Confessions of a Former Tanorexic

I would always lie whenever anyone asked me how I got so tanned. I told them I had spent the weekend outdoors, or I had just come back from beach, and sometimes even just credited it to my roots (“My mom’s from an island so I’m naturally tan.”) I would even say I got a spray tan or used a self-tanner. Anything but admitting to using a tanning bed.  

I never thought I would become a tanorexic (a person who is addicted to tanning). I had read the stories about girls who died from using indoor tanning beds — and I would shake my head at them. If you knew it was bad for you, why do it? I didn’t even feel the need to vow that I wouldn’t do it…in my head I thought I was smart enough to avoid it.  

It wasn’t until one day that my friend told me she started tanning, and how great it made her feel. She had just broken up with her long-term boyfriend, and she said tanning gave her an instant boost of happiness. Her acne had cleared up, and her skin looked flawless. She was glowing.  

“But you didn’t get burnt?” I questioned. 

“No, I was smart about it and didn't go in for longer than I had to.” 

“But isn’t it hot in there?” 

“No, it’s nice! There’s fans. It’s relaxing.” 

“And is it safe?” 

“Probably not. But I don’t care. It makes me feel good.” 

That was all I needed to hear. I, too, was going through a rough time in my life, and I was down to try anything that could bring up my mood. So, off to the tanning salon we went. I previously had a cyst removed from my forehead, and the thought of skin cancer lurked at the back of my mind, but I was quick to shove it away. “You’ll feel better. You’ll look great,” I kept telling myself.  

The lady at the salon handed me a questionnaire to fill out. I remember one question so clearly: “Have you ever been advised by a physician to restrict exposure to sunlight? Please answer honestly." I checked off the “yes” box. Then the tanning salon employee told me I wouldn’t be able to tan if I had checked “yes” to any of the questions. So I crossed it out, and put no. She didn’t seem to care.  

I was apprehensive to go into the bed — it looked daunting. I was scared of getting trapped inside, I was scared that I would ruin my eyes in case the tanning goggles fell off, and I was scared of what would happen to my skin. 

But as soon as the bed turned on, I was transported to my happy place. The lamps felt incredible on my skin, the fan was as refreshing as a cool breeze on a hot summer day, the lotion reminded me of the tropics, and my favourite song was playing. It felt heavenly.

I exited the salon on a high. I couldn’t wait to see how my tan developed. And as the day went on, my friend kept telling me how amazing I looked. 

I was hooked. Addicted. I couldn’t wait to go back and get even darker.  

And from that point on, I was a regular tanner.  

My addiction was based a lot on vanity. My eczema-ridden skin had completely cleared up. I didn’t have to wear much makeup. It was the happiest I had been with my appearance in a long time. I was getting compliments on how good I looked. I felt amazing. And if my tan started to fade, I would get anxiety that I was getting pale again. I would run to the salon and tan again. This time in a stronger bed, for a longer amount of time. I needed to be dark. I needed my skin to be clear. I needed that high the beds gave me.  

No matter how many horror stories I read, I still continued to tan. I even went to the Vichy Skin Health Centre to see the damage the sun (or lamps) had done to my skin in an attempt to scare myself. It worked for a few months…but I finally caved and went back to that damn tanning bed. I had benign skin tumor form on my underarm, and had it removed (the experience was so horrible, I almost passed out). Yet I still tanned. A few months later, a small mole formed on my upper lip. The doctor said there was nothing to be worried about, so I tanned again.  

The moment I came to my senses was when I burned for the first time. Not in a tanning bed, but outdoors. Normally, I would be able to lie in the sun for hours without sunscreen, and I would barely get any colour. After sitting on a patio for 20 minutes, I got my first sunburn. And it freaked me out. A lot. At that moment, I realized how damaged my skin had become. How intolerant it was to those harmful UV rays. And all I could think about was “You could seriously get skin cancer.”  

I’m one of the lucky ones. Roughly 1 in 79 Canadian women develop melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) during their lifetime, and I’ve realized now that if I’m not careful, I could be one of them. I still cringe every time I have to apply sunscreen, and I am still tempted to skip it altogether. But I am trying to force myself to be smarter about protecting my skin. I’ve turned to self-tanners (no matter how annoying they are to apply) to achieve the bronzed look I always craved. My eczema did come back, but I’ve learned that a healthier diet clears up my skin wonderfully.

This isn’t one of those sob stories you’ll read in an attempt to scare you out of tanning. If you are truly addicted, like I was, it doesn’t matter what other people say. You’ll just keep telling yourself that it won’t happen to you. That you’ll be fine. That a few extra minutes in that bed won’t kill you. And maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll be lucky too. 

But one day, you’ll realize how terrible tanning really is for you. Maybe you’ll read a personal story that will have an impact on you, maybe you’ll see the damage in your skin like I did, or maybe, you’ll be one of those 79 women who develop melanoma. As with any addiction, it is difficult to quit. 

For more information on the dangers of tanning, visit skincancer.org

Tags: indoor tanning, melanoma, Self-help, skin cancer, tanning, tanning addiction, tanning beds, tanorexia

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