An employee at Palm Beach Tan in Uptown is showing me the facilities. “When was the last time you used a tanning bed?” he asks. Uh, let me check the calendar in my Trapper Keeper. I didn’t think anyone used those buzzing coffins of cancer anymore. I hadn’t stepped into one since high school, back when Poison and frosted pink lipstick also seemed like good ideas. In the 20-plus years since then, tanning beds have become a magnet for bad press and mockery. They cause melanoma. They cause Snooki. In 2010, tanning bed businesses got hit with a 10 percent tax increase, and the Texas Legislature is currently considering a bill that would raise the legal age of use from 16.5 years to 18 years (a similar bill has passed in California).
And yet, businesses with “tan” in their names continue to spread across our city like gyms and mega-churches. Palm Beach Tan, a national chain whose corporate office is in Coppell, has 43 locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, making it the largest concentration of its franchises in the United States.
In January, Lux Tanning Spa opened on Lemmon Avenue, hoping to offer an upscale alternative, and though (like nearly all tanning salons) it offers the safer, less carcinogenic spray tans, the centerpiece is definitely those zapping fluorescent beds. The ones at Lux are so fancy that they could double as spaceships. They glow and change colors. They speak in robot voices. When I asked about health risks, owner Paul Hollowell talked about “moderation” and a “controlled environment,” buzzwords for an industry that wants to redirect the conversation from cancer scares, thank you very much. (Not surprisingly, tanning businesses maintain that their beds are safe, while medical experts disagree.) And maybe that spin is working, or maybe tanning bed results are just too good to sacrifice. Hollowell’s skin is luminous. It is nothing short of golden. (It’s a spray tan and tanning bed combo.)
Whatever the reason, people are still using the beds. In June 2012, the Journal of Dermatology bemoaned that 30 percent of women 18 to 29 years old had used tanning beds in the past year, and the number was even higher in the South. (Meanwhile, melanoma among women 18 to 39 increased eightfold between 1970 and 2009.) “Tanning beds are so, so bad for you, but I looked so good,” says Meredith, a 37-year-old who asked that her last name not be used. She was newly divorced when she got a membership at the Palm Beach Tan on Inwood Road, where she went every day after a run. “I had this rockin’ bod, but I didn’t have time to sit out in the sun, and the beds gave me a natural glow.” She knew spray tans were safer, but they looked fake to her. They faded too fast and became splotchy. Plus, spray tans can be expensive, costing up to $40 a pop. Meanwhile, her tanning bed membership was only $30 a month, and she could go each afternoon, turn on her iPod, and get a power nap. “If anyone asked if I was tanning, I denied it,” she says. “I told everyone I’d been sitting out on the patio.”
And who can blame her? Anyone who has ever smoked or used Sweet ’N Low in her coffee or dared to bottle feed her baby with formula knows that the world can be a scoldy place. It’s easier to maintain a cone of silence around your tanning bed usage, and I sensed a vague defensiveness in every one of the half-dozen locations I visited around town. Customers often skulked out, avoiding eye contact. But I also continued to be surprised by the variety of people I saw: not just sorority girls or gay men, but Hispanic college-aged kids with diamond studs in their noses, an older gentleman in a button-down, a rocker chick with purple hair.
One afternoon, I stopped by B-Tan on Lemmon Avenue and chatted with the friendly owner named Brian. “I have Dallas Stars who come in here,” he said. “I have Dallas Cowboys. Newscasters. Real estate agents. It’s all ethnicities, all ages.” As if on cue, a black man walked out of the tanning booth. After he left, I gave Brian a puzzled look.
“Everyone needs to even out their skin tone,” he said with a shrug.
Maybe in the future, it will seem insane that anyone ever stepped into a tanning bed. But maybe in the future, it will seem insane that anyone ever texted while driving or held an iPhone up to her skull. Part of life is the denial of our death, and I have scoffed at my mortality plenty of times. I ditched my mother’s sunblock in favor of baby oil and crap that turned my knuckles tangerine. Vanity is a great motivator for most human behavior. It carries more weight than the surgeon general. And if 12 minutes in a giant microwave makes you feel powerful and sexy, well, then good luck to you. Sometimes wisdom requires a few sunspots.