Parents Perspective

Making Peace with Being Pale

As summer approaches, I envy my friends who are naturally tan. But I've learned to appreciate the skin I'm in. 

Pale woman on the beach holding sunscreen Shutterstock

I have never gotten a tan. Not that I wouldn't have liked to, but my skin just doesn't go there. The only color I get in the sun is pink. Now that bare-legs season has arrived, I've been reminded of just how white mine are.

For much of my life, I thought it was unfair that I was so fair. I'll never forget that boy in fifth grade who said, "You're so white, I'll bet you glow in the dark."

Along with my melanin-deficient skin comes a higher risk of skin cancer, so I see my dermatologist twice a year to have a full-body check. When I was editing our recent article, "More Than Skin Deep," about Tobi Sample, a young mom who had stage-three melanoma, I sympathized with how she felt when she was a teenager. Sample also had fair skin, but she was a cheerleader and a member of the swim team, so her body was constantly on display. She longed to be as tan as all her friends, so she spent many hours lying out with baby oil on her skin and she started visiting tanning salons when she was a sophomore in high school. A nurse, Sample was still a sun-lover after she'd had two daughters of her own (although she always made sure that they wore sunscreen). When friends warned her about getting skin cancer, she joked, "At least I'll die pretty." Of course, those words haunt her to this day.

I used to use self-tanner on my legs, and it made me feel more "normal." But it's a chore to keep up, and hard to make look truly natural (especially around the ankles). I finally gave it up, and I'm happy to say that I am now at peace with my paleness. I am who I am.

I'm also the sunscreen police in my family, and we have experimented with many brands. Even though experts commonly recommend that children use "physical" sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide rather than so-called "chemical" sunscreens. However, I personally think it's safer to use whatever brand you and your kids like best. Most of us don't slather sunscreen on thickly enough, and if it feels greasy or icky, we're all more likely to skimp.

It may look healthy, but a tan is evidence of sun damage. Using self-tanner is certainly less risky than soaking in the UV. And fortunately, tanning salons are pushing their spray-tan business as an alternative to tanning beds. But if your skin is near my end of the spectrum, remind yourself that pale can be pretty, too. 

Diane Debrovner is the deputy editor of Parents and the mother of two daughters.