Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Confessions of a Tanorexic
When the American Medical Association released the results of Warthan, Uchida, and Wagner's UV Light Tanning as a Type of Substance-Related Disorder, I felt vindicated. I always knew there was more going on both physically and psychologically when I sought out the sun. Now I had evidence. Tanning can be an addiction.
My childhood summers were spent outdoors before SPFs and basal became part of our vernacular. I'd begin the season with a severe burn or two that eventually became a dark tan. I loved being tan, I loved the sunshine. One spring break in Florida I acquired a sunburn so acute that blisters formed on my face and hallucinations sent me to the emergency room. But the burn eventually turned into a tan, and I was back in the sun as soon as summer arrived in Minnesota.
When I discovered tanning beds my habit got out of control. Half an hour in a tanning booth gave me a faster high than a day in the sun: it was efficient. I found salons where the workers gave me additional minutes in the beds if there were no other customers waiting. I'd hit one salon in the morning and another in the afternoon.
After a few hours in the sun or half an hour in a tanning bed I feel ten pounds thinner and ten years younger. Tanning gives me a euphoria that helps me to understand drug addiction.
After years of living to tan and tanning to live, twelve years ago I quit cold turkey. The withdrawals were horrible. The mind games began in late winter. Friends returned from vacations with that intoxicating bronze bloom. Gloomy February taunted me and the tanning booths called my name. I tried every self-tanner product available, probably spending more on ointments that turned me orange than I ever did on dual tanning salon memberships.
I blamed my ten years without the sun for weight gain and loss of self-esteem. When I saw the tanned youths of summer I felt sad and old and pasty. I faced ten springs and summers trying to convince myself that no one would have to know if I took one short visit to the tanning salon. But I knew one visit would turn into the one or two visits per day of my youth. Endless aching pursuit of darker skin would eventually paralyze me and I'd find myself struggling again with an inability to function on a sunny day unless I was sprawled out in my bikini on a blanket in the sun.
Two years ago I met some friends for coffee. The day was warm and bright, and we sat outside for hours. Instinct directs me to face the sun always, and I came away from that coffee break with deep red color on my face, arms, and legs. That night the familiar euphoria of sunburn hit me, and I was back on the tanning horse. I'd sneak away from the office for an extended lunch under the sky, warm skin reaching toward the sun while my body felt like it was sinking deep into the grass: the phenomenon of becoming one with the universe. I calibrated my weekend activities according to the patches of sun easing across the backyard.
This year I headed back to the sunshine and happily began turning that familiar brown. Little itchy red bites on my arms had me believing the mosquitoes were ravenous early. Then I read about polymorphic light eruption and realized my body is rejecting my addiction. Polymorphic light eruption is to tanners what emphysema is to smokers (although thankfully not fatal). Not quite cancer, but certainly nature's way of warning us of what may yet occur.
With the orange oompa loompas of reality television, recent controversy over H&M ads, and the Tanning Mom, a new term for tanning addiction has been coined: tanorexia. But that designation feels like a joke, not unlike the reaction many of us had when we first saw Tanning Mom. She is a junkie who needs treatment and instead became a pop culture freak.
The headlines remind me that I haven't beat my addiction. Like any dependency, it will be a lifelong struggle.