When I was a kid in the 50’s, the predominant suntan lotion was Sea & Ski. I can still smell it yet. The olfactory memory it produces is one of days spent on the beach at Balboa Island in California, where my Mother’s friend, Pat, had a beach house. It belonged to Pat’s parents but she had the great good fortune to be able to occupy it for a glorious couple of months every summer. My Mother and I were lucky enough to be asked every year to spend a week there with Pat and her two kids.
The scent of Sea & Ski is forever intermingled with the aroma of wet bathing suits and the slightly fishy smell of the giant jar of sandy peanut butter that produced our lunch each day.
Sunscreen was non-existent in those days. Yeah sure, there was zinc-oxide, that white goopy stuff only lifeguards and albinos wore to keep from burning to a crisp like a piece of bacon. The rest of us slathered on the Sea & Ski to get that deep tan that said you’d spent your summer at the beach, not indoors watching cartoons all day.
I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone in that era to be concerned with sun damage. Tanning was way down the list of things to even consider as dangerous. I mean, everyone smoked, ate food loaded with real butter, and seat belts weren’t even on the radar yet, so it would be a long wait before people got around to investigating the adverse effects of lying out in the sun.
It was just a given that every summer you’d manage to get sunburned at some point. Having peeling epidermal layers, much like a lizard shedding its skin, was normal. Plus, it gave us something to do during the evening when we came back to the beach house. There was always a contest to see who could peel the largest patch of skin in one continuous piece off their body.
If Sea & Ski was the “gateway drug” of childhood, then baby oil and cocoa butter were the hard stuff of the teen years. The beach was always littered with glistening, well-oiled bodies and the chocolaty scent of cocoa butter wafted in the breeze. Some daring souls mixed iodine in with the baby oil to create an early version of self-tanning. I never resorted to that, preferring instead the “pure” tan I got from Old Sol.
Much later, after I was married, I used to take my kids to a special beach that had a calm lagoon area where they could paddle around in the water and I didn’t have to worry about huge waves dragging them out to sea. It was a great place for awhile, until I started noticing one of the “regulars” who always seemed to be there every time we went.
She was an older woman (no telling what her age was though) and now I know she was anorexic, although I hadn’t heard that term yet. Her hipbones stuck out like those on an old cow, and I don’t think there was an ounce of fat on her. She must have thought she was really sexy because she always wore a teeny bikini, but the effect was not a pleasant one. The real kicker, though, was her tan. She was so tanned and so skinny, she looked like a skeleton with really bad Naugahyde stretched over it. It was painful on so many levels to watch her walk down the beach.
Many years later, when I moved to Texas from California, I had to get a new doctor. On my first visit, when she appraised my naked body, I thought she’d make some remark about my great tan. Instead, she tsk-tsked and said “You have a lot of sun damage.” Swell. In California I was the norm. Here, I was a freak. The ophthalmologist I was working for told me one day “Your skin is getting awfully brown.” I’d scarcely been out in the sun. It seems I’m cursed with the ability to tan easily. Blame it on those Mediterranean ancestors way back on my family tree.
A few years ago I found out I had a very early melanoma on my left arm. My physician removed the offending spot. I was referred to a dermatologist, who then took out a big chunk of surrounding tissue. (My son-in-law said it looked like I’d been attacked with a melon baller.) I wear sunscreen now (the old “close the barn door after the horses are gone” thing) but I can’t stay out of the sun. We have a pool, which I love, and it’s pretty hard to swim without exposing some of me to the sun.
I could always wear a “burquini,” I guess. That’s one of those wetsuit get-ups for Islamic women who want to swim but have to be covered head to foot, kind of like the girls in the Duggar family. It’s too late for me, so I guess I could be a cautionary tale for others.
And, today I actually found a photo of a woman who looks a lot like the one I had to watch stroll the beach years ago.
My gal didn’t wear a thong, though. Thank you, Lord.