My life in sunburns.

When I was young, my summers were spent outside. My mother would tolerate me inside for a short time while I watched morning cartoons and a couple of game shows, but typically she would tell me to head outside and play if the weather was nice. I spent sunny days riding my bike all over our two-acre yard, through trees and grass and along our gravel driveway. I rode up and down the dirt road in front of our house, kicking up dust and dirt into the spokes of my little blue bike. I jumped and slid and played on our jungle gym with my little brother, I played pretend under the two trees in front of our house. I skinned knees, I scraped hands, I was full of dirt and sweat and grime and “grandma beads” on my neck. My skin freckled, but never burned.

Even when I spent a few weeks at my Maw-Maw’s house in Mississippi, I never had a sunburn. Her next door neighbor had an in-ground pool that we made frequent trips to in the afternoons. We swam, splashed, slid down the small slide (I can’t tell you how important it is to make sure the slide is wet before going down – ouch). I learned how to conquer my fear of the “deep end”, how to jump off the diving board, how the feeling of being underwater is the closest thing you can come to feeling weightless. But even though we would spend entire afternoons out there, I never remember getting sunburned.

My first sunburn that I do remember was when I went to Destin, Florida with my family. My Paw-Paw worked for a company that owned a few places there, and employees could request the use of them for a week or so during the year. We always stayed at the “canal house” – probably because we could fit about 8 of us there at once.

I remember spending most of the day at the beach, playing in the surf, and my mother applying lots of sunscreen to both me and my brother. My brother was so much more fair than me – his skin was so pale, almost translucent in places. When we got back to the house, I took off my damp swimsuit and realized something was very wrong. Out there, in the bright sun, my skin didn’t seem any different – but the angry red color on most of my body said otherwise. As soon as I saw the damage, the pain started. Everything HURT. Even the feeling of the air conditioner blowing across my too-sensitive skin was painful. My night was spent covered in Noxema (Maw-Maw insisted it would help me feel better), and tossing on the too-rough cotton sheets in my bunk bed.

The next day my entire body throbbed, and I could barely stand to wear clothes, much less go outside. I felt nauseous. My shoulders and back were the worst – they had blisters that chafed and wept. We headed back to Mississippi, and as soon as we got back to Maw-Maw’s, they slathered me in aloe and put me in bed. I vaguely remember them saying I had fever. Recovering from that sunburn was the worst – I’d never had one before so I didn’t know how long I would feel the pain. As soon as the pain stopped, the ITCHING started. I remember scraping my back against the rough stippled walls of my house to relieve the itching, and my mother fussing at me, telling me I was going to make it worse. I was also extremely grossed out by my skin peeling.

We went to Destin every year in the summer, and I got burned after that, but never that bad again. The second worst sunburn after that was the summer between 8th and 9th grade when I had a week in Destin and THEN had a week beach retreat with my church’s youth group.

As I grew older, my love for the beach waned considerably. There’s too much sand that ends up in places where it shouldn’t be, the sun is too strong and reflects off of the sand and you can’t see, salt water stings my eyes…I added excuse after excuse to the list but it boiled down to one thing: I HATED SUNBURNS.

In high school, I flirted with tanning by laying out in my backyard and applying “tan accelerator”, but nothing ever came of it. By the time I got to college and for many, many years after, I decided that the ghostly coloring I’d been fighting would be more beneficial for my health in the long run (and would earn me points with the black-clad crowd), so I simply stayed indoors a lot. When I had to venture out, I applied a liberal amount of sunscreen.

See, both mine and my brother’s pallor comes from my father’s side of the family. My father’s mother was very tall, thin, and pale (much like my brother) and my dad’s skin was pale but ruddy (just like mine). We tend to burn easily and quickly, but we don’t really “tan” afterwards – we simply peel and go back to our normal color. I refused to give in to the societal insistence that tan = healthy. I turned up my nose at tanning, telling myself that it was only in the past 100 or so years that tanning became popular, that it was better for my health in the long run.

However, this year, I want a little bit of color. Maybe a little coloring on my calves, some freckles on my shoulders and nose. Just something to show that I’ve sought the sun and spent a little time on the sand or in the grass this summer. I definitely won’t be seeking the services of the tanning bed, but I do think I’ll be letting the sun touch my skin a little more this summer. Yes, I’ll be playing it safe – my Neutrogena sunscreen is a must if I’m going to be out for a length of time, and especially on beach trips.

I’ve spent too many summers hiding inside and seeking the solace of air conditioning. I think it’s time to sweat a little bit this year.

You may also like


  1. I got a bad burn on my forehead (!) and back after Bay St. Louis. Was itching like crazy last week and the week before while I peeled. Now I’ve got color on my chest, some of my arms, and back and zero on my legs. Zero.


    1. Same here! I got patches of sunburn on my back and chest, where I missed the sunblock. Worst spots were on my arms. My legs are still white as snow. Gah.

  2. Great and insightful article! Life’s lessons learned, of course. Try the Jergens body lotion that adds just a little color to you in a couple of days – CVS also has their brand that works well, too. That’s what I am using these days – no more sun for me, especially on the face – ages you too much!

    1. Mom, I tried the Jergens self-tanner out – it didn’t change ANYTHING. Tried it out on my tummy for two weeks and there was no change! I guess I’m just not meant to be tan like you used to be. 🙂