This summer, 1998, I am getting a deep tan.
One day in the middle of May I realized that the make-up I've been using -- nude beige -- is too pale for the summer and thought I might try a darker one. I went out and got the deep beige and tried it on, and I rather liked it to my surprise. I also got a few pairs of darker pantyhose -- sun beige to match the make-up.
It was then that I decided to spend as many hours of the summer sitting in the sun for a deep tan.
I had a huge pile of bluebooks to read and the sun was bright that day, 14 May, the first sunny day after 12 days of rain; and, so, I sat in the garden and read the bluebooks from about 11:00 to 3:00 with a short lunch break; then, I mowed the lawn and went back for more sun from 4:00 to 5:30. It was a lot of exposure for the first day, and the effect was immediately visible. I got a bottle of sunblock lotion but didn't use it because, despite the prevalent medical warning, I wanted the sun to penetrate my skin. It got red and hot but it did not burn. Along the tan line of the short shorts I was wearing, I could see how dark I have become.
Two days later I had another long day in the sunny garden with more bluebooks, and term papers, too. But I realized that the tan line formed by the tank top I was wearing showed conspicuously when I put on a slipdress -- an error I had not foreseen. Still two days later (a cloudy Sunday intervened), I put in four hours. This time I put on a bikini top with spaghetti straps and an open back. The tank top lines didn't easily erase, however. Knees and shoulders get darkest fastest. I changed positions for even exposure, and moved the chairs following the sunny spot in the garden.
It's only the end of May now, and I am already strikingly brown. I wonder how dark I will be at the end of the summer. I find the thought thrilling.
This is a new experience for me. I practiced sunbathing many years ago but only sporadically. For the last thirty years I generally avoided the sun. In Japan, where I come from, dark skin on women is considered a blemish, though this is less true among the young people today. A tanned look is associated with outdoor labor and lower class rather than with health and leisure. After a weekend on a beach, we used be told that we looked like a peasant. Girls on a farm who work in the field wear a big hat, long sleeves, and a protective cover on the back of their hands. A "nice tan" is an oxymoron in Japanese. Moreover, tan is not the color we get when we tan; it is brown. The Japanese expression for tanned skin is, actually, black. Makkuro or pitch black is what people say when you show your tanned face even when it is light brown; they also say that you look like a bronze buddha, kanabutsusan.
The thrill of tanning, for me, may have its source in the old taboo in my cultural background; getting a deep tan, I am countering the cultural convention. Swedes began the cult of sunbathing, initially more for health than for looks. As the fashion spread in the West, the tan, as a signifier of good health, became a cosmetic assuring a look of good health and of the rich and the famous who can afford long and leisurely vacations yachting on the sea. Today the medical profession insists on its carcinogenic risk and yet people still speak of a healthy tan.
There is certain finality in tanning, a little bit like tattooing. The tan is temporary; after a summer of tanning, the skin will lighten again over the winter. But the darkening process is irreversible in the short term like getting a short haircut that changes our appearance drastically -- for a while.
A deep tan is beautiful on the soft, smooth skin of young girls but it is too often, in my view, unsightly on a wrinkled skin. But it's one of those things I want to try and see if only once -- like bungee jumping. But it may turn out to be addictive. I am now starting on my huge backlog reading which can surely last more than one summer.
T. Kaori Kitao, 1 June 1998