Confessions of a Shade Lover
David Coggins sheds light on his shady character
The sun represents possibility, promise and a new day. It is the life-giver that warms us all. It adorns flags and logos and song lyrics. As children, we run toward it when school is out; as adults, we swarm beaches to bask in its glory, from the Rockaways to the Riviera, from Bridgehampton to Barbados. The artist Gerald Murphy raked the seaweed from the beach each morning so that his family, friends and a few iconic novelists could spend the day in the pristine sand of Cap d’Antibes.
The cultural history of the tan veers back and forth. In the early twentieth century, it was associated with the classes who toiled in the fields. But in 1903, Niels Finsen won the Nobel Prize for curing diseases like rickets with a solid boost of vitamin D, and the sun was suddenly seen as a health benefit by the leisure class.
The march to the light really began, however, in 1923, when Coco Chanel was sunburned, entirely by accident, while visiting the French Riviera. Suddenly, tans became a chic, must-have accessory. These days, of course, a tan no longer bears any relationship to season or geography. It does not mean that somebody summited Kiliman- jaro or sailed from Havana. Now the sun comes to us, and it saddens me to report that the tanning salon industry, which treats pale urban denizens in lightbulb-blazing sarcophagi, makes $5 billion each year in the United States alone.
The practices of sun worship continue to evolve, but the essential impulse remains the same, and as is often the case, danger lurks in pleasure, so sunscreen was devel- oped in 1938. The earliest formula has been estimated to have had an SPF of 2. Today, we’re fluent in the language and numbers of sun protection; we know the active ingredients, and the SPF we use is often higher than the air temperature. We reapply diligently after each swim and see kids covered in so much lotion that they look like little frosted cupcakes.
Most people savor their time in the sun. They come back from vacation and wear clothes to set off their newfound radiance. Yes, everybody loves the sun. Everybody except me. This was difficult to admit. For years, I lay under blue skies, hot and bothered and afraid to say what I really felt. I knew I would never attain a George Hamilton-esque bronze, but I felt guilty. A person who doesn’t like the sun, I feared, was a person who doesn’t like pleasure, who would keep other people from enjoying their pleasures—a killjoy, a scold. Sun-hating seemed a gateway drug: Before long, I, the shade-seeker, might end up tsk-tsking steak-eaters and martini-drinkers.
On vacations, my family spent evenings examining me for strange patterns of sunburn where I had imperfectly applied the most up-to-the-minute sunblock. Red shapes that suggested invented alphabets from cave paintings were set against fair skin that should have known better than to venture forth into the midday heat. “This pattern is even weirder than last year,” my perfectly tanned sister would say.
Everybody knows that beach life has plenty to recommend it. When you are holding a glass of wine, it has even more to recommend it. I love swimming in the ocean and have favorite beaches that I’ve returned to over many years. But you will find me at those beaches after a long lunch, as the heat of the day subsides.
After suffering in silence, feigning bliss while laying in solar purgatory, I finally admitted that I simply didn’t like being in the sun and swore allegiance to the wide brim. It was liberating. And I felt less alone. It turns out that other people feel the same way I do, even if those people tend to be British. One friend, a successful novelist who summers in the South of France, swears by the beach umbrella. Many of us proudly haunt awnings, crave gazebos and savor the shade, expecting our paleness will preserve our youth, while our solar sybarite friends turn to leather.
In the end, we invariably find our own way, whether beneath brim or parasol or under nothing but SPF 125 at high noon on a cloudless sky. Whatever your way, enjoy your day in the soleil. BG