The Darkies

Ari says that getting dark makes him more attractive. Talk to the serious tanner and you'll find that his defense is not a unique one. "I feel better, I look better, I get energized from the sun," says Karen Levine of Flushing, who spends weekends baking with her husband, Michael, for seven-hour days on Long Beach. Once she almost reached the point of sunstroke. And Michael says he stayed in the sun so long one day this summer that he was seeing stars. But Karen downplays the risk. "Something's gonna get me. Butter's no good for you, the detergent we use."

Which brings us to yet another motive behind getting leathery. With every ounce of zero-SPF oil smeared onto their faces, with every turn in a lounge chair to keep in perfect line with the sun, with every daytime appointment cancelled so as not to miss a day of tanning, the sun warriors are proving a point. They're giving a big middle finger to the skin-care experts and the sunscreen industry, to the not-so-successful attempt of fashion gurus to make us think that pale, china-doll complexions are where it's at. Like sex partners who forgo condoms and bikers who fly down back roads without helmets, hardcore tanners are saying "enough."

"I smoke, I'm in the sun, and you know what?" says Carol Silverman, a 49-year-old sun worshiper on Robert Moses Beach. "I'll go from something unrelated. But if it happens, at least I'm happy tan while I'm alive."

Tanorexia and Its Discontents

Jodi Becker of Oceanside is so addicted to getting color that she's resorted to lying to her fiancé, Bobby Wolin, a plumber, about how often she sneaks off to the tanning salon.

"I think it's sick," Wolin says from under his screen of SPF 8. He's sitting about a foot away from her on Long Beach, and looks like he's been dragged here. "It's a disorder. It's like anorexia. She thinks she's pale."

"He thinks I'm obsessed," Becker says, stretching out on a lounge chair and looking slightly annoyed. She flicks a bit of sand off of her knee with a long, manicured nail that's painted white. "I feel healthier when I'm tan."

St. John's professor of sociology Frank Biafora likens the tanning-addicted to bulimics and anorexics. "The nature of an addiction is an uncontrollable impulse to continue doing a behavior that is known to be self-destructive," he explains. "Like with bulimia— you are sickly thin and you look at yourself in the mirror and think you're fat." So, just like the relentless shots of ultra-skinny women pushing diet foods and fueling the anorexia frenzy, the tan ones spawn a disease of their own.

"They call me tanorexic," Carol Silverman says, stretched out in her red-and-white striped canvas chair at Robert Moses. "I always think I'm too pale." Her blond hair is pulled back off her face, and her skin, covered only by a black flowered bikini and an oil slick of Banana Boat SPF 4, is browned to a deep chestnut color. A pack of Salems rests at her feet.

Silverman, a special-ed teacher from Islandia, is in the sun for up to nine hours at a stretch in the summer, when she only works part time. She splits her visits between Robert Moses and, when the jellyfish are particularly bad, Hidden Pond Park in Hauppauge, where she lays by the pool and is famous for keeping her body in perfect alignment with the sun.

"They call me the human sundial," she says.

She used to be so hardcore that she'd stretch out on a foil blanket, but now her only prop is a reflector, which she uses in the spring to jump start her tan. She's only had sun poisoning once, on vacation in Florida, when her eyes swelled up and she felt nauseous. It kept her out of the sun for a day and taught her to "be careful." But she still doesn't use any sunscreen higher than 4.

"My daughter says if she ever gets skin cancer, it's because of me, because I made her go to the beach as a girl," she says, holding up a key-chain photo of herself, dark as night, with her 25-year-old daughter, milky as Scarlett O'Hara. The daughter wears sunblock 45 and jibes her mom for inviting wrinkles, leathery skin and cancer.

"I tell her, 'Look at yourself,' " her mom says. " 'You look like a pale-face!' "

While Silverman isn't so leathery yet, her skin-cancer status remains unknown. She has never been to a dermatologist.

"If you look, you find," she says.

Why the Sun Is a Bitch

Let's do a quick review of what we know: A tan is your body's response to ultraviolet light, which comes in three forms— UVA, UVB (the most harmful) and UVC (mostly filtered out by what's left of the ozone). Skin darkens when you tan due to an increase in production of a compound called melanin, which is produced by the skin as protection against future UV light exposure. But a suntan does not prevent skin damage— it is skin damage. It's pigment cells permanently injured.

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