David Kordahl

On Tanning

In Pop Culture on 2011/01/02 at 7:21 pm

On the Tuesday after Christmas, I went to Family Video to return the two movies that Holly and I had watched on Christmas Eve, after church [1]. Family Video in Lawrence, KS, is nestled in one of the strip malls that line 23rd St., at the very end of one of them, near Panera Bread. If you follow the Family Video mall eastward, toward the other parking lot entrance, you first pass DonDon, a Japanese café (known around town for its ‘Sumo Challenge’—eat five bowls, and you can get them for free); then Nail Expressions (a manicure shop that seems to do steady business); Scarlet Orchid (now an empty room, which I’d assumed was probably a front for some shady money laundering but it turns out is probably just a defunct Asian restaurant); Advance America Cash Advance (no comment); L.A. weightloss (between the L and A is a smileyface, and the whole sign is flipped backwards, like ssolthgiew .A.L, except all the letters are mirrored); and U.S. MARINE CORPS U.S AIR FORCE RECRUITING (the army recruiters are across the lot, sharing a building with Mr. Goodcents Subs & Pasta). Finally, if you get to the other end of the mall, you arrive at ENDLESS TANNING SUMMER—with ‘tanning’ in bigger letters than the rest, so it’s probably supposed to be read endless summer tanning.

As you might have guessed from the title and special lead-up to the end of the last paragraph, this blog is an account of my only time tanning. For what it’s worth.

Tanning is one of those activities, much like smoking, that all the adults I knew growing up told me would kill me [1]. And, like smoking, this made it undeniably cool. Thinking back on how I reacted to this paradoxical state of events, I’m not sure whether to be proud of my teenaged self, or to react with late-date embarrassment: instead of simply accepting the status quo and moving on, I made a point of having the standard argument with just about anyone who would humor me. The argument being that tanning is wrong and should not be done at all period end of story what is wrong with you deranged morons my God. (A positive way to spin this is that I was more a rogue utopian than mere asshole.) You might not expect it, but there are benefits to having strong opinions about important, controversial topics at such a young age. One is that it’s a sort of PR coup, allowing you to get minorly famous without any real work. The other is that it gives you a chance to proselytize society’s worst (read: tannest) offenders…who, in the case of rural Iowa during the early days of this century, happened to coincide directly with the caste of the Most Popular Females. [3]

But enough nostalgia. Most Americans probably agree that adulthood is a term that’s more or less identical with expectation dialdown, and whether out of boredom, desperation, necessity, or feigned dementia, a lot of people end up doing things that, as teenagers, they’d never expect of themselves [4]. So I went tanning [5]. So shoot me.

When I walk into the shop, the first thing I see are all the bottles of sparkly tanning lotion— filled literally w/ glitter, I think—with tags that put them in the $100 range. This convinces me that it’s an upscale establishment, even though I have no stable standard for comparison. The bottles are sitting on a glass shelf above a girl at the register, who turns off the movie that she’s watching on the desk computer long enough to ask me if she can help me. She looks like a high schooler, one of those lightly acned, heavily tanned beauties who can get away with wearing sweatpants all the time because no one needs any more convincing. Suddenly I feel pretty damn pervy, ashamed, walking into an commercial establishment with the full intention of paying a young girl for the privilege of taking off all my clothes off near her, now in the middle of the day. That I’m wearing the long trenchcoat my mom gave me at Thanksgiving somehow doesn’t help much.

”I’m just wondering…I’ve never been tanning before…what I might need to do to start…” I stammer, and it’s more than enough. Apparently weirdos like me—first timers—are so common that they offer a special just for us ($15/30 min. + tax; not the usual single-use price [$30/30 min. + tax], to be sure).

The girl recommends, scanning my paleness, that I use the machine that produces only UVB light. “You won’t burn, then—I promise,” she assures me, and immediately she provides an anecdote to back up her claim. “My brother-in-law—he’s a red-head, right?—he tried the UVB machine, and he didn’t burn. He thought he’d burned, because his skin turned all pink, but he didn’t.” She added, “It gets a little hot in there,” and went on to explain that I’d probably want to use the provided fans.

Gratified that she’s talking me through the process (and simultaneously making my best effort to ignore that the health claims of a high school tanning rep might not be conventionally regarded as a ‘trustworthy source’), I agree. She leads me over into a room at the back of the salon, which has I’d guess maybe six rooms. The outer lobby is a sort of shiny burgundy that’s mostly lit by the sun bouncing around off the polished floor, but this changes abruptly when we go into the side room. This looks a little more homey, the tones paler and more passive, with regular wallpaper that goes up only so far and beige paint atop that. A wooden chair waits in the corner with a white towel on it. Maybe the beige trim is there to match the tan vinyl bed, I think as the girl and I sit down on the bed so she can explain the controls. These are pretty simple: Up/Down buttons to raise and lower the canopy; On/Off buttons for the fan; Start/Stop buttons for the timer (there’s a square box that she says will tell me when to flip over—15 minutes for my front, 15 minutes for my back). She points me toward the towel sitting on the chair and a bathrobe hanging on the door. “You good?” she asks. I nod.

I close the door behind her and make sure it’s locked. After a moment examining the surroundings again (one never can be too cautious about the appearance of hidden cameras), I disrobe. Everything—the bench, the chair, the hanger for the bathrobe—has a little sign on it reminding me that it’s been SANITIZED (for your [my] safety). Soon, the machine begins to emit a loudish swishing noise, and the sign on the wall says that my session must start in the next three minutes. In those three minutes, I tinker with the radio that’s been provided, trying to find NPR [6]. It looks like the building’s been remodeled with the tanning bed in mind; the radio has a place reserved for it right by where the user’s head should go. I find NPR. I unfurl the towel, turn naked onto my stomach, lower the canopy, and press Start.

It occurs to me, as I type, that since tanning itself is an experience shared by let’s say 50% of the American population, maybe more, there’s an inordinate hubris in my expectation that I have anything new to say about this old phenomena—somewhat like the green writer who is so pleased with himself for finally writing a sex scene that he forces his friends and relatives to read it, caution thrown right to the wind, only to realize later that he’s not telling anyone anything they haven’t already known for ages. But that thought doesn’t cross my mind as I’m staring down off the edge of the bed. The machine was made for people much shorter than me, I realize. My feet stick frigidly out past the end, and my downturned face—covered initially by the tine blue nose-strap goggles—stares down at the iridescent towel dust mixed with stray pubes that cling to the outer darkness lurking malevolently outside the SANITIZED zone. The machine at this point is loud enough that to get NPR to register, I have to turn it up to an obscene level, way louder than I would’ve been willing to a minute ago. Before I know what’s happening, my goggles disappear somewhere (I never find them again), and I’m staring unencumbered back at my body, which starts to sweat. I turn on the fan. Have I ever noticed before the way that my waistband, where my underpants cut into soft flesh almost every hour, every day, how it’s covered by emerging proto-pimples? They redden before the rest—the odd zit, I reason, having more surface area by dint of its protuberance. The flaky skin over the course of my back is lit bright, like the pinpricks of guided radiation falling from the end of embedded fiber optics, but my relief here is that some of those flakes are more cotton dust, probably from the briefly worn bathrobe.

It seemed for a moment that this would devolve into a protracted study of deflated narcissism, but you’d be surprised how quickly the situation is able to flush out all vestiges of self-consciousness. There’s an almost perfect storm of input stimuli that conspire to blank the mind—the sizzling skin tissue, coupled with the radio input, make for a state less Zen than anti-Zen. There’s no way that I’ll get bored to transcendence…not here. I’m so bombarded with aural and tactile stimuli that in my half-hour of lying there—half prone, half supine—it doesn’t even occur to me to be bored. It’s only later that I begin to suspect that this might be a part of tanning’s implicit appeal. Say that you’re the sort of person who derives a great deal of your self-worth from your personal appearance, and say also that the process of being looked at has become a natural part of your daily routine. What, then, could be more satisfying than to spend a half-hour in private, away from all the stares and apperential judgements, adding literal value to your body at a rate of a dollar per minute, whilst at the same time being able to shut the brain, that nattering elocutionist, entirely off? Isn’t this what we Americans mean, almost, by happiness?

I’m not so sure I’m above this anymore.

When my time’s up, I hear a few beeps, and then the machine shuts down all at once. I crawl out into the yellowy bulb-light and look at myself in the mirro. Sure enough, as promised—I’m not burned [7]. After throwing my clothes back on, I exit, and a different girl is at the counter, watching a different movie, petting a new fluffy minidog. Then I run, I run directly to my car, where a notebook is waiting open for me, and I scribble down everything I can remember. I draw out maps of the area (Walgreens across Louisiana Ave., a BP and Wendy’s across 23rd); I write out a list of shoppes that become this post’s opening paragraph; I make medical observations about my present state (my shins burn); I perform rudimentary calculations of the hidden business costs. Then I shut the notebook for a few days and haven’t thought too hard about it since.

[1] Step-Brothers and The Hurt Locker, in case you were wondering. (This factual account should not be taken as a recommendation, by any means—esp. in the case of the former.) Up.

[2] This is not true. There were people in my high school, I know, who had tanning beds at home, and a quick investigation into the economics of such an occurrence reveals that an adult, somewhere, had to be behind this. The facts of small-town geography make for good odds (hence) that I knew some of these people. Up.

[3] Lest the image of me chatting up Northwest Iowa’s bronzed finest gives you the wrong idea about my playerishness, I should clarify: on a conscious level, at least, my motives in this were disgustingly pure. Up.

[4] For everyone’s sake, this is best left purposely vague. Up.

[5] Yes, I had an ulterior motive: novel research. But given that an unwritten novel is no more than a figment in God’s imagination, this justification is so broad that it would cover a near-infinite class of misdeeds. I hesitate to contemplate the body-count necessary for writers attempting to research a thriller. Up.

[6] In retrospect, NPR multitasking was probably not a great idea. I get that a ‘research’ mission should’ve been spent trying to fully establish a fully credible mise-en-scène, but a half-hour is also a long time to experience the world uninformed. Due to the radio interference, I know all sorts of important things—like, I know of the (now thwarted) attempt to pardon Billy the Kid and…and…um, er, well. OK, that’s the only thing I remember. The one tangible thing that NPR marination gave me, however, was an excuse to go tanning again, should the desire ever flare. Up.

[7] A few hours later, I did get a bit red on the parts of my torso most unaccustomed to public display. A disclaimer: I don’t wish this to be an implicit advertisment for tanning (which, true to my old self at least a little, I still publically disavow), so as the last thing to appear in this column, I give you some slightly NSFW ‘shower scenes’ to scare you away from ever falling to my depraved depths. This features scantily-clad [male] Italian gangsters who get shot while tanning, and this viral ad features a ‘hot blond’ [sic] [female] who meets an untimely, shocking end—of which, of course, I advise you choose dependent on your particular tastes. Up.

  1. I love this. I tanned only once – for a week to get rid of a nasty sports bra tan on my back because I was wearing a backless dress to a very fancy wedding. I’ve never been back.

    PS – It’s 23rd Street east of Iowa, Clinton Parkway west.

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