Each summer, as I dare to don the shorter garments in my closet, I’m taken back to junior high gym class. Playing kickball and running laps with no athletic ability was pretty humiliating, but worse was doing it as the most pallid, Gollum-like adolescent in the gym. As classmates caught sight of my near translucent, purplish legs, I’d hear the common refrain: “Get a tan, girl!”
Could I get a tan? Should I get a tan? I’ve asked myself these questions countless times since I first came to realize I looked borderline cadaverous. Now, more than a decade later, I have the answers.
You may look around you and notice people come in just about every color. As most of us know, this all boils down to ultraviolet radiation (UV) from the sun. As humans evolved and lost their fur, their bare skin had to adapt to being confronted with the heat and light of a great fiery ball in the sky. Enter melanin. This ancient molecule, made in the skin by pigment cells called melanocytes, reacts to sunlight. When we’re soaking up rays, melanocytes pump melanin into nearby skin cells, and as those cells migrate to the surface, they protect the body. The more melanin, the greater the protection, and the darker your skin.
But if melanin is such a well-decorated skin solider, why are there so many people with fair skin?