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A Place in the Sun

My mother was an avowed sun worshipper. Her rituals were simple: don a bathing suit, set up the chaise longue in the backyard, lather on the Coppertone, and bask in the weak northern sun. Some days Sol shone bright and hot, but most days Mom had to keep faith that the UV rays would penetrate the cloud cover. Mom worked diligently on her tan all summer long and resented any visitor or family obligation that kept her inside during peak tanning hours.

I did not share my mother’s fondness for sunbathing. While Mom was working on her tan in the backyard, I’d be in the house, working my way through a novel. If she insisted I come outside, I’d sigh, grab my book, and position my lawn chair in the shade. Over the years, I maintained my aversion to exposure to direct sun. My two Caribbean vacations were torture. Even wearing a big hat and sunglasses, I found the intensity of the tropical sun unbearable and couldn’t wait to get home to the clouds and snow.

Then in 2016 during the runup to the presidential election, I was diagnosed with psoriasis. My scalp grew scales and red spots dotted my skin. It hurt to wear clothes; my whole body itched and stung. I was miserable. On the phone one day, my cousin — a longtime tanning booth aficionado — described meeting a fellow at her salon who tanned to relieve his psoriasis.

Turns out, light therapy is used to treat the disease. And some sufferers who can’t get to the dermatologist 2-5 times a week for a light-box treatment, visit their local tanning salon instead. My dermatologist is an hour or more away, making several weekly visits impractical. Thus did this sun-averse individual sign up for weekly tanning sessions.

Now, through fall, winter, and into the spring, I travel to the tanning salon once a week where I enter a booth lined with long UVB lightbulbs. Wearing nothing but protective eyewear, I position my feet on the designated foot pads, and shut the door. Overhead a powerful fan drowns out the radio and the bulbs surround me with their beneficial rays. Four minutes later, the lights go out and I emerge warm and windblown.

Lots of people frequent the tanning salon. Young women, of course, and middle-aged ones, too, who, like my mother, want to enhance their appearance with a heathy glow. A surprising number of men also tan. Our Postmaster sports a George-Hamilton tan year around. Last week, I followed a black pickup into the salon parking lot. A rangy fellow with a grizzled beard and a baseball cap got out. When I entered the salon a few minutes later, the attendant was setting him up for several minutes in one of the beds. Did he, too, suffer from psoriasis? Seasonal Affective Disorder? Or was he simply preparing his winter-white body for an upcoming trip to Florida or the Bahamas? No doubt, he has his reasons, just as I have mine.

Had there been tanning salons in my New Hampshire town back in the 50’s and 60’s, and had Mom possessed the disposable income to finance her visits, I’ve no doubt she would have sported a flawless golden tan twelve months of the year. Her legs would have been uniformly bronzed front, back, and sides and her shoulders free of unsightly strap marks.

And who knows what year-round access to UV rays might have done for her short-tempered disposition?


1 Comment

Ellen Angell Sholk
Ellen Angell Sholk
Apr 15

This story shows how the sun can be a healing friend and a harmful enemy. Thanks for sharing the dual role that the sun played in your life, Justine.

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