Summer’s Hottest Accessory is a Poetic Tan Line

Think of it as an ephemeral tattoo.

by Eliza Harper Wallace
Aug 12 2019, 3:56pm

Here in the last chapter of summer, I would like to sing a song of praise for peeling skin. Maybe it is another casualty of ugliness as trend, but weird tan lines are endearing and sexy, full stop. Just like the full stop of a harsh cap-sleeve tan line on a bicep. Every time I see the color shift from dark neck to pale collarbone, or the bleed of a shorts tan from milky upper thigh to burnished knee, I am genuinely aroused.

Weird tan lines on women, nowadays, are miraculous. My girlfriends are always emerging from piles of Turkish towels, peeping under straw sun hats, and fluttering around Leo Carillo or Fort Tildy dripping in linen schmattala. So a Letter-of-Recco, a Get-the-Look, if you will, to squeeze in before school supplies show up: split a bar of mushroom chocolate with a Prius-full of women at your local sun patch and let your guard down for a Saturday or two of bleaching and brown-buttering.

Lemon wedges squeezed into hair––have you done that trick? Smells better than Sun-In––dripping over triangles of pink burn from yesterday’s lounge in the park crisscrossed with bars of worn-in tan old as spring break. Another magic trick––pull nylon away and reveal the stark string bikini tan in Camille Henrot’s The Pale Fox Under The Sun. Seven stripes of differently cut swimsuit lines creeping longitudinally around an ass cheek. The sear of salmon burn across the lower back where the crop-top cropped. Blinking in the mirror later that day is a softened version of Carolyn Murphy’s Mrs. Robinson in Tom Ford’s SS 2010 Eyewear campaign. Accidentally getting gently burnt is as dizzyingly death-drop sexy as smoking a cigarette on the beach. Sun protection is cool, but so is fucking up once in a while.

There is a dark side to suntans. The DayQuil shade of our troll-in-chief. The socioeconomic split in the subtext of a tan: the sun marks one as a man of means and access to leisure, while scorching and labelling the unprotected neck of the day laborer.

The heartbreaking-est of sun tans, from the brain that most approached perfection, David Berman, lives in a most beloved song from his band Silver Jews, “Random Rules.” In the song he turns to someone he used to, or perhaps still cares very deeply for and says, “before I go, I gotta ask you dear about the tan line on your ring finger.”

SPF is corny. Everybody knows the dice are loaded, everybody knows they’re supposed to wear sunscreen. The most mentally rigorous challenge that SPF presents is the enormously mind-bending physics of light and finding which brand of sunscreen doesn’t break you out. (I use one that I stole from my AirBnb in Hawaii on the Fourth of July. My dermo says Elta MD but I don’t trust her because I don’t trust anyone in Beverly Hills. An HMU artist on the set of a Levi’s commercial told me he brings Anessa back from Japan by the suitcase.)

However, the explicit corniness of sunscreen makes it a key tool in my favorite kind of vacation P.D.A. I don’t know which one of those '80s summer movies made us think applying sun lotion was sexy, but it isn’t sexy. It is goofy. On the beach, I love to watch a boyfriend apply Banana Boat to the hard to reach part of his girlfriend’s back, or a dudefriend spraying down the back of the knees with Neutrogena Water Resistant. There is something so lame and vulnerable about two people helping apply creams. It is, as my friend Kyle said, fascinating in the same way as watching monkeys eat bugs out of each other’s hair. The look on his face is not of orgasmic delight, but of slimy, mundane obligation. That real real friendship. Spreading that medically-recommended white film over your beloved’s body, making sure they don’t miss the tips of their ears or their bald spot is embarrassing and beautiful, not racy and hot, and God, I love it so much. So I’m a pervert for intimacy, who cares!

Think of late-era DiCaprio frolicking on the beach, Laird Hamilton-type motherfuckers walking around in flip flops like a bunch of chill ass dingos. Doesn’t that just send shivers through your body? Doesn’t that just make you want to reach out and put a hand on their cheek and sweep your thumb across their eye wrinkles, their temple, and up into their hair? Dumb ditzy old men are so gross most of the time, but in summer, their sweet little bellies and sock tans neutralize my horror somehow. In August, caked in salt or bringing in tomatoes from the garden, the lovely sunstroked boys of summer capture our hearts.

tan lines