What a Day at the Beach Taught Me About Who I Want to Be:
How to Love the Skin You’re In
All my life, I hated my freckles. How many times did I blame them for not getting my teenage crushes’ attentions? How often did I scrub my face with lemon juice or buy the latest fade cream, slathering it on my face as if it were liquid gold? Occasionally I would even try to do the unthinkable…get a tan. I thought an overall golden hue would lessen the impact of the spotted leopard I saw when I looked in the mirror.
Each time, hours after said experiments, there I sat, mottled and miserable. The golden hue I imagined was nowhere to be seen; instead, a raw weeping red stood rebelliously on my tender skin and, still the spots, even darker than they were before.
At twenty-eight, I found even more reason to hate the color of my skin: a tiny mole, even more grotesque than my speckled countenance. A mole that had likely been the result of my numerous attempts to win the favor of the Coppertone gods and convince them I had a right to the bronze badge of beauty. Skin cancer. Melanoma. Stage one, they said. I was lucky. A quick removal and an “all’s well” verdict a few weeks later. I am still lucky.
Years later, here I still sit, smothered in SPF fifty and adorned in a hat that seems the width of the shoreline, trying to enjoy a day at the beach without smearing my full coverage makeup. My twelve-year-old daughter beckons me into the water, and I acquiesce haltingly, inwardly telling myself that a 15-minute jaunt into the water will please her sufficiently and still be brief enough to keep the melanin monsters at bay.
Vanity and my very life are at stake, I think. Honestly, vanity is my first concern, the thing that got me into this mess, the thing that even now keeps me from fully enjoying the company of the most precious thing to me in all the world. How did I get this shallow?
After our dip in the ocean, I hide again under my wide-brimmed hat. Again, skin cancer is not the concern that makes me do so, only the fear of those “cinnamon stars” as my mother used to call them.
I look around at the wide variety of souls wandering the sun-kissed setting. Of course, I notice [and pity] the other spotted leopards I see glaring in the sun like something out of vampire lore... Then, I notice them. The Others. The ones who are about to change my life forever without even glancing my way.
Who are they? They have many faces, many forms.
Some of them are my alter-egos. Their gleaming ebony faces laugh and play among the waves, their glaringly white teeth shining like my glaringly white skin. The color of their face is not tan; it is a bewitching onyx. I marvel at their freedom to submit themselves to the mercy of that blazing orange orb that will deepen their obsidian glow, for as I reflect upon their beauty, their carelessness, I know that their skin has given them pain, a history of far more anguish than my speckled, vulnerable skin.
Others are, in fact, the golden hue I covet. They proudly display their bodies, searching for seashells, bending to claim the tide’s newest gifts, but as they do so, I notice the excess skin, the round juicy curve of their hips, the rolls of fat meshing and merging together as stomachs touch knees.
There is no shame, no forgiving one-piece to hide their Rubenesque forms, their lush breasts, and their thick thighs. They are on a search for the ocean’s offerings and the excitement and glee on their faces makes my heart scream with envy.
I know that some in their skin have tasted the same salty tears as me, for the world seems to only love the golden hue I covet when it is paired with thin skin, skin that stretches tautly across muscles, abdomens, thighs. However, these “others” I view have no tears on their faces, only smiles that reflect contentment and self-acceptance.
Others. So many others. Some, wrinkles bared to the warm June sun, careless that each minute will no doubt etch more carvings on their aging faces. Old skin is not an easy burden to bear for most, but they too face the sun, uncaring, unabashed about the ravages of age that I, at midlife, work so diligently to avoid.
Many more “others” meander carelessly along the backdrop of the ocean, soaking in the joy of life, heedless of the scars that grace their face, the emotional wounds that they bare proudly as tattooed body art onto the sand, flaws that will no doubt spur laughter and condemnation of others. Yet here they are, “[sucking] out the marrow of life”, as the great poet Thoreau advises. And here I am, ashamed, covered, cowering, smeared with paint, afraid to show my face.
In this moment of self-contempt, something has finally deflated me more than my dappled complexion: my wasted years. Wasted on vanity, wasted on a quest to be something or someone I’m not. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words echoed in my mind that day by the sea: “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself, for better, for worse, as his portion.” Today was my time.
The next time I will visit the sea, I will love the skin I’m in. I will honor it for all its merits, its ability to protect vital organs from exposure, to cool me or warm me according to nature’s fickle changes, and most importantly, to allow me to feel the tingling sensations of the sun of my face and the caresses of the people I love most.
I will walk across the hot sands, holding my daughter’s hand, skin touching skin, and turn my freckled face towards the sun, towards self-acceptance, towards the joys of simply being alive.