Summer Guide: Tanning—Being a helplessly white boy in a tan-crazy society

No matter what, I barely tan. I fry. But is this a bad thing?

Early in the summer, untanned white boys are at the peak of their whiteness—but at their low in mutations.

Early in the summer, untanned white boys are at the peak of their whiteness—but at their low in mutations.

Photo by David Robert

I was in seventh grade when I first realized that sunshine and my exposed body don’t mix very well. My doctor had removed a small mole from my neck, and after sending it out for tests, we learned that the mole contained pre-cancerous cells.

The word “cancer,” even if the word follows “pre,” does not sit well with a seventh grader, his doctor and his family. I was told, in no uncertain terms, to avoid long periods of sun exposure, to always wear sunscreen and to keep shorts-wearing to a minimum.

This sucked.

Because I was freaked out—and, more importantly, my clothes-buying mother was freaked out—I rarely wore shorts until my late college years. Even now, I wear shorts only once in a while, and I always put on sunscreen, unless I have massive brain flatulence and forget.

But that’s OK. I don’t tan very well anyway. I am more likely to fry to a beet red color than I am to tan to, well, a tan color, thanks to the pale, Germanic-Nordic genes that my parents passed on to me. On a scale used by the American Academy of Dermatology and the Centers for Disease Control, which ranks skin type on a scale from one (pale white skin) to six (dark brown or black), I am probably a low two. “Burns easily; tans minimally” is about right.

Of course, many of my friends endlessly mock me because of my white skin and my minimal shorts-wearing. They get beautiful, golden tans, always wear shorts and gallivant around on the beach. The bastards then “neener neener” me as I sit there in pants and SPF 50 sunscreen.

That’s the penalty for being a helplessly white boy in a tan-crazy society.

Are you a mutant?
Yeah, yeah, everybody knows the dangers of over-exposure to the sun. Pre-mature aging of the skin. Cancer. General epidermal chaos. But I had never heard the dangers of tanning put so succinctly until I talked to Dorothy Hudig, a professor of microbiology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“Cross-linking your DNA just isn’t smart,” she said.

I asked for clarification, and that’s when she got horrifyingly succinct. “Ultra-violet radiation damages the DNA, and you get mutations. And some of those mutations cause cancer.”


“The more tanning you do, the more mutations you accrue, and the more likely you are to get cancer,” she went on. “So why do it? Melanoma isn’t an easy way to go out.”

Excuse me while I go put on a suit of full-body armor and then slather myself in a bunch of SPF 100, just to be safe. I don’t need any mutations, or at least any more mutations, especially since I have already been carrying around some of these mutations (pre-mutations?) since I was in middle school.

Hudig’s words are scary, and that scariness goes for pretty much all methods of tanning available. The sun’s rays are chock full of mutation-causing ultraviolet rays. According to the CDC, there are three types of these rays, two of which reach us here on the third rock from the sun: ultraviolet A rays, the most abundant kinds of rays around that penetrate well beyond the top layer of human skin; and ultraviolet B rays, which penetrate the skin less deeply.

It’s UVB rays that are more associated with sunburns, and UVA rays that are more associated with tanning (they’re what most tanning beds use). But let me emphasize: They are both dangerous, even those UVA rays that don’t burn as much. They are so dangerous that the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration discourage people from using tanning beds.

Well, if tanning beds are out, that leaves those lotions, like sunless tanners or bronzers, as the only remaining options. Well, the FDA doesn’t say anything terribly awful about those, although it does say sunless tanners “can be difficult to apply and the chemicals may react differently on various areas of your body, resulting in uneven coloring.” And it says bronzers “may streak after application” and “some may stain clothing.”

Color me less than ecstatic.

In other words, the medical professionals agree: Tanning, while it looks mighty damn good, can be mighty damn bad for you. And the more sun you get, the more likely you are to become a cancer-ridden mutant.

No gloating for me
After getting all this information, I was ready to go up to all my nice, tanned friends and throw a “neener neener” or two back at them.

“I don’t get as much sun as you do, so I am less susceptible to premature aging and cancer than you are, whereas you are becoming a bunch of increasingly mutated dweebs,” I would say. Then I would throw in one of those “neener neeners.”

But then I read a list from the CDC on risk factors for skin cancer. Some of the factors on that list: lighter natural skin color, skin that burns easily, blond or red hair, blue or green eyes, moles, a personal history of skin cancer and a family history of skin cancer.

Seeing as I am a light-skinned, easily fried, blond-haired, blue-eyed dude with a few moles, one of which was pre-cancerous, and I’m from a family with a history of skin cancer, I am glad I waited to mock my friends.

OK, I need to watch it. I get that. And I also get the fact that my friends get tans because much of society, for some reason, thinks tans look good. And I also know that many of my friends are dufuses who would take looking good now over a pale existence, even if it means cancer and premature aging may come later.

Hudig explained society’s love of tanning by pointing out that in today’s office-bound, indoor world, tans are hard to get.

“In history, whatever is different and luxurious is what has been wanted,” she said. “In the 17th century, it was in to be pale, because people didn’t want to look like field workers. [Tanning is] a sign of status and feeling good. But there are other ways to accumulate status and to feel good.”

There ya go. Hey, I feel pretty good. I have a little bit of status. (OK, a very little bit.) And even though I need to watch out for cancer, I’ll still look nice and young, albeit a tad pale, when my friends prematurely age themselves with their overly tanned bodies.

Maybe it’s not so bad to be a helplessly white boy in a tan-crazy society after all.