Tanning, that strange pursuit by which you lie inactive while the sun, or some electric sun substitute, speeds you toward your mortal end, has assumed an improbable place at the center of our national debate. As such, we cede the floor to Snooki.
Snooki, the Jersey Shore star who has tinted herself to a Garfield orange, recently decried the new “tan tax” on indoor self-browning. She was joined by John McCain, a man with a history of skin cancer, who took up the rebel yell on Twitter, proclaiming, “I would never tax your tanning bed!” Suddenly, the act of basting yourself under ultraviolet light feels roughly equivalent to tossing tea into the harbor—with Snooki as the Sarah Palin of the nascent Tan Party.
Further complicating this searing debate is news that, thanks to our fear of skin cancer and penchant for indoor living, we may now be facing an epidemic of vitamin-D deficiency. As it turns out, we’re over-SPF’d, and not getting enough sun. One doctor’s recommendation: Run outside in skimpy clothes a few times a week for five to ten minutes, which reads like a leaked breakdown for a new prank by Improv Everywhere.
So to tan or not to tan? We turn, again, to Snooki, who explained to Meghan McCain, “People go tanning because they like to feel tan.”
Yes—but what does it feel like to “feel tan,” exactly? After all, a suntan was once considered the unsightly mark of the field-toiling masses, to be avoided by pallid aristocrats. Queen Elizabeth I covered her face in white paste, the high style of the day. (The paste, by the way, was made of lead and vinegar, which was not so great for your complexion or your long-term sanity.) Suntans weren’t associated with robustness (of the heart or wallet) until the twenties, when the Morlocks moved indoors to toil while the Eloi booked vacations on the French Riviera. Legend has it that Coco Chanel herself kicked off the tanning craze after being accidentally browned while on a yacht. Nevertheless, bronze became the new white. Snooki’s getting spray tanned is no different than Glenn Close’s getting doused in face powder in the opening of Dangerous Liaisons. It’s personal hue as tribal marking.
For most of us, a reasonable tanifesto might simply paraphrase food writer Michael Pollan: Get tan. Not too much. Mostly sun. As for the artificially roasted—those sun-chasers so ardent they’ve chased the sun indoors—they shouldn’t whine about “reverse racism” (yes, some people have made this argument about the tan tax because, you know, Obama), but instead, celebrate the new outlaw status of bronzing. Think of it as extreme body modification, like multiple piercings or those super-droopy earlobe things. If you start lolling on tanning beds before you’re 30, you increase your skin-cancer risk by 75 percent, so what better way to mark your reckless youth? Tattoos are cool, but they won’t kill you. Come to think of it, tanning is less like a tattoo and more like GG Allin performance art: You are literally cooking yourself to death. How extreme is that? Tanning-bed fans, you deserve to celebrate. Go ahead: Toast yourselves.