I’ve never been tan. In fact, at a recent pool party, a friend of mine declared, “You might be the palest man on the face of the earth.” My look was perfect a few years ago, when vampires were in fashion, but the post-True Blood world doesn’t have room for a sallow complexion. And I’m so white, ghosts worry that I have a vitamin D deficiency.
But there’s nothing I can do. Pigment is a figment of my imagination. My melanin is hella thin. My epidermis looks like a stormtrooper thermos. There’s only one option that I’ve never tried, a personal-grooming boundary that I dared not cross. I’m talking about getting a spray tan.
I think you see yourself as either someone who spray tans or someone who doesn’t. Consider our famous spray-tanners: Snooki, Trump, Oompa-Loompas. A spray tan implies a certain level of ambition—to be famous, to be president, to perform choreographed dance routines in a megalomaniac’s supernatural candy dungeon. But I’ve never been ambitious enough to get hosed down with dye in pursuit of an aesthetic. It’s just easier not to, you know?
But it’s time for a change. I’m entering the Olympics of Questionable Judgment and going for the bronze. My wife, Heather, is a nurse practitioner, so the first thing I do is approach her with my spray tan safety questions. Namely: Spray tanning can’t be good for you, right? “I doubt you’ll die from getting a spray tan,” she replies. With the medical establishment firmly on board, I head to my local tanning emporium to get sprayed.
As I walk into the store, I’m terrified—both of the potential orangey outcomes and, more acutely, that I’ll run into someone I know. The guy at the front desk gets right to the point and asks whether I want light, medium or dark. I’ll take the medium roast, please. I note that this fellow does not look outrageously tan, which I interpret as a good sign. He’s not getting high on his own supply.
Any housepainter or auto-body guy knows that prep is the biggest part of the job, and apparently the same holds true when you’re painting yourself. You don’t want tan palms or tan fingernails or tan soles of your feet, so you rub a spray-blocker cream on those areas. You put on lip balm and wear a paper hairnet, being careful to cinch it high and tight to avoid a horizontal line across your forehead. The Tan Man also advises me to rub a light layer of the cream on the back of my hands, so I get some color but not the full saturation. In addition to all that, Heather told me to wear my least-favorite pair of flip-flops and stand on top of them in the booth, because otherwise you’re standing in a puddle of man dye and your feet will turn orange, cream or no cream. There’s a lot to remember.
Inside the booth, there are footprints on the floor labeled with numbers one through four. The idea is that you do a little one-man dance, twirling in a circle like a vertical human rotisserie while the tanbot blasts you with bottled sunshine. “When my back’s to the jets, I turn my hands so that my palms face forward,” says my tanning sherpa, demonstrating the move. “And when you’re facing forward, you want to just close your eyes and hold your breath.” This all sounds like a lot to remember for someone who considers “My drink and my two-step” to be an overly complicated dance.
My guide bids me farewell; I disrobe and enter the chamber. I’m so freaked out about standing naked in a strip-mall paint booth that I forget my flip-flops, a misstep that I realize only after a robotic female voice has advised me that tanning is about to commence. I close my eyes, hold my breath and feel the spray guns start low at my feet and begin working their way up. I panic that I won’t be able to hold my breath long enough. But after a few more seconds, the spray stops and the robo-voice says, “Blarrhh burr urhg urgh right, then mrrrgh yurn blarg.” What? There’s a roaring fan that’s drowning out her commands. Did she say turn right to positions 2 and 4? Or left? Do the drink and the two-step? I breathe through my nose and try not to inhale the tan juice, which somehow smells like a real tanning booth, which is to say like someone trying to Febreze a pile of burning hair.
After a minute or two, I’m done. And a day later, I’m ever-so-slightly tan, my Twilight-level whiteness apparently canceling out most of the dye job. I feel confused—ashamed of my cheesy narcissism yet also pleased to be beige for once in my life. I don’t know whether to fist-bump to some EDM or talk to a therapist. Gym, tan, laundry! What’s become of me?
Like it or not, I’ve joined the ranks of the spray tanners. I have no regrets. Well, maybe one. I think that if you’re gonna go, you may as well go dark.