I could feel the warm glow of the sun as it shone on my face and body. Wearing only my red swimsuit, I was lying flat on my silver tanning blanket on our front lawn in Urbana. Given its color and shiny texture, the blanket reminded me of aluminum foil, purposely developed to reflect the sun. As I flared my nostrils to get an extra whiff of the freshly cut grass that was practically tickling the bottom of my feet, I daydreamed about my forthcoming move to Madison, Wisconsin for college.
Earlier in the summer, my friend Andrea and I had visited Madison for new student orientation. The day we arrived we met two guys on campus at “Der Rathskellar,”a German beer Hall in the Student Union. To my amazement, one of them, an attractive boy named Tom with brown hair and beautiful blue green eyes, seemed instantly drawn to me. “Do you want to take a walk out by Lake Mendota?” I nodded, and wondered if this would lead to a kiss. Already eighteen, I had only kissed three boys, well under the average of my friends. It wasn’t until we began to stroll together toward the water did I notice that Tom had a limp. “Have fun, Meg!” I turned around to see Andrea waving at me with a mischievous grin. She began to hold hands with Tom’s friend. In hindsight, I think Tom may have had an artificial leg. However, in that moment, I instantly grew embarrassed of being with someone with any type of visible difference, and began to look around.
The ridiculousness of this only hits me in hindsight. There I was, in a new environment where I knew no one, and I was worrying about what others were thinking when they saw me with Tom, given his physical challenges. To be seen with someone imperfect would only draw attention to my own imperfections. Notwithstanding the fact that Tom was clearly willing to look past my two fingers, I was nowhere near this level of maturity. As we sat together, he made his move. I enjoyed the kiss, and reveled that now I had kissed FOUR boys in my life, yet I felt uncomfortable. I knew this would be the last time I would see Tom. After all, the last thing I wanted was to start my freshman year associated with anyone that looked physically disabled. Back then, I believed that the more I could associate with people that were “normal,” the more I could assimilate and feel normal. “Meg, get off the lawn! You have been out in the sun too long!” I was instantly brought back to reality by my father, who hated when I sunbathed. Neither my Mom nor Dad could ever understand the tanning thing. Whenever I was tan, especially in my face, I felt pretty. Unbeknownst to my parents, I spent hours in the sun that summer, hoping that as I arrived for school, a great tan might deflect attention away from my physical deformities.
Pumpkin Face. That is the first reference to Patricia Krentcil, the “Tan Mom of New Jersey”, that I had ever heard. I was in our kitchen and Today (NBC) was on. The bronze colored 44-year-old mother was in hot water for allegedly taking her then 5-year-old daughter into a tanning booth. The story was in itself shocking, and the jokes swiftly followed. “She’s so tan she smoking.” “She looks like a Halloween Pumpkin that’s been sitting around for months.” And of course Saturday Night Live followed as expected with comedienne Kristen Wiig playing Krentcil and saying, “Now I have the look every woman dreams of: Wile E. Coyote, right after something blows up on his face.” As the public mocking continued, Krentcil even inspired a “tanarexic doll.”
Like most, I was appalled at the thought that anyone would bring a child into a tanning salon. But I was admittedly intrigued by the story; perhaps for different reasons than most. First, I was fascinated by Krentcil’s reaction to the attention she ultimately invited by granting so many interviews: anger. To me, she was ill-prepared for the negative public attention. “There’s somebody out there on my whole life that doesn’t like me because they’re jealous, they’re fat and they’re ugly,” she shouted to the cameras. Not sure the sentence made sense, but she got her point across. But reacting angrily when others are judging you is the easy, even natural response. In interview after interview, I waited to see if Krentcil could find true strength and even inner peace, despite all the judgments. Although she claimed to not care what others thought of her, even describing them as envious, I never felt that even she herself believed it.
Second, somehow (strangely), I relate to her. Being extremely tan seems to make Krenticil feel good about herself, even beautiful. Based on personal experience, I get that. Even these days, while I won’t expose myself to the sun or tanning beds, every so often for a special occasion I’ll get a spray tan. Being a bronzer version of myself can make me feel attractive, and allows me to wear colors in which I otherwise look putrid. But, the comparison stops there. Krenticil’s tanning is extreme. What is it about her natural appearance that is not good enough, that makes her feel that she must significantly alter it? I am always captivated by people who are born with no overt physical difference, but who nevertheless feel the need to “fix” themselves. Despite her otherwise normal physique, Krentcil was now experiencing what it is like to feel different:
People judge. People mock. It’s never fun when you are the target.
Okay, admittedly I have taken spray tanning, at least on one occasion, to the max. A couple of years ago, I showed up at my nephew Sam’s bar mitzvah looking completely over-baked. The truth is, I’ll never shake the desire to look good and thereby feel good about myself.
But I have to laugh now at the change over time. I’ve gone from not wanting to be seen with someone physically imperfect, to embracing children born like me and learning to walk proudly and unselfconsciously with them. And now all I want to do is encourage others to flaunt that which makes them different.