happier and healthier.
In the end, I will dish out a large chunk of money, and force myself to wear a hat and sunscreen daily, but most importantly, I’ve learned that attempting to be, or look like, something you’re not will only cause emotional, mental and even physical pain and problems. Love yourself for the color you are. Love yourself because you are unique. Be aware of the ideals that are being pushed on you and how they are only based on what’s popular at that time — the “fashion” trend. I used to say I was born in the wrong generation, and wished I had lived in a time when pale skin was desirable. Now, looking at my nose where my future scar will be, I wish I had learned sooner that pale skin is beautiful, because it’s me.