The Darkies

UVA and UVB rays can cause aging of the skin, damage to cellular membranes and to DNA, a weakening of the immune system, cataracts and three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, which grows slowly and has a high cure rate; squamous cell carcinoma, which can spread and be fatal if left untreated; and melanoma, the most dangerous form.

Lisa Kelly, a dermatologist in Westbury, says she's even had patients who continue to tan after being diagnosed with skin cancer. "There are still some who are ignorant about it, who think, well, it's not going to kill them," she says. "I really don't even like to treat the tan ones, because you're only battling the sun."

Although most beach-going sun worshippers say they shun tanning beds because they're "unnatural," "unsafe" and "scary," indoor and outdoor tanners share the obsession. An employee at the South Beach Salon in Oceanside says she knows of many clients who bake themselves both at the beach and in the tanning beds.

"People go in there, like, every single day," she says. "There are some people with very fair skin who tan every day and they think they're going to get darker. Then we have people with olive skin who leave here black. They come here every day because they think they're going to lose their tan."

At a salon she used to work at, she says she was fired for turning away business when she advised a 14-year-old girl with sunburn blisters on her face to come back when they had healed. And at her current job, she frequently sees people who tan without using protective lotion. "They could care less," she says.

There was a time when the tan was not so revered. As far back as the 18th and 19th centuries, medical science blamed the sun for drying up the body's essential fluids. And class prejudice did not favor tan skin— something that belonged to the working class— ensuring that pallid, plastercast complexions would be protected under umbrellas and awnings and hats and elaborate swimming costumes.

A change came in the 1920s, when writers and artists began to paint the sun as a positive source of health and vitality (D.H. Lawrence deemed pale people "fishy and unhealthy"), taking cues from the sun worshippers of ancient Egypt and the Incas and Mayas. Since only those with enough leisure time could follow the trend, tan became a marker of class and glamour. Tanning quickly became a sport, and was touted by health experts as a cure for just about anything. By 1944, The Journal of the American Medical Association was endorsing the sea-and-sun cure for everything from the common cold to tuberculosis.

But when sunburns became a mass malady, chemists were pressed to come up with ways to let sunbathers block out harmful rays. In 1943, PABA, a synthesized complex string of molecules, was introduced. In the decades since, knowledge of the damage caused by the sun, combined with the depletion of the ozone layer, has spawned better sunscreens (PABA-free, because it's since been shown to cause allergic reactions in some), a general awareness of tanning's connection to skin cancer and even a current belief that sunscreen could encourage exposure, increasing the risk of cancer. It's also prompted the division of America into two types of people: those who are afraid of the sun and those who are not.

Once Burned, Twice Shy

I know the memory of tender burns had on thighs, face, back and neck as a child with red hair, ivory skin and a confetti of freckles on my nose. I had an incredible yearning to sunbathe, covered in baby oil (which I once attempted, to disastrous results), aiming to achieve the neat shade of mocha reached by fortunate friends.

I was always the pale, fishy outcast. So for all my mom's efforts to lure me into the shade of the beach umbrella and douse me with sunblock 15 before I joined my pals, there were plenty of days when I wriggled free— and wound up blistered and lobsterish and getting bathed in cool, strong tea that evening so the tannin could soothe my skin. Now, many lessons later, I wear hats and sunblock 30 and stick umbrellas in the sand. I get pointed at as an example of what the tan people don't want to be.

"She needs some sun!" says a dark Patricia Collazo of the Bronx, tanning on Jones Beach with a pal. "She looks like milk!"

"If there were two girls sitting at a bar and one was white and one was tan, I would go to the tan one," says a bronzed, nude pal of Ari's.

Inspecting my vanilla tone with a sideways glance, Ari says, "I would say, sad looking."

My arm is stretched out before me like a roll of wax paper, held up to Ari's for comparison, to make him feel even darker, as I am asked to do by every tan person I interview. He puffs his chest out and grins.

Michael Levine says he feels pity when he sees pale people like me. "I only feel bad that you can't get tanner," he says. Levine, 44, and his wife, Karen, 45, from Flushing, prop themselves up in two chairs at Long Beach all summer near their plastic Little Tikes wagon, used to haul stuff onto the sand.

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