People & Places

From tanning beds to sun-brellas — the life and times of a shade lover

This story first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Ottawa Magazine.

I got stopped by two bike cops last spring while out for a stroll. My crime? Walking with my parasol up. One cop did all the talking; the other hung back looking official and chuckling.

Bike Cop: Hey, it’s not raining today. You can put your umbrella away.
Me: It’s for the sun. It has a UVB protection liner.
Bike Cop: They have sunscreen for that.
Me: Sunscreen gives only partial protection, and I don’t want to get cancer. Maybe you should get one.
Bike Cop: Nobody’s gonna take me seriously with a parasol!
Me: You mean people take you seriously on the bike?

Then he doubled me on his handlebars down to the station. But alas, it isn’t against the law to be a smartass. Which is a good thing, otherwise my entire family would be in the slammer.

The cop was right about one thing: being taken seriously. I have been using my sunbrella for several seasons now, and not a day goes by that I don’t hear “Hey! It’s not raining.” To which I reply: “You know what you have in common with skin cancer? Neither of you is funny.” One guy tried to get under the umbrella with me. He got an elbow to the solar plexus.

Sure, it would just be easier to wear broad-spectrum sunscreen, and I do, but experts agree that the best defence against harmful ultraviolet rays is avoiding prolonged sun exposure. I’m not taking any chances, especially since I spent the better part of my 20s trying to achieve that perfect shade of bronze and, in doing so, incurred enough sun time for three of me.

Skin-tone wise, I am freckly pale. If I were any whiter, I would be clear. It wasn’t always this way. When I was little, I took after my dad, who was half Aboriginal Canadian. At the cottage in the summer, I would endure a couple of sunburns before my skin would begin to darken. “Brown as a berry!” my grandmother would say. “You just have to get the painful part over with, and before you know it, you’re a new person!” I have the feeling young starlets are given the same advice by pornographers.

Back in the 1970s, they didn’t have sunscreen. I’m pretty sure they used a mixture of Crisco and asbestos.
People smoked on planes then too — it was a simpler time.

My bad burn/eventual tan routine remained mostly un-changed throughout my teens. But in my 20s, I took it to a whole new level. Tanning beds meant I could stay brown all year long. I worked at one bar that actually had a tanning bed we could use for free (oh, ’90s, how I miss your wiggity-wackiness). I knew I had gone too far when my grandmother, now suffering from dementia, said to my mum, “I think that Indian woman stole my shoes.” I gave up tanning, and my grandmother eventually recognized me again. (We never did find the shoes.)

Just as my family is predisposed to smart-assery, so are we to skin cancer. Our Children of the Corn-like pigmentation means our summer struggle is real. Having endured so many childhood sunburns means I’m at increased risk for developing melanoma. When I was kid, my grandfather, an avid sport fisherman, got skin cancer on his head. Back in the 1970s, they didn’t have sunscreen. I’m pretty sure they used a mixture of Crisco and asbestos. People smoked on planes then too — it was a simpler time. Luckily our generation knows better, and armed with current information, I can do my best to stay melanoma-free.

But embracing my paleness didn’t happen overnight. I went the self-tanning route for many summers. I followed all the advice: “Exfoliate! Apply in a circular motion! Exfoliate! Start at your feet and work up! Exfoliate, you moron! EXFOLIATE!” It didn’t matter. I could never get it right. And it didn’t matter how much I spent on the product. High end or low, the result looked as if I’d fed a toddler a Red Bull-and-Skittles smoothie and let it finger paint my legs with henna. Not a good look.

Nor is an angry red sunburn. Nothing annoys me more than seeing someone as naturally pale as I am sporting a shiny pink burn (often accompanied by tacky bikini-strap lines), especially because it’s so easily preventable. I resent my health care dollars going to treat someone’s melanoma because they wanted to “look cute for Amber’s wedding.” I feel the same way about people who cycle but don’t wear helmets. A helmet is less confining than a wheelchair! And cheaper! And less permanent! But I digress.

Now, I happily embrace the pale look and my parasol — not as a fashion statement, but as an “I don’t want to get cancer” statement. I happen to think preventative measures should always be in style, and if I have to endure conversations with bored bike cops, I’m willing to make that sacrifice.