Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Mystic Tan

I am a melanin-challenged, Scots-Irish girl. Of my 61 first cousins, approximately 95% of us were able to amuse ourselves on rainy days by playing connect-the-dot with our freckles. In winter we would watch with delight as our freckles faded, only to have our spirits dashed when they returned with a vengeance in spring. Summer vacations in Florida brought us dreams of coming home looking like a Malibu Barbie, when in reality we’d come back looking like Howdy Doody’s little sister or brother. Instead of filling in the blanks with a glorious suntan, our freckles simply multiplied like Tribbles on the Starship Enterprise. Grandma would shake her head and say, "Girl, you can’t change a leopard’s spots, and you can’t get rid of them freckles." {sigh}

But oh, how times have changed.

On a cold, dreary day in Tennessee last March, I stood in front of the mirror sipping my coffee, gearing up for the day, still switched to autopilot as I applied makeup and indulged in daydreams of an upcoming trip to Pensacola Beach. The television was tuned in to Good Morning America, but it provided little more than background noise for my Florida reveries until something the reporter said snagged a corner of my subconscious. Had I heard correctly? Had technology finally caught up with my Malibu Barbie dreams?

My attention was immediately riveted to the television as I watched a new self-tanning technique called Mystic Tan, that works like a carwash and transforms the most lily-white bodies to a golden brown in less than two minutes. This was amazing! This could be life altering! Hello Grandma, this girl’s changing her spots!

The Yellow Pages and I became best friends that day as my fingers walked mile after mile in search of a tanning salon offering Mystic Tan, touted as the official tan of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. I was delighted to find a salon nearby which could deliver my dream just in time for a trip to the beach.

I wasn’t surprised upon arriving for my appointment to discover two girls behind the counter with glorious manes of sun-streaked hair and the most perfect golden skin imaginable, nary a freckle in sight. I was impressed when they seated me in a well-decorated side room to watch a brief video that showed the necessary steps to attain my "highest level of satisfaction." Just five minutes later, I signed up for a three-visit package and headed off for my turn in the "carwash."

Inside a closet-size room, I disrobed, donned a disposable shower cap, and smoothed what was labeled "barrier cream" on my feet and palms. Then I stepped into a private booth, pushed a red button, and waited for the procedure to begin.

A cold brown mist abruptly began spewing from every direction and I momentarily felt like the proverbial deer in the headlights, totally forgetting instructions to close my eyes and hold my breath. Polarized particles of solution took on the characteristics of tiny magnets, attaching themselves to my skin. Unfortunately, they also attached like tiny magnets to the contacts in my widened eyes leaving me temporarily, and quite literally, in a fog. Regaining my composure, I squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath just in time for the spraying to stop as suddenly as it began.

Thinking the process was over, I started to open the door of my booth when I remembered that it was time to turn around for side two. I barely had time to assume the position – and shut my eyes – when the spraying resumed. Thankfully the whole thing was over within a matter of seconds and I hastily exited the booth, damp and shivering, but confident my dream had been realized.

I toweled off and dressed, then headed for home, after being cautioned not to shower for 6 – 8 hours in order for the solution to completely work its magic. Each traffic light gave me a chance to admire my beautiful new tan, which had been promised to darken as the day progressed.

The first hint I had that my Mystic Tan expectations may have been set too high was the cautious reception of my 3 year old Shih Tzu as I walked into the house. His tiny nose went into overdrive as he circled me warily, which started me thinking that I too had smelled something a little funky on the way home. It was rather disheartening to consider that the source could be me.

Getting out the Mystic Tan brochure and scanning through it, I came upon a note that stated, "…some customers have commented that they noticed a "starchy" smell on their skin for a brief period right after tanning, but it is usually not noticeable to others around them." Hmmmm…tell that to the dog. Although it has been a long time since I used starch in my clothes, I don’t remember it ever smelled like I did at that moment.

I busied myself with housework until shower time arrived. I noticed it helped to keep moving and stay upwind, so to speak. Poor pooch seemed to agree and watched me from afar. Then, as I walked past a bathroom mirror, something unusual caught my eye. I edged closer to the mirror, checking the back of my legs and wondering what on earth I’d leaned up against. There were thin, dark brown stripes running down the back of each leg from my knees to my ankles. From the back of my mind echoed those inauspicious words, "Houston, we have a problem."

Ignoring the admonition not to get wet for 6 – 8 hours, I dampened a cloth and scrubbed at a stripe. Although the cloth came away looking rather dirty, the stripe showed little sign of fading. The brochure had said nothing about stripes!

I put in an emergency call to my Mystic Tan salon and discovered that I had obviously failed to properly dry the back of my legs. "No problem," the girl said, "just soak a Q-tip in bleach and run it carefully down the stripe. It will come right off." BLEACH???

After an evening of detailing my legs with bleach-soaked Q-tips, I fell into a restless sleep filled with dreams of leopards and zebras being ridden by enormous freckles that sprouted arms and legs.

The following morning I optimistically bounced from bed and hurried to the mirror to see the final results of my store-bought tan. I can truthfully say they far surpassed my expectations. While my face was indeed as golden brown as a fresh batch of taffy, a headband width of pale skin with a reverse widow’s peak was lopsidedly displayed below my hairline. I’d obviously positioned my shower cap improperly during the tanning process.

My hand flew to my open mouth, stifling a gasp at my samurai-wannabe appearance, immediately exposing lovely brown cuticles that framed each fingernail on my hand. Nervously, I looked down at my legs, discovering thin white stripes running knee to ankle. The bleach had obviously worked. My shoulders sagged as my gaze came to rest on my feet. Stunned at a sight for which there are no words, I slowly sat down and began to reevaluate my position on evolution.

It would take more than a bad tan to put a damper on my trip to the beach, so with a positive attitude and a lot of exfoliation I headed south that weekend, a sun hat pulled low on my brow and tall hiking boots covering my feet. Only my brown-knuckled hands, which clutched the steering wheel, exposed me as a Malibu Barbie that definitely would have been consigned to a discount store shelf.

Somewhere around Birmingham I finally admitted that Grandma was probably right. Leopards can’t change their spots and though I covered my freckles, I picked up a few stripes along the way.

If, one day, you notice a melanin-challenged, Scots-Irish girl cheerfully walking the Gulf Islands National Seashore wearing a sun hat and tall hiking boots, sporting brown (or white) stripes on her calves, please be kind. While I may look odd, it’s as close as I’ll ever come to being a Malibu Barbie … and I have two visits left for a Mystic Tan.

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