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Beyond the Pale

The West coast has the sunshine

and the girls all get so tanned.

I dig a French bikini on Hawaii island

dolls by a palm tree in the sand.

—Beach Boys, “California Girls”


The drunk guy coming out of the Dunkin’ Donuts held the door open for me.

“Hey, you look just like that girl on TV. That—uh—whatshername? That Donna Summer.”

Well, that was a new one.

Because I really don’t look anything at all like Donna Summer.

For one thing, I don’t have a cascade of shining black hair. I don’t usually wear sequin bustiers and earrings the size of pancake turners. I don’t have a naughty smile that suggests I work hard for my money (so hard for it, honey). But most of all, I don’t have skin the color of dark, melted caramel because I am a very pale, Caucasian woman.

I have skin the color of Casper, the Friendly Ghost. True, I’m not exactly see-through, the way Casper was. But I am pale enough to have inspired more than one snow-blinded beau to say to me at one time or another, “Boy, you have really white skin.”

No kidding—do I really?

My whole life I’ve wanted a tan. Because I wanted tan lines. Because the Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost look just isn’t dish-y. Because I wanted to be one of those girls whose flesh never jiggles when they walk on the beach—and it’s the tan that creates that non-jiggling illusion (it is an illusion, isn’t it?).

So I started young, following tips from Seventeen magazine. I used all kinds of different oils and lotions and all kinds of tanning techniques.

I would place and re-place my beach towel in order to maximize my exposure to the sun’s rays.

I turned myself slowly—like a kebab on a grill—in order to try for an even tan. More than once I ended up looking like a candy cane, red sunburn stripes alternating with my arctic-white skin.

By the time I was about 15 I had decided that the only way for me to tan was through suffering. I would simply lie out, slick with baby oil, and fry myself to a red crisp. It hurt like hell, but after a few days the red would give way to a blotchy kind of tan and I could almost imagine the Beach Boys were singing about me.

Over time I gave up my scorch and burn policy. Not even out of concern for future wrinkles or greater horrors, but because it was so painful and time- consuming. I decided that I was, for better or for worse, pale.

And not only that, but pale with attitude. Me, get a spray-on tan? I’d sooner marry a tennis pro. Me, visit a tanning salon? I’d sooner wear a golf skirt. Did I develop a chip on my pale shoulder? You bet I did. But I also figured I had no real alternative. I would never be the Frisbee-throwing, healthy-glowing girl on the beach.

And then a couple of years ago I heard about the new breed of self-tanners that were really supposed to work. These were self-tanners that didn’t turn you the color freshly-baked butternut squash. And they were designed to look okay on even the most Morticia-white of skins.

Desire makes people believe the most unlikely things.

Anyway, I bought one of these new self-tanners. I was heading to Florida. I had a new bathing suit. I wanted a new look. The night before the flight I spent an hour in the bathroom applying it smoothly and evenly. I, Casper Jo, was finally going to have a tan.

Trouble is, the next day in the airport bathroom my daughter Madeleine asked me, “What’s wrong with your leg, Mom?”

“Yeah,” Linnea, my other daughter, said, “I was wondering, too. What’s that . . . right there?” she pointed to my right calf.

My right calf sported a racing stripe the color of the Tour de France’s yellow jersey.

“And there, too,” she said, pointing again, “Down by your ankle. It looks a little bit like mustard.”

“Mom?” Madeleine asked in that voice she reserves for reminding me what a simpleton I am, “Mom, have you gotten into a bottle of self-tanner?”


“Do you think anyone will notice?” I whispered.

“Of course they’ll notice,” she replied crisply. “We noticed. And we aren’t even out in bright sunlight on a beach. We’re in a bathroom stall inside the airport.”

“Don’t make it any worse than it is,” I said.

But hope dies hard.

This year I bought another new bathing suit. This year I’m going to do another round with a new-and-improved self-tanner.

A friend—with naturally honey- golden skin—gave me advice that sounded simple:

“Just shave and exfoliate. Rub the lotion in really well. And, then, when you’re done, make sure you wash your hands. And wait ten minutes before getting dressed”

Sounds easy, but try it. Shaving, exfoliating, rubbing the lotion in really well, scrubbing your hands and then passing ten minutes with gratuitous flossing or re-reading old People magazines takes a hell of a chunk out of a day. Not only that, but so far the only result I’ve noticed is that I smell like the self-tanner.

It’s not a bad smell. But smelling and looking are not the same thing. And I am still looking for my tan.

I mean, I could grow to accept some unnatural coloration in my kneecaps. I could cotton to a little jaundice in my soles. Nothing’s perfect, it seems.

But just once—for the sake of nothing less than national unity and world peace—I wish we could all be California girls.

—Jo Page

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