Tanning: a reckoning of fleeting youth


By Bella Ishanyan

Graphic by Adrienne Lirio

I am writing this on the beach: belly down, hat on and earbuds in, the brilliant drumming of Mick Fleetwood harmonizing with the light crashing of the mediocre waves Ipswich has to offer.

I’m 17, but this is only the third time I have been to the beach without my parents. It’s strange. For starters, we have significantly less food, the umbrella isn’t set up properly (it later flew away) and my mother isn’t here to make me wear my sunscreen.

“I just put on sunscreen, I’m probably fine,” I would tell her, “Plus, I want to tan a bit.”

“No!” she would angrily exclaim, “You’re not going anywhere until you put enough on.”

(Trust me, it’s a much larger ordeal than I can convey.)

According to the World Health Organization, in 2020, excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays (UVR) caused 1.2 million new cases of non-melanoma skin cancers and 325,000 melanomas of the skin, resulting in 64,000 premature deaths from non-melanoma and 57,000 melanomas of the skin.

But as horrifying as those statistics are, we all knew that.

We all know the risks that come with excessive UVR exposure, yet, we continue to cook ourselves in the sun until we look like the rack of $4.99 rotisserie chickens at Costco. We also know that, despite the risks, that bronzy glow can make us feel beautiful, even if just for a couple months.

Plus, who can beat the feeling of stretching out across a beach towel, back to the sky, blissfully melting into mother nature’s warm, yet pernicious, embrace?

In Eastern Asia, where my mother is from, tanning is handled as such: you don’t. Already, the culture of beachgoing is far from pertinent, but it’s also common knowledge that, aside from the vast list of medical conditions it causes, tanning causes wrinkles and spots attributed with looking older.

So when I asked my mother why she constantly protects herself and us from the sun, she never said it was to avoid melanoma, but instead to preserve our youth.

“I want us to be young forever.”

Because that’s all we want isn’t it? To be young forever. Not too young, so that we can still go to the beach without parental supervision, but young enough where we can live our life distant from the tremendous wave that incessantly barrels toward us: the truth of our mortality.

Our comfort lies on the shore.

I don’t blame her for wanting to preserve our youth. There’s no wonder my mother reminisces about her former years, the years where she had what she wanted: two small girls, cute and innocent, who knew nothing but to worship and obey their mother, and a youthful face, taut and smooth, free from the hardship of the years ahead.

But motherhood is the rising tide. Motherhood sharpens the view of her own wave, and it reminds her that the life she had created, this piece of her, has a barrelling wave of its own. A mortality yet to be discovered. A sleeping fear, waiting for just the right moment to be woken.

Unfortunately, age is the Pandora’s box we never got the option of keeping closed.

The fact of our eventual death is not something my mother has hidden from me, yet, she still does everything in her power to shield me and herself of that burden. Whether that be by preserving her own health for as long as possible, or falsifying the reality that we are younger than we seem, that we are doing better than we think.

We tightly grip onto this mask of youth to get us through the hardships of this life, and although it’s not the most textbook compliant method of dealing with our problems, it’s brought us this far. Hope is the only thing we have left in this world swarming with pain (we can thank Pandora for that).

So I don’t blame my mother for wanting to protect us from the future. For wanting to hold onto the past. Because as lovely as basking in the sun is, this whole time, she hasn’t just been preventing me from getting a gorgeous tan; she’s been protecting me from the reality that life will only get harder from here. And I thank her for that, and assure her that regardless of whether I wear a sufficient amount of sunscreen or not, I’m still her little girl.

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