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"You Look Tan" Is a Loaded Compliment

I use sunscreen, I swear!

Lately, a funny thing has been happening. Every time someone says I look tan, I blush. It started at my yoga studio. “You’re so tan,” the girl at the desk told me, and her comment made my cheeks burn. I bowed my head and pretended to search my purse, while racking my brain for an explanation. I fell asleep in the sun. A shark ate my SPF!


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I considered lying and saying it was fake—airbrush, I swear! Instead, I shrugged and mumbled something about being away for a week. In all honesty, I probably wasn't being tan-shamed, but that's how I felt. I might have been a compliment, even. But I couldn't shake how embarrassed I felt, especially when a deep tan used to be, well, cool. It wasn't lost on me that years ago, that exact comment would have made me smile, flip my hair and say "Thanks!"

I feel like a tan is unmistakable proof I'm neglecting my own body.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but let me explain myself. I have a dedicated yoga practice, a fancy juicer, and a fire escape full of basil plants. I recycle and try to make time for meditation. I turn the water off when brushing my teeth—and often when others are brushing theirs, too. The other day, I Googled how to make veggie burgers from the pounds of pulp the juicer produces.

That's not to say I'm a poster child for the wellness era. There are many people far more virtuous—vegans and composters, for starters. But I'm trying. So when someone makes note of my tan, it almost feels like a backhanded compliment, like they're praising my cavalier attitude towards trans fats. Oh, how great that you can scarf down those fries and not even care!

Ten years ago, though—that was a different story. I have fond memories from college of walking to the tanning salon in between classes with my girlfriends, where we slathered on overpriced moisturizer and baked our bodies in greasy beds. I had a monthly membership there for unlimited visits. Just typing that makes me feel ashamed. It was auto-renewal.

We didn't mind the slight smell of burnt skin or the moody lighting. And, as a beauty junkie, I especially loved the rainbow-colored row of glittering bottles of "tingling" creams and lotions that promised to leave us bronzer and better and more beautiful.

That was then. Now, miraculously melanoma-free, I find myself struggling to find the right words when a colleague compliments my color, and quick to cower when a friend scolds me for an accidental sunburn. I feel like a tan is unmistakable proof I'm neglecting my own body. (Same goes for obvious hangovers, by the way.) I've interviewed dermatologists countless times for articles I've written; I'm well-aware of the dangers of tanning and the need for SPF and routine skin checks; I use sunscreen like a responsible adult. I know my spattering of freckles isn't cute—it's sun damage. In today's health-conscious society, a deep tan just doesn't fit.

In today's health-conscious society, a deep tan just doesn't fit.

But I can't help looking back wistfully at my childhood in South Carolina, where my sister and I rubbed our skin with baby oil before we laid out at the pool and squirted lemon juice and Sun-In in our hair. I still think there's some cultural difference. My friends down South are far less concerned about sun protection than my New York City friends. At the beaches, they're a gaggle of beautiful tan women in neon string bikinis. Up here, we wear big hats and were the first to jump on board with the one-piece swimsuit trend.

There's a simple reason for that: trends always hit big cities first, and that's exactly what our obsession with health is—a very chic, oftentimes expensive trend. It's fashionable to be healthy. And who knows, maybe in a few years my hometown friends will be guzzling green juice under their beach umbrellas.

Remember, it wasn't long ago when socialites like Paris Hilton ruled Hollywood, reality TV exploded, and our media diet consisted of touring McMansions on MTV's "Cribs." Now we like our celebrities to post Instagram snaps of their post-workout smoothie, not bottles of Dom Pérignon.

That's not to say the guilty pleasures and decadence of the '90s and early aughts has passed. The 1% is very much alive; we still have the Kardashians, after all. But trends ebb and flow, much like tan lines. Who knows what shade of skin will be chic in 2025? For now, I find comfort in knowing all trends pass.

So the next time someone tan-shames me, I'll remember that health snobbery can't last forever. Even if it does make me feel like I'm still wearing Juicy Couture sweatpants.

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