Should I Be Tan?

Searching for an answer to one of life’s most tan-talizing questions

Jack Koloskus
bronze ambition

There are moments in life when you realize a personal trait, one it hadn’t ever occurred to you to think about, has been, for some amount of time, the object of another’s fixation. Moments when you realize you’ve been seen and remembered for something you not only didn’t intend, but hadn’t even observed in yourself. For some, this moment comes when they realize they are the not nerdy but in fact beautiful main character in a romantic comedy. For others, it comes when they realize they are a sexual predator. For me, it came when I realized I was pale girl.

In college, there was a kid who called me “pale girl.” Please note that this was not a cool kid. He wasn’t a jock, or a hot person. He wasn’t the Fonz. He didn’t have implicit license to lightly bully me due to an elevated social status. He was a nerd in my music program, a few years behind me; a nerd I didn’t really even know. A nerd who was pale himself!

Enhancing the indignity of being called “pale girl” by this nerd is that he didn’t even have the decency to call me “pale girl” to my sickly face. I only found out about my nickname when a story in which I played a small part was relayed to me by another friend; a story in which this guy had referred to me as “pale girl” in a list of other people, i.e., “Jim, Sarah, Pale Girl, Jon.” The friend telling me the story apparently didn’t think to adjust it for his audience: Pale Girl herself.

I’m not going to pretend I remember dialog from more than a decade ago, but I remember inquiring about the meaning of “pale girl,” and the response was something like, “Oh yeah, that’s you. He calls you pale girl.” Ohh. Oh.

Anyway, it’s not like I didn’t know I was pale. I just didn’t know I was pale to the extent that it would be noticed and remarked upon by a nerd. I didn’t know I was the sort of pale you had to be embarrassed about. And I know you’re wanting to Google image search my name now, wondering, just how pale is she? Maybe you’re thinking, let me get my grimy little eyeballs on this ghastly white freak. Let me stop you and say: I maintain that I am a normal amount of pale. At the very least, you can’t tell the actual amount of pale I am from the photos you’re gonna find on Google. My pallor is best understood in person. If you must look, here is a particularly unflattering photo of both me and my dog.

But what if I could be tan? After all, this attribute for which I’d been seen and remembered can theoretically be altered. The question has haunted me since that pale girl moment:

Should I be tan?


The mainstream theory regarding the evolution of a tan’s desirability goes like this: In the past, rich white people were pale. They used parasols. Then, in the more recent past, rich white people were tan. They were on a yacht in France. When rich white people became tan, other white people noticed that, hey, that looks better. So they baby-oiled themselves on the beach, and then died. In an effort to not die as quickly, the fake tan was born.

One’s options for achieving a fake tan have evolved in the past century from tanning one’s skin with tea bags to tanning one’s skin with products containing dihydroxyacetone (DHA), which interacts with amino acids on the skin's surface to produce a tan look. DHA was approved by the FDA for use in self tanners in the 1970s, and is still what is used in most of the many, many, many self tanning products — lotion, sprays, oils, mousses, drops, wipes — on the market today.

I have never “had a tan.” Lotions and facial drops have worked to varying degrees, but the process of applying them left me with streaks and bare spots, even after diligently standing nude in front of a large fan for several minutes post-application. I believe if I let myself become completely sunburned I might be able to become completely tan, but I have a low tolerance for pain and a high intolerance for cancer, plus once at a Halloween party a remarkably sunburned woman was dressed as Marilyn Monroe and multiple people asked her sincerely if she was supposed to be “sunburned Marilyn Monroe.” (She was not.) That scene is somewhat “burned” into my mind, as you can imagine, so instead I set up an appointment with Glow2Go, which I know about from Summer House star Paige Desorbo’s Instagram. She loves Glow2Go. (#notanad.)

To undergo a spray tan, Glow2Go sends an eager, spray-tanned woman to your New York City apartment with a small rolling suitcase. Out of this suitcase she pulls, like a tan magician, a large, collapsible pop-up tent in which you stand for the entirety of the procedure. The tent is open on one side and stands about ten or so feet tall; in my apartment, it touched the ceiling. It looks at once like a camping tent you put together incorrectly, an elevator from an all-polyester planet, and a vulva.

Before entering the tent, unclothed to my comfort level, I was instructed to step onto two foot-shaped sticky pads, so the bottom of my feet didn’t mistakenly become spray tanned. Previous to this, there was a set of pre-tan rules I had to follow including but not limited to: removing all body hair that I’d like removed, exfoliating (the night before, not day of), and not moisturizing. After checking to see if I’d followed the regulations, which I “had,” the tan woman began spraying.

The spray experience was similar to the experience of being meticulously sprayed with the sort of paint sprayer used to paint a house, because that is what it was.

My tan-giver — let’s call her Jessica. Jessica sprayed me up and down, asking me to hold my body in various positions, finally spraying my face. After, she “blended” the tan around my wrists with a spongy paint brush. I chose the “Express Full Body Tan” which you rinse off in two to four hours, depending on how tan you’d like to be, rather than the “Full Body Tan” which you rinse off in eight hours or more. It costs $10 extra (a total of $140 + tip) and is worth the extra cost, as the feeling of sitting in my tan filth for anything longer than the least amount of time possible was extremely unappealing. Luckily Jessica instructed me explicitly to do the minimum. “I would say you should rinse off in just about two hours, maybe two and a half,” she said. “Otherwise it might look a little, you know … otherwise it won’t work with your skin tone.”

In your first post-spray rinse, you’re not allowed to use soap or even vigorous touch. In the days after that you may use soap, with the warning that any sort of soap, exfoliation, shaving, acne products, or anti-aging products will reduce the duration of your tan. You are also not allowed to sweat. Moisturizer is encouraged. In Glow2Go’s ideal world, their client is dirty, smelly, acne-d, moist, dry — and tan.


Suddenly (after the initial two hours and the additional overnight period of tan development), I was new. I was a California girl. I was summer incarnate. I was deep tongue sunkissed, fresh off the plane from a tropical vacation and headed straight to a nightclub on Long Island. I was Ryan Reynolds, as he appears in his Mint Mobile ads. It was exhilarating. I kept admiring myself in the mirror. I was no longer ghostlike. I was confident, relaxed, almost athletic. Was I … beautiful?

“You look like you’ve been smoking for 20 years,” my friend said, upon seeing my spray tan. When another friend pointed out this was not a particularly kind thing to say, he insisted that “no, it’s good!” and “that’s what people want, when they do this!”

I agreed with at least the original part of his assessment. Coincidentally, I began watching Real Housewives of New Jersey the week of my spray tan, and started with season three. While watching the deeply tan but technically caucasian men and women of the cast get into a full-out physical brawl at a baptism, I thought, “these are my people now.”

“Will I be orange?” is the first question on Glow2Go’s page of frequently asked questions, and the answer is “Never! Our tans have purple and green undertones to eliminate any red and orange.” An encouraging response. I’m going to show you a photo of myself and allow you to come to your own conclusions regarding its truthfulness.

Purple and green, or what do you think?

The photo was taken two days post-tan and you can see, my hands and the area around my mouth had already faded. I imagine this is from teeth brushing (?) and hand washing. I am not strong enough to sacrifice basic personal hygiene for the sake of my tan, even though I was essentially instructed to, and even though my tan cost the same amount as two weeks’ worth of groceries.

Still, I was consumed with the idea of preserving the tan. Oh, the tan — my baby, the tan. Temporarily, I gave up most of my skincare routine. I decreased the frequency of my showers. I did not let my dog lick me, in case it could cause a lick spot, and also in case my skin was poisonous. I tried my very best to cease the operation of my sweat glands. In my mind I was a carefree summer girl with glowing and less visibly acne-d skin, unconcerned with the drudgery of routine that consumes most of my peers who are under the spell of the cosmetic industry; in reality I was slightly grosser than usual, and oddly preoccupied with any water that might fall near me.

Eventually I couldn’t take it and resumed my normal routine. Due to my negligence, my tan faded in about a week. If I had better commitment skills I could have made use of the wealth of additional online material dedicated to prolonging one’s spray tan, with tips including but not limited to: pat yourself dry gently after showers instead of rubbing; only use lukewarm water and shower for short durations; post-shower, alternate between applying a tan extender and a moisturizer; do not use moisturizer with oil in it; use a tan-enhancing face mist; use shower balm instead of soap; (only use the shower balm with your palms, do not get it on the back of your hands); do not cross your legs or engage in any other skin-to-skin contact; do not exercise; do not swim; do not go in the ocean; do not sit on sand; do not use deodorant; do not use perfume; do not use makeup; do not get a spray tan the week of your period or the week before your period, aim for the week after your period (due to hormone levels?); wear loose clothing.

It will be hard for me to shake the thought that all of the beautiful, spray-tanned people on my television and in my Instagram forgoing deodorant and showers, and trying to restrain themselves from crossing their legs. When not smiling for the camera I can only imagine they exist in air conditioned rooms, standing very still, attempting to not move their lips as they ask: doo yeer think ehh leerk tan? And I have to say I don’t really see the point of having a spray tan if you’re not going to splash around at the beach like some tan celebrity, though I guess the real tan celebrities likely have a spray tan maintaining staff on retainer. Otherwise why bother?

I was asked multiple times by friends who knew about my spray tan whether I “liked” my spray tan. It was a difficult question to answer. I absolutely loved having my spray tan. It was weird and thrilling even when I was alone in bed in my pajamas. “I’m tan right now,” I’d think. “I’ve never been tanner than this. Who am I?”

Did I look better when I was less cadaverous? It is quite possible that I did, at least after the tan faded a bit. But it is too much stress to maintain the appearance of a person attempting to appear tan. No, I am not a New Jersey housewife. Nor am I Ryan Reynolds in his Mint Mobile ads. I’m not even Paige Desorbo from Summer House.

I am pale girl. And pale girl does not have the energy for this.

(As one might suspect from her pallor.)