In summertime, the feel of warm sun on bare skin can be seductive enough to overrule reason. Is there anything more sensual than a tan line, marking the border between, say, a sun-burnished hipbone and regions below? Silently, yet with authority, a tan speaks of youth and sex, and evokes memories involving all the senses: the smell of the ocean, the sound of crickets, the taste of ripe fruit.
This is the great paradox of the tan: That which confers the appearance of health is supremely unhealthy. The desire for a tan has become a struggle with delayed gratification. What is preferable: to be pasty today in exchange for a future of good health or to be gloriously toasted right now and face the devil of wrinkles and maybe worse later? The deep tans that were once coveted are no longer conscionable for many, and fashion magazines are loath to call a tan "healthy" -- but still we're tempted.
A pair of tourists on the strand at Venice Beach follow different golden rules. Allison Weiss, 23, is burnished a caramel color. "I like having a tan," the Atlantan says. "I'm not careful about going in the sun, and know I should be. I might die tomorrow, but if I do, I know I'll have a good tan."
Her friend Christie Dyer, 22, is a whiter shade of pale. "My mother grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., and baked herself in the sun," she says. "She's 45 now, and I don't like the way her skin looks. I don't want that to happen to me, so I always wear sunscreen. If I want to get a little bit of a tan, I just use sunscreen with an SPF of 8."
Dr. Joshua Wieder, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA, says, "I don't see as much allover deep bronzing. But it's a popular myth that you only need to protect your face. I see a lot of people of all ages with nice, pale faces and leathery arms and hands. There is just no such thing as a safe tan. Getting a little color isn't as damaging as lying out in the sun and frying yourself, but you still get chronic, accumulating damage."
Now that word of the sun's dark side has spread, gas stations stock sunscreens as readily as condoms. In the summer aisle at Rite-Aid you can choose among the sweat-proof and hypoallergenic, gels, sprays and foams with SPF from 2 to 50. But if you look carefully, there, under the blueberry lotion for kids and above the spray just for hair and scalp protection, are Ocean Potion Xcelerator and Hawaiian Style Dark Tanning Oil, brazenly offering maximum tanning assistance.
How else to achieve the burnt sugar complexion of Paris Hilton, hotel heiress and perennially golden girl about town? "J. Lo, Britney Spears and Jennifer Aniston, who are very popular with teenage girls, have made having an allover golden tan super trendy," says Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a market research company that tracks teen preferences. "There's a lot of experimenting with cosmetic tans, but most teen girls still love to go to the beach or pool and catch some rays."
Tanning wasn't always socially desirable. In the 1920s, Coco Chanel aped the look of a Deauville sailor, complete with sunbaked skin, and gradually the idle rich replaced their privileged paleness with tans that advertised an abundance of leisure time. Yet the pendulum has started to swing back. Even tans acquired artificially are as declasse as chewing gum and cigarettes if they're too deep.
Gloria Litz, a Beverly Hills travel agent who describes herself as a reformed "sun bunny," just returned from Las Vegas. "At the Bellagio pool, I saw people lying in full sun, getting as brown as they could," she says. "I had a towel over my face and SPF 45 on my body, and I thought, 'These people just don't get it. Haven't they ever heard of skin cancer?' " Obviously not. The American Cancer Society reports that the incidence of melanoma among women 15 to 29 more than doubled from the mid-'70s to the late '90s. The increase among men in the same age group was 26.7%.
"In the magazine, we never use the phrase 'healthy tan,' " says Linda Wells, editor of Allure. "The difficult thing is, as much as we in the beauty industry have tried to present pale skin as attractive, it's very tough to change perceptions of beauty. People know better, but they still see a tan as a good thing. It's associated with relaxation, fun and freedom, fresh salt air and summer vacation. If the tan came from a pill or going into a sterile office and getting zapped, it wouldn't have the same pull."