Friday, May 29, 2009

Bronze Ambition

It begins with an unmanicured pointer finger. Pressing it firmly against the small triangle embossed on my stereo’s smooth, rectangular buttons, I am greeted by warm bossa nova melodies winding their way through my living room as they follow me into the bathroom. There on the counter beneath the vanity mirror, a bottle of Corona with a lime wedged in its neck just begins to sweat as the bright bulbs do their best impression of relentless sunshine. Welcome to my beach, my bronze ambition.

For years now, well alright – decades, really, I have been attempting to change my body through a strict self-tanning regimen.

My first encounter with sunless tanning cream happened in middle school during a time when I was desperate to break free from my geek status and join the world of teen popularity. It never happened, thanks in part to the quality of sunless tanning lotions in the early 1990s. The anticipation of my newly bronzed body as I worked the cream over each arm, leg and plane of skin made me dizzy with excitement. I went to bed anxious to wake up as the new and exotic me.

Morning came, and I ran to the full-length mirror in my bedroom the way a child charges the tree on Christmas. The reflection was devastating.

Slowly, I peeled the layers of clothing from my body to reveal a pattern of swirly, striped and splotchy skin in various hues of beige and orange. A kind of paisley inspired wandering of color covered just enough of my body to suggest that it was meant to be more consistent, but not enough to look as though I’d had any clue as to what I was doing. Despite exfoliating and careful application of the cream, I looked like a sepia girl in a Technicolor world.

Over time I perfected the sunless tanning technique, baring my sun-kissed limbs without the zebra-like stripes on the wrists, ankles and knees that plagued less seasoned “sunbathers.” For a while I could credit all of the muscle tone in my arms to the many times per week I applied self-tanning lotion, and the methodical massaging technique I came up with that ensured it was going on correctly.

While living abroad in Italy as an exchange student, I finally got a real suntan after vacationing in Sardinia for two weeks with my boyfriend and his family. We spent our days lounging on large rocks that jutted into the Mediterranean sea, a landscape so magnificent that I wasn’t sure who had the starring role: the emerald waves ebbing and flowing into the shoreline, or the rocky fjords that broke them up.

It was such a magical environment, that my skin miraculously responded favorably to the sun. For the first time in my life my body darkened into a rich bronze color contrasting with locks of dirty blond hair that soon transformed into platinum strands of gold. It was as if my “Fairy Bod Mother” had visited me. Suddenly I saw myself as an attractive woman. And I was in love, and I was speaking fluent Italian.

I had never before encountered the woman I was while standing before a mirror during those days and it was very hard to see her fade as my time in Sardinia, and then Italy came to an end. The next four years I was a student at Ithaca College, and then went on to live in New York City before ending up back here in Syracuse. At times, it seems that I’ve spent the last eight years looking for that version of me that was glowing from the inside out on the beaches of Sardinia. New York State weather and the romantic endeavors of my twenties did little to reinstate that glow as any attempts to surrender myself to the sun or men have left me badly burned.

It seems that with the first nice day of each summer, I somehow forget that I am fair and freckled and should really be putting SPF on to avoid damaging my skin. For whatever reason, I convince myself that it will be different this time – that laying on a towel all day in late May is a good idea and “sun protection factors” will only hamper the sun goddess within me that has been waiting patiently to emerge if only she could find a few rays of solar splendor.

How very wrong I always end up being. Solar splendor quickly changes to solar sizzle as the day comes to an end. With a bottle of aloe in hand, I do what I can to make things better.

Similarly, I do this very same thing with men. I meet one that is seemingly wonderful and commence to invest in him without worrying too much about the consequences. As the “chase” comes to an end, so too does our relationship. With a bottle of Chardonnay in hand, I do what I can to make things better.

It amazes me that I have proven to myself time and time again that I am not built to receive large quantities of sun and that using an SPF is in my best interest. I wonder if there is such a thing as a “Spinster Protection Factor” – something I could apply before first dates that would ensure my heart won’t get broken after the first few months of getting to know someone?

Luckily, we live in a world that has started to realize how terrible the sun can be for you and even the people who easily tan are starting to change their sun-worshipping ways. This makes it easier for us white folks to carry on with our pastiness as we take precautions to protect ourselves from the effects of too much sun. A tan might look good, but it’s not always the best thing for our overall well-being.

The same can be said about a husband, at least in my case.

These days I still visit my special bathroom beach, and though I’m not laying on a blanket of white sand with a tropical beverage in my hand, I still find it plenty relaxing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to care less about what people think about me and more about what I need to do to think positively of myself. I’ve been an athlete for nearly 15 years and it has made me appreciate my body in important ways. I no longer regard it as just a canvas that I need to paint and decorate to look good for the viewing pleasure of others – I see it as a means to an end. This body allows me to run, bike and swim – to feel myself persevere through pain, push past limits and get to know myself from the inside out in a powerful way. I know how my breathing sounds when I’m running a seven-minute mile, and I know how free I will feel if I continue running at that pace to push through moments where I thought I had to stop running or I would collapse. These things aren’t just significant to me as an athlete – they’re also good for me to know as a human living in a tough world. When I think of all this body has achieved in my life, it seems petty that I get upset with it for not tanning easily in the sun.

Now when I sip Coronas in my bathroom while applying self-tanning lotion, I use it as a time to relax with myself and honor my body for what I demand of it each day. I say hello to the beauty mark to the left of my knee, and drop by for a lengthy visit to my right trapezius muscle. I love the added bonus of finding myself a bit bronzed the next day, but I no longer do it because I feel that I have to in order to impress someone. I do it for me.

I do it because I look forward to that time spent with myself and feel proud that the process of self-tanning no longer means I’m trying to change who I am because I think I’m supposed to be a certain way. I do it because I like the woman that I have become and I don’t tell her so enough between workouts, family and career obligations. Sometimes I put too many walls up and I forget that she needs to hear it.

So here’s to a healthy glow – both inside and out. Bottoms up, walls down and bronze away!

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