We spend a lot of time these days talking about being comfortable in our own skin. It’s this grand adventure of self-acceptance that takes us to a higher place of peace. That’s lovely. Here’s the thing, though: I’m beginning to suspect that my skin is not comfortable on me.
I’m one of those Irish/German people with the complexion of a dead body. I’m really pale. One of my dear friends calls me “alabaster,” but I’m pretty sure he’s just trying to make me feel better.
I don’t tan; I just burn and fade repeatedly, if I allow it, and that gives the illusion of a tan, if I do it about 10 times. Yet somehow I can hang on to tan lines for years. And when I do spend time in the sun, the coloring is never even. Usually it’s splotchy, running in some sort of ungoverned, inexplicable, irregular lines and shapes.
In other words, really summer-sexy.
I once came home from a day at the beach and found these very strange semi-circles on the insides of my forearms. Everything else had acquired some color, but these rounded areas were still pale. I couldn’t figure it out until I realized they were boob lines from where I had sat reading a book.
Hey, at least I can get boob lines.
Last year, because of some sort of fluke reaction to a prescription that did not carry a “may cause life-threatening sun poisoning” warning label, I got the worst sunburn of my life. It happened when I sat on a New Jersey beach for three hours, from 2 to 5pm in late May. That is a time of day and year during which normal people would barely get a blush of color. Not so for me. That night, I was pink, but it wasn’t too bad. By 3am, however, I was nauseous. Yes, running to the bathroom every 60 – 90 minutes. And I was dizzy. And I had a fever.
Turns out, I was cooking from the inside out. But I didn’t realize it until a couple days later. I spent the day after the beach day trying to make sure I wouldn’t get sick again, thinking I had picked up some sort of 24-hour bug, carefully ingesting crackers and a LOT of Gatorade. But I kept getting redder, even though I hadn’t been in the sun at all that day. The next day, redder still. Man. This is weird.
Three days later, it occurred to me that I had fried myself beyond all comprehension. My clues were the really wretched blisters that popped up, covering my arms and chest and even my legs (which, by the way, turned so dark purple in some places that I thought they might fall off), despite all of my scientific and less-scientific-but-still-beneficial efforts at keeping my skin moisturized and cool. I couldn’t take a shower. I couldn’t sleep in any position except on my back. (I suppose I could have slept, upright, on my face, since that wasn’t burnt either… but that didn’t seem advisable.) Everything hurt in a way that sunburn has never hurt before, more like an ache than a sting.
I had to take ibuprofen around the clock for days just to keep the inflammation down. One day, several smaller blisters on my left arm decided to unionize and formed one fat blister slightly larger than a 50-cent piece. Ewwwwww. That is BAD. I don’t know what their demands were, and I was super-careful about clothing and all, but then as I was very gingerly putting on some sort of alleged skin-saving concoction, the union blister went on strike and seceded. Just sloughed right off in my hand. We’re talking, like, four layers at once.
I know. Gross.
Underneath, it was VERY red, baby-soft and in danger of cracking. I had visions of festering infections and possibly leprosy.
And when the blisters finally dried up about a week later, forget peeling. I wasn’t just going to peel. Peeling would have been quaint. You know what parched earth looks like? That brown surface, all cracked, the pieces seemingly shrinking away from each other?
Yeah. That’s what I looked like. I actually appeared to have been in a fire. So then, on top of barely being able to dress myself because I couldn’t raise my arms more than Sen. John McCain can raise his…
…I found myself also very limited in what I could wear. The best thing for my skin would have been to go naked, though I worried that dirt and dust particles might cause (more) serious and irrevocable harm. But alas, nudity was not an option at work. And I didn’t think I should subject my coworkers to seeing any part of how bad my skin looked, so I had to keep it lightly covered.
The only upside to this burn is that it seems to have cleared up the icky eczema I used to get on my legs. Haven’t had that since. At the time, those splotches looked worst of all, but I have now learned that a searing, near-death encounter with the sun will clear up your minor to moderate itchy patches. So I guess there’s that.
My skin heals pretty slowly, so almost a year later, the sun damage is still obvious. I have all sorts of brown spots I didn’t have before, and every time I get in the shower, the parts that were burned still get red.
Apart from the certainty that I will have about 37 malignant skin growths in the next five minutes, I also deal with acne. This started when I was 12. I’m now 34. Seriously. It’s nowhere near as bad as it was when I was young, but it’s never just one pimple, either. I’m getting wrinkles on my pimples and pimples in my wrinkles. Wrimples, I call them. And since I’m so pale, and my skin heals so slowly, a pimple can then become a purple spot that hangs around for two months. Fortunately, I have become expert in makeup application, and covering these things without making it look like I’m wearing much makeup at all. People think I have pretty nice skin, which never fails to make me laugh out loud, provoking a bit of a bewildered response from the complimenter. I have learned that moisture balance is very important to making my skin as clear as possible, so I have to futz around with different products and whether I should wash my face twice a day or just at night, or put on moisturizer twice a day or just in the morning, or whether I should use the anti-aging stuff because it might cause a kind of glandular rebellion.
And then there is the bruising.
I don’t know what the hell goes on while I sleep, but it’s possible that someone comes in, beats me, and leaves without me waking up. I discover the bruises in the shower. This morning, I found two, on my left forearm, near my wrist. They’re already yellow-green, which is odd, since that’s usually what happens after they’re purply-blue, and I never saw that. These bruises go along with the three big ones I have on my right leg, two on my calf and one on the outside of my thigh. I almost always have a bruise in that spot, from carrying grocery bags. But the ones on my calf I can’t explain. I have two others on my left calf.
I do tend to have low blood iron levels, so that’s probably part of why I’m pale, and part of why I bruise so easily. But you know what else causes easy bruising? Leukemia. So every once in a while, when I honestly can’t figure out where some bruises came from, I get all, “Great. Now I have leukemia.”
That on top of the melanoma is so totally going to suck.
Over time, I have grown to accept some of the skin problems as cleverly-disguised gifts. Truly, I do look younger than my age, I suppose because the oil on my face helps combat wrinkles to some extent. The paleness, though, that just makes me look sickly. I look much healthier with what I call a tan, but now I’m scared to get one. Today’s healthy glow is tomorrow’s four-pound facial tumor.
And I’m going to the beach next month. I’m going to blind people with my whiteness. I will be camouflaged against the sand. And I won’t get sunburn to help keep me from being too white, because last year’s scorching has me so paranoid that I now use a minimum 30 SPF sunblock every two hours, which may or may not contain zinc oxide, depending on how well I want my liver to function. And now I’m a little worried about trying the self-tanning lotion, because that stuff really only lasts about a week, and the labels say that it makes you more sensitive to harmful sun rays from the Gamma Sector of Orion Nebulus 3 if you use it within seven days of actual real sun ray exposure.
It’s really quite a predicament.
So if you go to the beach and you see a shockingly pale, but possibly splotchy, woman in a wide-brimmed straw hat and a cover-up skirt, sitting beneath an umbrella, and you wonder why she’s even there, come say hello.
The cover-up skirt, by the way, is because of another skin issue: cellulite.
We will not discuss the cellulite.