I don’t understand why fair-skinned (white) people ask me about tanning, sun protection, sunblock, sunstroke, sunscreen etc. I know, I know, black people, even ones as dark as me, can get sunburned or sunstroke. I got burned myself once, long before I knew what sunscreen was. Nevertheless I’m frequently confused and uncomfortable during the questioning.
I’ll give you an example. My husband got sunburned on very recent holiday. How? He went swimming without a T-shirt (he’s very fair). While taking off his clothes in preparation for bed, he asked “What do you think?”. I confess, if he had been speaking, I wasn’t listening and I certainly hadn’t been watching him undress (the very thought!). “What do I think about what?”, I replied absent-mindedly, not turning from what I was doing.
“I think I’ve been burned” I looked at him and his torso was so red I thought he’d suddenly gotten very angry (but not in his face). “What’s that???” I yelped. “Ask your mum! She’ll know what to do! Should I call her now? Alison!…(we were vacationing with my mother in law)” “Nah. Don’t do that. She’ll get worried.” “What even happened?” “I forgot my t-shirt, didn’t I?” (“Yee-es?..” we heard Alison call faintly from the other room -we didn’t but it would have been so cool in a farcical type of way, no?) “Weren’t you wearing sunscreen?” “No”.
It’s usually at moments like this that I want to opt out of the sun conversation. Firstly, I’m scared of giving the wrong advice. I don’t know what to say! I don’t want to tell someone not to worry and have them wake up the next morning looking like bubble wrap or vomiting, fainting on the Tube or bowling over while singing in the church choir (all real examples) hours or even days after their encounter with the sun.
Also, I want to (or don’t want to, as it happens) ask, well, why didn’t you put sunscreen on? You are at risk of ending up with biblical scale blisters, your brain boiling away in your skull, raw peeling skin and utter misery and you couldn’t spare 3.4 minutes to apply sunscreen. You wouldn’t show me your arm, scraped to the bone, and say “Dude….if only I’d remembered to shut the door before the car starting moving…this really hurts”.
Bizarrely, when I was still studying, I heard of someone who was badly sunburned. He hadn’t used sunscreen of course but had taken the time to slather baby oil all over his body before hitting the beach which made the burns worse…. Stories like this make me afraid that when confronted by a sunburn victim, the first thing that will flow out of my mouth is a series of judgmental questions.
However, by far my worst fear is that the only real thing I feel like saying will emerge which is “I don’t know! I don’t know! Go and ask your fellow white (fair-skinned?) people!!” I frequently felt like this when I lived in a house share with a girl I’ll call ‘Emily’ (‘Emily’ and I fell out eventually but not over sun issues).
Emily was very fair. From time to time, she used to ask my opinion on her adventures with fake tanning lotions. I was not of course the only woman in the house. There were 2 other women. I was the only black woman. I may be off here but I think her logic in asking me was flawed.
Firstly, as far as I can remember, she never managed to achieve anything that I would call a tan. This may be a problem of perception for me. If I looked closely, I noticed some additional colour on her elbows and knees but I had to look for quite a long time. Having peered at her for an uncomfortably long period (I should have just lied once she started talking about tanning but again I was probably scared of telling the wrong lie as I really did not know what I was talking about), I felt I had to say something. That something had to be somewhere between my true opinion (too cruel) and what I thought she was expecting to hear (lacking in believability). I could never quite grasp the words I was looking for so ended up saying things like “Errrrr….well! You’ve clearly been done something there!” or the very daft “Did you do it for a long time?”
After a few back and forths, Emily would usually say something like “Don’t worry it will come out in a few days”, leaving me with questions. The first one, of course, is why ask me today then? The second – what do you mean it will ‘come out’ in a few days? Did you apply it to your skin or to your internal organs for it to slowly emerge during the course of a ‘few days’? I realised after a few of these Q&A sessions that fake tan is not like foundation. If it was, it would probably wash off. I still didn’t understand how it works though. Does it stain the skin? WHY DOESN’T IT SHOW ITSELF IMMEDIATELY? I suppose I could google it now if I wanted to.
Another housemate – we’ll call her ‘Kerry’ – once applied her fake tan too liberally in preparation for a sunny holiday. I wondered briefly why the real sun wasn’t good enough. I suppose even I could understand that she wanted to look tanned and sexy on arrival (she was quite sexy anyway) but she also told me that applying the fake tan would somehow enhance and speed up the tanning process for reasons which eluded me even as she was speaking. This may be partly because I was so scared of appearing ignorant that, like others before me, I would ask a question about fake tanning and then spend the next few moments concentrating on nodding vigorously to convey great understanding, instead of listening to the answer
Kerry already looked very tan on her way out. When she returned, a combination of the sun and her fake tanning cream had turned her luminously orange (how?) and apologetic. “Sorry” she said to no question (or perhaps to her mind, unasked questions) “I overdid it before the holidays. It will fade soon” ????????