As a pale-skinned Nordic teen in the ’80s, I envied the girls at school who were tanned because that was perceived as attractive. Thank goodness that dated way of thinking is history, and protecting your skin against the sun has become a priority.
My Mum was ahead of her time when it came to protecting your skin from the sun. When the rest of the world slathered themselves in coconut oil, baking their skin in the sun, she went in the opposite direction. She told me as a teen that it’s not about what you look like now, it’s about what you will look like decades from now. If you want healthy skin, you have to start protecting it from a young age. Yeah, yeah, I thought. It IS about what I look like now, and how could Mum not care about that? None of this made sense to me.
In the ’70s I was the little child slathered in white sunscreen who never got burnt at the pool or on the beaches of Hong Kong. My little tanned friends sometimes made fun of my bright untanned skin, and on some level, that did affect me.
As I got older, Mum had less control over my skin protection because I went to the pool and beach without her. Before I left, she would remind me in a not so gentle way to make sure I put on sunscreen. I dutifully yet doubtfully complied, until one day I decided to defy her.
It was a glorious hot and sunny Summer’s day in Cape Town and I was 15 years old. A friend of mine and I decided to spend the day at the beach. My Mum dropped us off at 10 a.m., and we spent the day sunning, swimming, and hanging out until my Mum’s friend fetched us at 4 p.m. I deliberately left off sunscreen because I wanted to tan. By 1pm I could feel that my skin was burnt. By 2 p.m., I put my clothes back on and went to find shade while we waited for our ride.
For the first time in my life, I had bad sunburn.
When I got home my Mother took one look at me and shouted in Dutch: “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!”. “Oh, it’s not that bad,” I said, but the mirror in the bathroom revealed otherwise. It was very, very bad.
My Mum couldn’t speak to me for two days, she was THAT angry. She did take me to the doctor, where I got some after-sun lotion. I lay on my bed with slices of cucumber over my body to help sooth the sting. I was very uncomfortable for days, unable to sleep, and had to stay out of any type of sun for weeks. My skin blistered and peeled TWICE. I also felt terrible about how I had disappointed my Mother.
It took my Mother a couple of days before she could speak to me calmly. I didn’t get sympathy for my sunburn. Instead, she implored me to use sunscreen in future. For a while she made sure my skin was extra moisturized, because sunburn chronically dries out your skin.
I learned the hard way, but I’ve been vigilant about protecting my skin since that day in 1985. I’ve had a few minor burns since then, but nothing serious. At age 47 my skin is in good shape, and according to my dermatologist, I have minimal sun damage.
I’m so grateful to my late Mum for instilling her skincare and protection and discipline in me. I wish I could thank her in person, but I’ll have to be content with her looking down on me from her big fluffy cloud in the sky knowing how thankful I am.