Monday, December 19, 2011

Suntans: More Than "Black" And White

A farang on the beach, basted and broiling.

Sitting under an umbrella on the beach in Thailand some months ago I watched  an older man in a Speedo (something that probably ought to be a felony in and of itself) getting a foot massage from a younger Thai man.  Well, if truth be known I was actually observing the younger man more than the older one, but that was primarily to see if I could get a hook on the relationship between the two. The farang appeared to be in his late sixties, the Thai in his mid-twenties.

They seemed to know each other somehow, but since I resisted the opportunity to eavesdrop I couldn't do more than speculate.  From the disinterested look on the young man's face my guess is that the music coming through my ear buds trumped what little they were talking about, anyway.  He looked longingly at the shade from the umbrellas all around him as he toiled away in the direct sun of mid-day.

His customer seemed to know the people who ran the chair concession where he'd rented his lounge recliner for the day, and they apparently recognized or knew him, too. At least, one would hope they knew each other as he'd reach out and grab at any of them who didn't give him a wide enough berth to be more than an arm's reach away. Most of it seemed to be in good fun, but some of them either made faces or rolled their eyes as they passed out of his range of view.

When the massage was done the man handed his masseur a bottle of tanning oil, motioning for the kid to oil him up for his next spin at Carcinoma Roulette.  I couldn't help but notice that it didn't so much resemble an oiling up as it did a basting; the man was already darker than most roasted fowl you'd see served at a family gathering.   "At least his family could save burial expenses and just have him made into an ottoman after he's gone," I thought to myself  "He's pretty close to leather now."  If he were a third his size he probably have passed for a kahlua pig at a Hawaiian luau. Still, to each their own.

Having been born with enough of a beautiful tone an acquaintance stays in the shade at the beach

I've never quite understood the obsession with sunbathing, myself.  Part of that probably comes from my inability to do anything myself other than sunburn and peel time and again, but if you look that up it's really nothing more than damaging your DNA and your skin attempting to repair the damage by shedding itself.  I don't try to emulate the pasty look of the "Goth" youth of today, but I respect the power of the sun - especially in the tropics. To put it another way: SPF-50 is my friend.

Now, before you Snow Birds who migrate to sunnier climes from places where the weather takes a colder turn from oh, say, October through March get upset, let me say I fully understand not wishing to live in a country that's somewhat like a blast freezer for a quarter of the year.

A lack of sunshine has been proven to have detrimental effects on humans, too - both mental and physical.  Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a legitimate condition - I know someone who deals with it each year. When I was in Seattle a month ago I saw a surprisingly large selection of light fixtures and lamps designed to provide artificial sun for both that and to help adjust people's internal circadian clocks. However, 20 minutes beneath artificial sun per day is (pardon the pun) light years away from day after day of sunbathing.

Many Asian cultures view darker skin as being less desirable than lighter skin, and folks go to great pains to avoid the sun.  Walk through the personal grooming aisle where the creams and lotions are on display the next time you're in a store in Thailand - or Japan, or China, or Vietnam - and you're going to see more skin-lightening products than you can shake a stick at.  If a Thai (male or female) is to wear any make-up on their face you're not going to see them using anything  that would darken their skin.

You're also likely to see a similar phenomenon in many Latin America countries, too.  One dear friend, born in the Southern part of Mexico has the most gorgeous dark skin of anyone I know, but when he was a child and the family was invited to, say, a wedding, he was left behind at home because he was too moreno (dark) and they were ashamed of him.  Go figure.

A handful of years back I read on one forum or another an anecdote from a farang man who'd left his boyfriend in Bangkok while he went for the first time to some beach resort for a week, staying stretched out in the sun most days; getting a deep tan he was rather pleased with.  Thinking "now I'm the grandest tiger in the jungle" while coming back to Bangkok he was a bit shocked when his boyfriend greeted him with "Why you do this?  Now you black... I ashamed you!"  It took him a couple of minutes to realize that to make himself darker (many Thai would say "black" when they mean tanned or darker) seemed like a completely irrational act to most Thai.

I suppose that for aesthetic reasons it's merely a matter of cultural preference, but for health reasons it makes more sense to avoid being one of the walking lobsters you're likely to run across at the Grand Palace along about three o'clock in the afternoon.  Sunscreens are available so you don't need to bring a bottle or tube with you, but if you have a specific brand you prefer just seal it in a bag to avoid a leak and bring it along.

And - more importantly - use it. It beats having a doctor carving bits off of you in another decade.  Just my two satang on it.

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