Call it porcelain or pasty, my skin is the type that reflects browning solar rays like a cheap mirror and turns from white to bright red with extended exposure. For the first 18 or so years of my life, I was that kid at the pool party who sported a hooded sweatshirt, long pants, and scuffed high-tops.
Living in San Francisco and seeing consistent sunshine only a few glorious times a year can change one’s mind. I’ve found myself, more times than ever, smeared in sunblock lazing about in the sun on those rare, bright and warm days. Still, the contrast between my alabaster epidermis and the
subtle bronze skin of the others around me is very noticeable. How do typical San Franciscans get a golden tan, I wonder, and how can I follow in their cocoa butter footsteps? Curiosity piqued, I grab my swim trunks and head to the beach.
The nude section of Baker Beach is a fairly barren place on a Monday afternoon. A smattering of elderly men, entirely in the buff, pace back and forth amongst a random assortment of denim-encased hipsters and conspicuous lookie-loos. I’m not here to stare though, I’m here to get tan. I’ve come with my girlfriend Alex and her best friend Pam, my spiritual tanning guide, both fresh from a vacation spent cooking in the heat of Los Angeles. Sandwiched between the two, we look like a subdued Oreo, my off-white body the creamy white center.
Pam mentions that it takes 20 minutes for the sun to “find you,” and after that we spend a solid 20 minutes on each side before flipping in quarter turns. We arrive at what Pam refers to as the “optimal tanning zone” – the time between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun is at its brightest and hottest, and most likely to leave you golden brown.
It’s hot at Baker and even with Pam’s tan-spertise and a hearty smear of SPF 30 I imagine my poor near-virginal skin burning under the vicious barrage of the sun. Beads of sweat line my back and anxiety-rife questions percolate in my head. Should I flip soon? Did I apply the sunblock early enough? I just went in the water, do I need to reapply? Wait, when was I supposed to flip again? I reach for my sweatshirt.
Pam looks at me, her skin a subtle amber. “I don’t know, Noah. If you’re freakin’ out about burning – what you need is a base tan.” And a base tan means a trip to the tanning bed.
I settle on San Francisco Sun in Cole Valley, a salon that offers a variety of tanning treatments. I’m nervous heading in; tanning beds and the like are so far outside of my comfort zone that I actually stutter a bit when I speak to the attendant. She smiles broadly and wants to know why I’m tanning today. Am I looking for a foundational base? Have I tanned before? What package will I be going with today? Her eyes bright with enthusiasm, she guides me through the options: I can go for the regular or the high intensity tan. I gulp, and settle on a short time in the high intensity tanning bed ($20 dollars for two sessions). Might as well go for gold. She smiles and leads me to the tanning bed.
“I’ll give you a seven-minute countdown, so you have time to take your clothes off and put on your safety goggles and be inside the booth when it turns on. If you start to burn, just hit this button and the machine will turn off. You good?” I nod, staring down at the bulb-filled glass coffin in front of me. Tanning beds are intimidating machines composed of row after row of UV tubes. The countdown, a tiny red number within the machine switches on. I hurriedly tear off my clothing (later, noticing my glowing boxer tan line, I realize I failed to fully disrobe).
With the counter ticking down, I slide into the machine, place the small blue protective goggles on my face, and pull down the top door. Techno music is blaring from somewhere, and a certain level of unknown claustrophobia is clawing at my lungs. The counter hits zero and suddenly I’m sitting inside of an ultraviolet jet engine. The protective glasses filter the light into tiny pinpoints of blaring green. The tanning bed hums like some sort of engineered monster and sudden, intense heat begins blasting my body. All of the hairs around my nipples stick straight up and my skin starts to tingle.
After the initial shock, I adjust to the tight quarters and strange chemical light; the tanning bed is actually pretty enjoyable. It’s warm and the lights make me feel like I’m experiencing a hallucinogenic trip. I keep smiling upwards at the mirror, marveling at how white my teeth look. The booming hum seems to fade away and being inside feels almost meditative. I can imagine falling asleep in this thing. When the timer hits zero, the machine abruptly stops and I’m left bleary-eyed and a little sad.
Later, I call Pam again, wondering what’s next. “So you liked the tan, huh? Then you’ve got to try a professional spray tan.” I hang up, surprisingly eager for the next step.
Shimmer is a beach-themed salon hidden amongst decrepit buildings downtown. I arrive for my appointment and am quickly led into a room with another behemoth of a machine, this one seemingly plucked from some futuristic alien society. I’ve decided on a level-two clear spray ($30 dollars for two sessions) based on my skin tone and newness to the procedure. My friendly but to-the-point attendant runs me through the various positions I’ll have to assume to get maximum coverage during my two-minute tanning experience. He points at creams, washes, and wipes and explains what needs to go where to ensure maximum exposure. He pats me on the shoulder as he walks out, “Have a nice tan.”
I strip down to nothing and step inside the shiny black machine, my toes splayed against a red line on the floor, my eyes drifting toward the spray cannons above me. I press a green button and a pleasant feminine voice instructs me to assume first position, an exaggerated take on the pedestrian crossing sign. I raise my right arm and place my left leg back and stare forward; the cannons beep twice and then shoot out solid jets of clear liquid tanner. It comes out so fast I barely have time to close my eyes or mouth. The cannons are like skunks on steroids blasting my body with an unknown product. The voice instructs me to take position two (face forward, arms out), before shooting out more spray; position three (a reversed pedestrian pose), more spray; position four (rear forward, arms hooked behind me), even more spray. I can’t imagine my body possibly absorbing the amount of liquid now coating it. It’s sticky and wet and covering every inch of me.
The machine announces that my tanning is complete and gives me a gentle fanning of cool air to help dry the spray. I step outside and sit down, my body quivering a little. I blink my eyes, and run my tongue across my lips, tasting the tanning liquid’s odd coconut flavor. I stare down at my skin, squinting to see the results.
Two days later, I’m back with Pam and Alex at Baker Beach. Pam looks at me, “Noah, I think you’re actually a little tanner,” she says. It’s true: I’ve been to the beach, I’ve been to the bed and the spray tanning booth, and I’m actually a few shades darker, almost an autumn sunset. On the scale of tan though, I’m still pale. “Well, you know, you’ve got another tanning bed session and another spray tan session, and that’ll help even you out.”
I lean back on my beach towel, thinking of the tanning bed’s psychedelic interiors and the motorized pressured spray of the tanning booth. I smile a little, the warm sun spreading across my chest, the gentle roar of the ocean alighting in the background, the salty brine of the sea drifting in the air. Maybe this is something I could get used to.
Lie down and catch some rays at San Francisco Sun or spray on some color at Shimmer. Most tanning salons have amazing deals for first time attendees, anywhere from $15 to $20 for two, sometimes three, tans. If you really want a natural tan, find a sunny day, and head out to a beach; just don’t forget your sunscreen.