Indoor tanning, in my opinion, is the closest you can get to actually staring down the barrel of a gun as it presses a molten lead round through your cranium, but slowed down by about a million percent. Then again, my blood is Macedonian and used to being tucked up into fog-covered mountains, so tanning beds are more of a George Foreman Grill situation for my skin than a means to a beauty end. Despite their ubiquity and the Oranging of America, some of you remain unfamiliar. Don’t worry, Momma’s here.
Right around when we started to like thin, athletic people more than pasty, rotund rich ones is when tanning started to gain popularity. Tans were associated with the glamorous set who spent their copious leisure time sunning on far-away beaches (performing the same socioeconomic marking that paleness did, just in a new way). The more even the tan, the likelier it was achieved in an angle of less than 45 degrees over several hours of lazily baking like a lizard–a sign that your existence requires so little of your upright labor capacity that you can spend it horizontal on a beach or lawn, domestic or foreign. If you’re tan, you’re probably also rested and your skin isn’t so blotchy. Humans are supposed to be outside–it’s why tans make you look “healthier.”
Athletic people also often get tans from training outside. This is the second reason we tan. Try to imagine any shirtless, triangle-torsoed Old Hollywood leading man in tiny beach shorts posing without a golden California glow. You can’t do it because that photo doesn’t exist. Being tan as a guy is a sign that you’re fit and strong from being outdoors and probably lifting heavy things or using a tool to cut something hard into smaller pieces. Professional bodybuilders get dark spray tans and oil their bodies so that the white competition light glistens sharply against the dark skin, enhancing the definition of each muscle group. Misty-May Treanor, pro volleyball player, is always golden brown and sharply cut with muscle. Because these two things are connected, we, too–pasty, not-athletic, overworked-and-underpaid Americans–want to look just as tan as our muscular, athletic, supine-upon-the-beach American Elite, if not more.
Enter the tanning salon in all its majesty: a franchised distillery of sun and healthy glows, where, like all good things, corporations have kindly condensed this lifestyle into a magical machine where you can buy it one minute at a time (but no more than 40, by federal law). With an average of 42 per city–a density higher than McDonald’s or Starbucks— tanning salons are not likely to shut down, no matter how famous the Tilda Swintons (Holla, red-haired pale girls!) and Zoey Deschanels of the world get. While most people can appreciate, from a philosophical perspective, the insanity of literally baking oneself at high concentrations of UV radiation, I nonetheless feel compelled to give you a first-hand account and possible first-hand justification.
Here’s how it goes when you go into a salon: most require state identification and make you to a liability release so that, in case you enjoy your Sun Tan World Mart experience so much you return until you get the cancer that all established medical science predicts you will, they won’t have to shell out for your chemo. After you sign on the dotted line, they will require you to bring or purchase tiny, neon-colored goggles with blacked-out holes in the middle that you cannot see out of in normal indoor light. These goggles are so frightening that if you wear them in literally any other context, your friends will beg you to take them off because they transform you into a hellish Miami Beach cyborg-bug. You will be offered many lotions and gels that will help the rays blast further and deeper into your dermis, perhaps powered in part by their overwhelmingly sweet and caustic scents. You try to just walk past these and avoid eye contact with the bronzed and bright-eyed students who depend on this commission.
You walk down a hall into a cubicle of sorts with some kind of bed filled with UV lamps (or a standing bed if you prefer to dance or just get a really good look at the reflection of your gravity-burdened wobbly bits–these, cruelly, still manage to penetrate the cyborg goggles). It’s best to just leave your modesty at the door, hung over your dignity, and get naked. You put on your goggles and press the On button and climb in.
There, inside the glowing blue clamshell, the tanning bed unfurls the most luxurious kind of seduction in front of you. Along with the DNA-altering radiation, the bed bathes you in warmth and a big dose of vitamin D. The bulbs slowly grow warmer and then you press a magic button and a cooling breeze tickles between your toes and across your pasty skin. Were it not for the Top 40 bullshit blasting from every other cubicle and the government-enforced blinders, you’d feel like you were in Florida. For an entire winter, I attempted to stave off my own yearly bout with Seasonal Affective Disorder by spending 30 minutes a week in these beds. It was a semi-effective treatment, but no more than getting more exercise and taking in more vitamin D from my food.
Nonetheless, the boost you get from the vitamin D coursing through your veins cannot be underestimated, even if it takes a while to feel it. Our largest organ, the skin, is intentionally photosensitive–we were built to be in the sun. But like every other thing America tends to ruin, indoor tanning is another concentrated, packs-a-deadly-punch version of something easily obtained in nature.
My year-long run with tanning ended simply because, even though I was tanning for more medicinal purposes, I was still using something unhealthy to medicate my depression. It did make me feel better, but it was harming me in other ways, and I was justifying my enjoyment of its cosmetic benefits because it really was helping me stay afloat in a legitimate biochemical way. Ultimately, it just wasn’t logically tenable, so I left my goggles and my swipe card in the room after the last time I was done with it. As I left, the slim bronze goddess on the flatscreen behind the front desk attempted one last siren call:
“Don’t let the winter blues get you down! Warm up with a tan today!” The lanky cartoon swayed and smiled. She had always been so kind and yes, so warm. She was the perfect spokesperson for indoor tanning: perfect, happy, fit and thin, and not one bit real.
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