A Pale Girl’s Confession


So I’ve written about being a pale girl before. And as we head into true summer and the Minnesota air heats up, I watch as the people around me become tanner and tanner while my own skin stays nearly as colorless as it was all winter long. But I will now, finally, confess to you all something that I find both hilarious and shameful:

LAST spring – sometime around May – I began to notice something in my outfit photos. Despite the fact that I slather on the SPF 30 every single day, my face, neck, and arms were looking decidedly browner than my legs. It’s the legs that gets us pale white girls in the end. After six months encased in tights and pants, they absolutely glow in the warming summer sunshine. And I experimented briefly with using a lighter powder on my face to balance out the color difference, but it was no use. So, eventually – right after I’d received a few choice comments from people in my life and read a few beauty blog reviews – I invested in one of those slow-build, moisturizing self-tanner concoctions and began slathering it on my legs. And for a while? It looked decent. Not too orange, and not terribly dark. Seemed to be doing exactly what I wanted: Darkening my legs a little and making me seem like I was one, uniform color all over. Albeit a very light one.

But then? Then, friends, my body realized what was going on. And, as my body is wont to do, it rebelled. I noticed that I had a VERY dark blob/streak along the back of my right calf. The one on my left calf wasn’t quite as pronounced, but it threatened to get worse with further application. Believe me when I say that – in the three week period during which I undertook this experiment – I applied that gunk thinly and evenly over my legs. This was not user error. This was some bizarre self-tanner buildup being caused by my leg cells sloughing off at different rates. This was my skin saying, “Listen, lady. You’re pale. Why on earth are you trying to fake your way into non-paleness?”

I scrubbed and soaked and did everything I could think of to get rid of those blob-streaks, but they stuck around for the remainder of the summer. And that? That spooked me. I had jumped into this little project without giving it much thought at all. I mean really, I did zero research, paid no heed to the fabulous hypocrisy of it all, and failed to consider what would happen if something went wrong. I had willingly embedded molecules of dye into my own legs, and now they were hanging on for their little dye lives. What kind of long-term effects could this have? Would they turn infectious or carcinogenic over time? (Yes, I’m an awfulizer. There is no real evidence these products are harmful.) Would I have blob-streaks on my calves until I was 50?

Luckily, they’ve faded. I can still see their judgy little shadows, but they’re getting paler as time wears on. And I’m (kinda) grateful to them for sticking around in this slightly less obvious form. Because they remind me of my folly. These lotions work flawlessly for many women and are, in fact, a safer alternative to light/sun tanning of any sort and a cheaper alternative to spray tans. I don’t disdain them universally because every woman is different and every woman’s appearance-related priorities are different. For some, products like this mean they can ditch the nylons, feel less self-conscious at the beach, and feel confident about an aspect of appearance that previously caused discomfort or anxiety. All totally valid. The reason I feel this was an important lesson for me, personally, is that I realized in retrospect I’d done exactly what I rail against: I caved to peer pressure, bought something that cosmetic companies were telling me to buy, and never considered why I was doing so. I never asked myself how important this was to me or when my priorities had shifted. I never considered what the long-term impact might be or if opinions other than my own were doing the decision-making. I ran off half-cocked. And I’m thankful that my quirky little body put on the brakes for me.

Images courtesy Amazon

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80 Responses to “A Pale Girl’s Confession”

  1. Jen

    Once or twice a year I use Airbrush Legs for when my legs are bruised or razor burned but I don’t try to make them tan.

    I’ve had people say my legs are the palest they’ve ever seen and I just don’t care. It just doesn’t bother me.

    Closet Refreshment

  2. Olivia

    Fellow pale girl here. I learned the hard way that tanning doesn’t work for me. I burn and freckle, no tan in between. But, I thought I still “needed” my legs to be tanned (marketing!) so I tried some of that lotion self-tanner. It worked, sort of, but despite diligently washing my hands after applying it, my palms started getting dark. It was also expensive compared to my regular lotion. I gave it up and haven’t tried any kind of tanner since. Going on 10+ years now and I do my best to reduce sun exposure. I wear hats, cover ups at the pool/beach, and sit in the shade whenever possible.

  3. Chris

    Such a fabulous and timely piece!

    I have fair skin (not quite as peaches and cream as you) and medium brown hair. I always felt that my legs almost looked fluorescent white, and with the new addition of the little blue and pink veins I felt like it was a distraction from my look. Like the proverbial train wreak, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

    I have used both self-tanners and the spray-tan-in-an-aerosole products to even out the color in my legs.

    Like you, my skin rebelled. The little hair follicles on my legs seemed to grab the tanner and suck it in, creating these ugly micro-dots all over my calves. I also had similar blotchy streaks on my calves. And then there was the slightly orange hue – I felt that my legs just changed from one type of distraction to another.

    I have always preferred to cover my legs all year, but summer here in Indiana can be murderously hot and humid. This summer I’m going to find alternatives to hanging my legs out – long, gauzy pants are my first choice – but there’s still a part of me that wishes that I could wear cute skirts and shorts when the humid midwestern summer weather really hits.

    Thanks for a great article!

  4. Eve

    I’ve tried the exact same product and it did absolutely nothing. 2 months of daily slathering on my legs in preparation for warm weather, and not even a hint of beige. Gave it to my daughter and her legs were nicely tan in a week. Tried it again a year later, and still nothing. You mention rebelling, my skin just completely ignored.

    Instant tanner is just too instant. I’m afraid to be stuck the wrong or uneven color for even a week. People just have to deal with the pale legs until they lose their glow about midsummer. Personal comfort tops leg glare anytime, and besides, people are supposed to be wearing shades in the sun anyway.

  5. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Another pale sister here – I used to try to make the self-tanners work. But I got too many orange palms, heels and knees. And I finally said, who needs yet one more grooming task? So now I go pale as can be, and feel pretty good about it. All shades are beautiful.

  6. Sarah

    Every few years I cave and buy a self tanner to try to make my legs slightly less super white, but I’m never happy with the results. I also resent that I’m “expected” to spend time, money, and clutter up the environment with little plastic bottles to dye my skin a better color. It makes me think about what women of other ethnicities have gone through to try to satisfy prevailing beauty standards. Thanks for your article!

  7. Shannon

    Thank you for sharing your experience! I am also considerably pale and while this should be acceptable in deary, rainy Atlantic Canada, there is still the pressure to look as though you just walked off a Florida beach. For the most part I am okay with my whiter than white legs. Unlike my friends and co-workers, as soon as it’s warm enough, I shed off the tights and rock my pale, white legs in skirts (not a fan of pants!) Still, recently I’ve considered self-tanning lotions. I’m short with quite curvy legs (a nice way to say leaning towards stumpy.) When my legs are tanned they look thinner, more lithe. Friends have told me of products they have used, my cousin received a gift certificate for tanning sessions at her baby shower for after the birth so she can get back to “herself”, co-workers have bemoaned their inability to wear skirts due to their lack of “colour”. Despite the small confidence I have in my naturally colouring, all of these opinions begin to seep in and distort your perceptions. This article was exactly what I needed to wake me up! How sick is it that society and the media are telling women that there is something wrong with their skin colour and that it should be changed? We are disturbed when we hear of women of darker complexions using products to lighten their skin to meet a so-called ideal, however, it is a social norm for people of lighter complexions to wreck havoc on their bodies to obtain an equally skewed concept of perfection?

  8. Ashe

    HAH! I just used tanning towelettes this week, from a Glossybox. And I’ve had to wear jeans all week as a result of the streaking.

    I also picked up the Jergens lotion (but with SPF 20), because I realized one thing: no one could see it, but I felt better with my legs a shade darker. Now a shade darker is still lighter than most people in the winter, but I didn’t feel phosphorescent.

    Before doing it, I did think about why I was doing this, and I came to one conclusion: what’s it hurt to try it? I’ve become less experimental as I’ve aged, but the truth is, it’s not permanent, and it was worth seeing how I felt as a result. While those towelettes weren’t the best choice, seeing that little bit of glow and color made me feel more “even”, more confident to show my bare legs.

  9. Erin

    I am proud that at this point in my life (42) I have never been to a tanning bed or used a self tanner or one of those Jergens lotions. Why put those chemicals and nastiness on my skin and into my system? No, thank you. I prefer my natural skin tone, pale though it is, that reflects who I am and not something that is unattainable and artificial and hard to maintain. Good piece, Sally, and thoughtful reflection.

  10. Jo

    I’m the kind of pale my husband calls “skimmed-milk”. I experimented with fake-tan in my twenties, but it doesn’t work for – it’s all too orange and looks weird. I’ve got past the stage of caring how pale I am. I’ll happily sit in the sun for a while, but always slathered in factor 30 (or higher) and in the summer I’ll flaunt my pale legs shamelessly!

  11. La Rêveuse

    I tried them, too, back around 2004/5. Being Norwegian (Minnesota born), blonde and pale, I also sport a natural shade of fish belly blue. Unfortunately, my sensitive skin could not handle it, and after using for a while, I broke out in hives all over my body.


    Same happens with the chemical sunscreens (the ones that end in “enzone”) due to years of using moisturizers and cosmetics with built in sunscreens.

    So now, I just deal with the paleness, wear the zinc oxide and relish the fact that I am nearly 40, and last summer got carded at a liquor store. 🙂

  12. Kelly Marie Evans

    I only used tanning beds in the 80s when they were all the rage and I was lucky enough to be working at a health club and got that benefit for free. Nothing weird happened; there were loud timers on the beds to wake oneself up after the tanning time was over for the person.
    But I always worried that I was going to burn myself one day so I stopped after a few months and accepted my naturally pale skin. I always slather on sunblock before going into the sun, now, particularly on my face and tattoos so the colors in ’em won’t fade and so my skin will wrinkle less and later. After all, I am a California gal and cannot stay outta the sun!

  13. Norma Pennycuff

    Perfect timing! Maybe because I’m in the same weather systems as you?

    We went to “the dells” (Wisconsin Dells) the week after memorial day. Even with sunscreen I insta-tanned on my shoulders, arms, neck and somehow through my sunscreen on my face. Suddenly my blue legs look wayyy more blue.

    I actually asked a (golden, beautiful, early 20’s) friend who is working part time at a tanning salon if I could sit in a tanning bed with just my legs in it. She said they’ve never had that request, but maybe I could lay in it wearing sunscreen on places I don’t want tanned? So that’s a no. I mean I know they’re skin cancer machines… I’d just come to the conclusion that skin cancer on my legs wasn’t going to be so bad when I’m 70 and wearing my polyester muumuu’s and turbans.

    When Prescriptives was still in shopping malls I had my skin tone matched and was told I’m a “red-blue” which means in winter my skin is actually blue. And I have dark dark body hair. After shaving my legs you can still the the black hairs hiding in the follicle waiting for it’s moment in the spot light. So I never look hairless. Tanning really helps with that. But every self tanner I’ve tried is aimed at making you golden. And you know what happens when you put golden colored stuff on top of red blue skin. You either get orange or green. Yay.

    For now I’ve decided I have to wait, but come some sunlight I’m going to sit at the lakes with my 8″ brim hat and sunglass to protect my face/shoulders/neck with my legs in the sun and soak up what I can. To keep from sounding vain I’m going to call it “taking my vitamin D supplement”.

  14. Cynthia

    I’ve used self-tanners once or twice, but much like intensive makeup routines, I’m just too lazy to keep it up. I am just embracing whatever my skin does in whatever sun it gets.

    Here’s my dirty little sun secret: I don’t use sunscreen unless I’m going to be spending a day at the beach (or otherwise outdoors). Sunscreen-containing makeup makes me break out, and some recent studies have even suggested that sunscreens themselves can facilitate the development of cancer unless you get micronized zinc or a few really expensive types. I work in an office. I am mostly indoors during daytime. When it’s warm enough, I actually make a point to walk outdoors with as much skin exposed as possible, staying in the peak sun for just about 20 minutes daily. Pale northern types (and really anyone outside the tropics) do not get enough Vitamin D, and it’s much more efficient and natural to get out in the sun and make your own than to take a pill.

    Nutrient status can also really change your skin and its response to sun. A couple of years ago I started having some mysterious health problems and one of the manifestations was during winter, I’d take outfit photos and I’d look not just pale, but that strange almost supernatural pale with a hint of grey (think Jack White at his most unhealthy-looking). TL/DR but I have done a lot of self-experimentation and diet changing over the last couple of years and I have noticed that I have a much better color all over even in winter and that I have a better tolerance for sun under my new dietary regime i.e. I do not burn as easily. I choose to work on my pallor from inside out, I’d say, and also to embrace what I cannot change. It’s truly not going to kill anyone to see my pale legs and it’s not my job to change my skin for anyone else’s viewing pleasure.

    • Jennifer

      I’ve had a swimming pool growing up, and I always had a nice peachy tan by the end of summer. One thing I noticed is that my legs would take a lot longer than my shoulders/arms/chest to darken, so yeah, I’ve used self-tanners to even out the look. I don’t see how everyone can be all against self-tanning when these same people wear make-up, nail polish, get their hair regularly blown out, etc. We do a lot of things to change our appearance and make ourselves feel better or appear more normal (and I use normal as being seen as everyone else).

      On another note, one of the first things my counselor asked when I went in for depression/anxiety stuff was how often I was outside during the day. She said she saw a lot of professionals who weren’t getting enough vitamin D. As a preschool teacher, I was outside one to two hours a day, which she praised, and encouraged me to get outside on the weekends as well. I do always wear sunscreen, although it’s the lower SPF found in my make-up if I’m not going to be outside for long. I’d never use tanning beds (I’ve seen cancer up close and it’s not pretty), but I do see some benefit for limited sun exposure or even self-tanner, if it makes you feel better about yourself.

  15. T,

    Another pale girl here. I tried the self-tanner a few years ago, because my mom, who is a sun worshiper and turns very dark brown when she tans, is always telling me that I “need some color.” I get tired of hearing this from her, so a few years ago when she was coming to visit, I applied self-tanner to my legs daily for 3 weeks. I thought my legs looked pretty good. The color was smooth and even. Then my mom got here, and the first words out of her mouth were “your legs need some color.” OY. That was the end of the self-tanner.

    My mom rags on me every time I apply sunscreen, wear a hat, put on SPF clothing…and I’m in my 40s. I have learned to ignore her.

  16. queenrandom

    I’m Pillsbury Doughboy white. I, too, have discovered it’s the legs that really get ya, and I don’t really tan there as well as I do elsewhere (not that I try, because it’s so bad for your skin, but I do get some color from outdoor activities). I do use self-tanner on my legs, I use the Clinique stuff. It’s worked marvelously for me, although to get to a somewhat normal color range, I have to use about 3 coats (applied over the course of 3 days).

  17. A.B.

    I have used self-tanner and even *gasp* used tanning beds. But ironically not at all since I moved to Florida. My legs are still in trousers and don’t see the sun, but for some reason down here I just don’t care if they’re pale. My face and arms are paler, though, because I slather on a high SPF sunscreen whenever I walk out the door. I may be the palest person in South Florida, but I don’t care.

  18. Amy M

    A friend of mine had the best comeback when someone hassled her for having super white skin. The dig came from a guy in our European History class. I don’t remember what he said, but her response was, “Tans are for peasants!” as if she was a lady of priviledge who powdered her skin to to show that SHE certainly was not someone who had to work in the fields.

  19. shebolt

    I’m another pale one, and I have used self-tanners sporadically. Luckily, I didn’t have any negative results other than a little streaking when I first tried the straight-up tanners. Now I just use the moisturizers with a hint of tanner, and I only use them on my legs a few times in spring, just before I first go bare-legged. All they do is tone down my white glow, enough so that people no comment on my pale legs.

    I worry about the chemicals in the self-tanners as much as I worry about skin damage from too much sun exposure, so I’ll never use them for more than about a week out of each year.

    I’m going to the Caribbean in a few weeks, and my concern is my belly more than my legs. My mid section hasn’t seen the light of day since I was child, and is almost jellyfish translucent. It actually makes my legs look tan. I’ve decided to skip the bikinis and go with tankinis, rather than risk a really horrible sunburn on my torso.

  20. Sara

    Maybe I’m a bit extreme, but in my mind fake tan is in the same category with wrinkle cream and hair color advertised to hide the greys: a product that helps with a problem its marketing has created. In other words, it is a product that claims to make me look better, but actually makes me feel worse about my natural self. And I don’t want to feel bad about things that are perfectly normal and truly part of me. So I avoid such products diligently and use instead moisturizer, interesting hair accessories and clothes that make me feel pretty in my natural skin tone. I try to make the best of what I have, and though culture certainly tries its best to make me feel ashamed of my body, I think I have made some progress over the years. I’m rather passionate about this, after all… Besides, trying to change things like skin tone or hair color are always an uphill battle, and usually an expensive battle as well. Learning to make best of what already is there is way gentler on both the person and her wallet.

    I come from a long line of Scandinavian ancestry. Therefore, I have light skin (I prefer not to say “pale” because in my mind the word has negative connotations). I usually notice I’ve spent some time in sun when my eyebrows start to look white instead of invisible. I’ve evolved this way in order to be able to make the most of vitamin D in Northern sunlinght. If that trait was not beneficial, my skin color would be darker. Simple as that. My skin is healthy, it’s all mine and I can choose not to listen silly criticism about it.

    Besides, the western woman’s obsession with tan has its roots deep in classisim. First, upper class women wanted to be as pale as possible in order to separate them from those who had to work outdoors. Tan became a coveted trait when it became associated with women who could afford spending long holidays abroad. On the other hand, skin products that claim to lighten the skin are marketed at women of color. Lesson: if you ask the industry or people who are looking for reasons to judge you, you are never good just the way you are, no matter your color. Now, why would I want to look like someone participating in that nasty little game?

    • Gisele

      Yes, yes yes to you Sara!!!

      I’m almost 40 and starting to have varicose veins in my (bluish-white legs). I saw an ad at the mall recently that conveyed that even if I cover them up, I *still* should feel ugly (until I spend $$$ to fix this terrible problem). WTF??

      I’m gonna wear shorts, and while I’m at it some open-toed sandals that show my weird-ass toes, and the sun is gonna feel GOOD on all this skin (slathered with SPF, natch), and I’m gonna feel just fine about myself, thanks.

      To my sisters (and brothers) with blotches and spots and streaks and pasty whiteness and inky blackness and everything in between, I say: screw the beauty industry! Do what makes you feel good, and don’t let them make you feel bad!

    • Julie

      Just what I was thinking, but not as clearly articulated!
      Thank you for writing this.

  21. Anna

    May I make a modest suggestion without being laughed off the site? With some garments (not all, of course) sheer hose provide just the right amount of coverage and color. (OK, I’ll sign off now, and wait for the giggles and raucous chortles to erupt.)

    • Miss__T

      Hey, I’m with you 100% I have NEVER given up my nylons. In the perfect shade, they are AWESOME for adding that smooth, flawless look to one’s legs. I think we’ve seen how polished Kate Middleton is, and she wears nude hosiery all the time.

      • A.B.

        Tan legs and bacterial vaginosis.

        Is that just me that this happens to? Lady parts are not happy in nylons.

      • kayBug

        One can also purchase hosiery with interesting textures, like fishnet and variants of lace or Swiss dot, in nude or near-nude shades. I just got a pair and found it good to wear to balance myself out and be a bit more polished, but not heavy like winter hosiery. Good with nude pumps that are so in style, too.

    • Annabeth

      Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the world that could make me wear nylons in the middle of the New Orleans summer. So hot and sticky.

      • LinB

        I “ditto” that, Annabeth, for central North Carolina. Nylons may be a girl’s best friend, but only in December.

    • Jenny R

      Nothing at all wrong with that! I wear them until it’s unbearably hot – and it looks like this year I’ll be wearing them all summer! (Another Minnesotan here.) I too have super blue-white legs and I’ll only go bare when it’s over 85 degrees or a weekend. I *almost* don’t care how pale I am anymore…getting there slowly. I had a pre-cancerous mole on the back of my calf, so I’m trying to be more careful with all-over sun exposure and other weird chemicals I put on my bod.

  22. PJ

    Only a week in Hawaii wakes up my melanocytes enough to tan my legs. I make sure to get a small amount of sun every day in the summer, but don’t tan easily. I have heard anecdotally that increasing the protein in your diet can slightly increase your tanning ability, but am not sure if that’s the case. Otherwise, I exfoliate, moisturize and just go out with pale legs. It’s my real color. I realize I’ve never been bothered by other people’s pale legs, so am pretty sure they aren’t concerned about mine.

  23. linB

    It was Robert Graves’ opinion, in his novel I, Claudius, that the first fad for tans among the gentry started when Roman Emperor Claudius’ wife Agrippina returned from a period of exile and forced labor with a deep tan.
    Until the Industrial Age forced manual labor inside, and a deathly pallor marked the working class (at work before dawn, not home until dusk, exposure to deadly chemicals) tanned skin had always been the mark of working class persons, who had to labor in the sun — and who, therefore, had dark tans. Upper class persons did not have to do manual labor, and guarded their lighter complexions zealously.
    The rise of a leisured middle class, in the late 19th century, led to moneyed persons sporting a “healthy glow” attained on their many vacations to sunny lands during the winter, and their vigorous practice of sports: tennis, skiing, yachting, biking, etc. The skin-color envy scale flipped. Now it was fashionable to be brown, not pale. Only the rich could afford the time it took to attain and maintain a year-long tan.

    My own experiments with self-tanning lotion led to the same results as all the rest of you dear commenters: softer skin, but nasty streaks of what looks like dirt stains down both shins, and puddled around my ankles. And, since the brown is a dye that is absorbed below the surface, it won’t wash off. Sigh. I might as well still be 8 years old, with a farmer’s daughter’s dirt-ingrained feet.

  24. Linda L

    For the past several years, I always used a self tanner on my legs the first couple weeks of spring, when it’s warm enough to go without tights. Then after a couple of weeks, I’m over it and say “so I’m white – deal with it”. This year I just skipped it altogether. I’ve been mostly satisfied with the results of the products I’ve tried, but like someone else mentioned, it’s just one more thing I have to keep up with and really why? I always cringe when I hear people say, “my legs are too pale” or “I need a tan”. All skin tones are beautiful.

  25. Miss__T

    I love my pale skin. If I were meant to have darker skin, well, I figure I’d have darker skin. Everything looks “off” on me with a fake tan: hair color, eye color, even the natural color of my lips. All makeup colors need to be changed, colors of clothing need to be rethought. If you have pink undertones in your skin, then a tan looks misplaced. I think self tanners (for people who don’t tan naturally) are one of the strangest beauty products ever. If you are already tan, sure, enhance your tan, nothing wrong with that. But go from peaches and cream to olive or bronze? Eh.

    I think the oddness of this is more apparent when we see the little girls who get spray tans for their baby beauty pageants. Even though yes, there are little girls who naturally tan, a spray tan on a blond, blue-eyed 6-year-old looks bizarre, right? I don’t think it’s any less odd looking on an adult who doesn’t naturally tan (anyone remember George Hamilton being ridiculed for his exuberant tanning????).

  26. Marsha

    To all my pale-legged sisters of the skin–flaunt your fluorescence! Let us present our limbs in all their milky beauty. If enough cool and confident women allow their natural skin tone to be seen, others will be persuaded that to be white is not to be a fright. Remember, you are cultural warrior princess!

  27. Kristin

    I cannot stand it when people joke about the paleness of someone’s skin. Surely you wouldn’t joke about someone with very dark skin being too dark.

    • Gisele

      I got pestered (in a friendly way) by an African-American man in New Orleans who called me out for excessive whiteness. I thought that was pretty funny, and historically more than fair.

  28. Melissa

    I have some nice tan strips on my forearms from high school but other than that nothing. Even after a month of tanning three times a week there was no difference.

    For the self tanner I’ve found that if I mixed it with plain lotion I get the tan without the terrible splotches and orange knees, it just takes a bit longer. It also seems to cut the smell if they have one.

  29. Katy

    I am yet another pale girl. My arms and face have much more color than my legs, and although nobody has ever mentioned it to me and I feel No pressure from the beauty world to do anything, this winter it started to bother me. My arms keep a little color year round, so even I winter there is quite a difference between my legs and arms. I’ve recently lost the extra 30 pounds I put on in college, and started working out. I feel and look better then I have in years. I feel more confident to wear different styles and even a bathing suit! So this winter I decided to do something about my pale pale legs. I got some of the Jergens lotion and used it faithfully for about 5 days, and after that only once a week when I shaved. That was enough to get my legs into the same range as my arms, and kept away winter dryness too! Now that summer is here-ish, I don’t know if I’ll continue with it, I think I’ll wait and see if my legs keep color naturally. This is the only time I’ve ever even thought about self tanning, I’m normally against these type of things. But it’s funny how something as simple as having a more even skin color boots my confidence and tool away one more body hang up…
    For what it’s worth, only using the lotion initially to get the color up and then just touching that up after shaving exfoliated my legs a bit seemed to work just fine on my sensitive skin. The only area that’s colored any differently is the tops of my feet, but I’m not sure if its from the lotion or from wearing skinny jeans and flats outdoors a lot and getting an actual tan on that exposed bit of foot…

  30. Tragic Sandwich

    I’ve tried the self-tanner/moisturizers–usually when I have strap lines from a bathing suit–and I just don’t see the point. This is the shade I am, and that’s just fine. And sometimes I’m going to have tan lines. Even though I don’t look tan.

    Years ago, I was on a trip to Australia with some friends, and we took a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. The company we used had a platform anchored as a base for activities, and it featured tables–but not enough for everyone, so we shared ours with an English woman who took one look at me and said, “You’re VERY pale.”

    That’s how pale I am. The English think I’m pale.

    Oh, well.

  31. Lori

    Ugh I definitely get those streaks with gradual self tanners too!

    I also have pale skin, but I live in a hot climate and I tan easily. I like my paleness but I struggle to keep it that way. The only sunscreen that I have used that keeps me from tanning is Neutrogena. Maybe it will work for you too? <3


  32. Anna

    I use the layering self-tanner lotion pictured at the top of the post and really like it. I live in a very hot and humid climate and have bare legs on most days. Also I have noticed that I wear less make-up when I am tanner (I also have the face lotion). I’m not sure if it is because the tan smooths out my complexion, or because I look ‘summery’ and who wants too much make-up on a summer holiday?!

    So in that sense, wearing tanner is only a trade-off for make-up. If I’m ok with one, I can be ok with the other. Of course, this is no way means that I think other people should do it that way. I’m doing what is comfortable and fun for me – and it seems like everyone else (in the above comments) is doing that same!

  33. Suze in CO

    Sal, I’d love to see you address the whole “farmer tan” issue. I’m outside in the Colorado sun 40 hours a week, and while I slather on the sunscreen multiple times a day, my farmer tan is inevitable. I personally wouldn’t care if was allover pale or allover tan, but what the heck am I supposed to do during warm weather when my sleeveless tops and sandals show off my tan legs and glowing white feet and the line across my biceps where the sleeve of my work shirt ends? I’ve tried the self-tanners and run into the same problems with them that everyone else has – splotches, streaks, and weird spotting. Not to mention that they turn me orange. I’m generally accepting of what I look like, but the farmer tan is just embarrassing and I spend the summers feeling pretty ugly.

    (And don’t get me started on the whole social/economic distinction thing that someone else mentioned above. To a whole lot of folks, farmer tan = minimum wage blue collar. Never mind the two college degrees I have in my field. But that’s a rant for another day.)

    • Sally

      Oh Suze, gah, I feel your pain. “Farmer’s tans” are so weirdly reviled, and definitely something that people feel totally free to comment upon without thinking about how hurtful their words might be. And, indeed, there is a DEFINITE socio-economic bent to this particular prejudice.

      I’m curious if you’re interested in a post on ways to dress around a “farmer’s tan,” ways to respond to folks who comment, ways to feel comfortable with it, or all of the above. Let me know if you have a chance.

      • Laurel

        I’d love to see a post covering all of the above! Also, opening the comments section for suggestions of good sunscreen would be great.

        My own (not great) solution to this issue is to wear longsleeves made in lightweight material when I know I’ll be in the sun for an extended period of time.

  34. Annabeth

    Very, very pale here — and other than a couple of experiments with self-tanners when they were new and I was, well, newer, I’ve really never even bothered to fight it. I’m SO pale that there’s just no point. Tanning doesn’t work. I wish I had a little more skin color, less because tans are supposedly fashionable and more because I’m borderline transparent. It would be nice not to be able to see my blood vessels through my skin, right? (Though I must say it makes blood draws a snap.)

    It annoys me how every single bit of beauty advice right now says to treat my pale skin as a thing to be remedied instead of helping me work with it. I refuse to go “one shade darker” with my foundation — it just looks like a mask. I’ve learned that, at this shade of pale, I’m better off not trying to conceal it; instead, I work towards contrast. I keep my eyebrows fairly thick and angled, and wear bold black glasses frames. My clothes are usually in very strong colors, and I include a lot of black. Better to play with it than to fight it.

  35. Sunni

    Being red haired, I have come to terms with my pale, fair skin. I’ve tried the self tanners and I’ve even tried going out in the sun everyday for only 15 minutes just to tan those legs, but honestly, its not worth it. The fact that skin cancer runs in my family – especially for those who are fair skinned/red headed – and yes, I’m totally with you on the “are those tanning lotions really good for the body” thing, I’ve truly come to grips with the fact that I will never be tan. Additionally, a few years ago, I went to a concert where a really beautiful woman sung in a group of men. She was as pale and fair as could be and she positively illuminated the entire auditorium – she was marvelously beautiful and her skin tone and color seemed to radiate the beauty. After that, I decided that being pale and fair doesn’t mean that you aren’t just as gorgeous as those with a “healthy glow,” it just means that you’re beauty isn’t flaunted all over the magazines as being the only kind of beauty. We’re all beautiful in our own way and really, that’s absolutely wonderful. I find fair skin to be just as beautiful as tanned skin and many times much more so as those with tans tend to outlive the beauty of their own skin and those who kept away from the sun still have beautiful beautiful skin well into their later years.

  36. Amy

    Another pale girl here… I live in Northern California where it seems like everyone is tan. I refused to wear shorts or skirts until I was about 35. It seemed that every time I tried I had strangers commenting on my pale legs with any assortment of rude things to say. Then I found the Natural Glow and enjoyed a little success and was pleased. Then I became allergic to it. Oh! The itching! Thought I would die from scratching. I had giant bruises all over my legs from scratching. It was awful. I am now the proud user of Sally Hansen Airbrushed Legs which is the perfect product for me. Subtle color but more importantly seems to even my skin tone out. I love it and wish I had found it earlier. And it’s quite water resistant. I love it!

  37. Lainey

    Growing up in the 80s, I was endlessly mocked for my pale skin. My standard response to, “Do you ever go out in the sun?” was. “Sunlight is very bad for vampires.”

    In college I had the opportunity to take a trip to Hawaii and completely panicked. I was afraid that my easily burned skin would keep me from all the frolicking fun to be had so I decided to try to get a “base tan” so I wouldn’t have to spend the entire week in the shade. Despite the disaster of my first trip to the tanning bed leaving me burned (lowest setting, shortest time!), I did manage to get a lovely kiss of gold to my skin.

    And even with that people commented on my pale skin! So I gave up.

    I’ve tried self tanners and lotions a few times just out of curiosity, but just like the one “real” tan I got, it was all way too much work for results no one but me would notice.

  38. GingerR

    I think the Jergens pictured is an improvement over last year’s version – the smell is much improved.
    It’s probably easier for me because I apply after shaving my legs. I think that improves the unevenness due to hair. The lotion alone makes my legs a little itchy so I mix it with moisturizer. I look 1000% times better with some color on my legs and come swimsuit season the fake-tan on my legs will make me confident enough to leave my beach house in my suit and spent time walking, in my suit along the shore.

    It’s not like it’s a permanent tattoo!

  39. Sue

    I’m not fair at all, with a very olive complexion. However, I should own stock in UVA/UVB technology. Every day my moisturizer is 15 or 30, depending on where I will be during the day.

    But, Sally, I too deal with paler but comparison legs. And I too am trying a tanning lotion for my legs. I read about the Jergens product line, and they got decent reviews. It is only the first week. Tomorrow is picture day, and we will have the first level of comparisons. I think my legs have a more even tone, and they definitely feel smoother.

  40. kayBug

    Even those of us with darker skin still have lighter legs! I am medium olive (on the darker side of my Caucasian/Asian mixed heritage) and I recently took a snapshot of myself and discovered that the underside of my arms and my legs were so much paler than my face as to make my face look orange. Orange. So not hot, I tell you.

    I’ve only used self-tanner once with disastrous results, and to try to match my face would make me into an Oompa-Loompa. So, tough luck, marketers, and those that would comment on the difference. There are plenty of people, including me, that like my skin very well just the way it is….

  41. Natalie

    In high school, I was on the cross country and long distance track teams and trained every day, usually in the afternoon. In full Florida sunshine. I usually ran without a t-shirt, in just a sports bra and shorts (Florida is hot). The result after 4 years of this was a very strong sports bra tan line on my shoulders and especially my back – a giant white X across a back and shoulders of golden tan. I was proud of this tan line – it represented the many miles of effort I put into training. But my mother hated it.

    My senior year prom dress was halter-style and bare-backed, displaying the giant white X to the whole world. My mother insisted I use self-tanner to even it out. She applied it on me a week or two before prom, just on the white X. It wasn’t a disaster, but it didn’t fully even out the tan line, and I knew it was fake. I spent much energy worrying that someone would notice that I used self tanning lotion, that the tan was blotchy and fake-looking. Had I just gone to prom with a giant white X across my back, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. I haven’t used self-tanning lotion since.

    I’m ok with some parts of me being white while others are tan. The uneven tan tells a story about who I am and what I do, if you know how to read the tan lines.

  42. e

    My skin basically matches white or ivory colored clothing or shoes, and in the past I have been through every bad experience in trying to get some “color” to my skin. I don’t know what has happened over time, but I’ve started to feel very bizarro about this entire thing. In what other way is it as acceptable for people to be given rudeness and grief as light white people are for their skin color? What other group of people en masse seems to have so personally accepted and swallowed this and devoted themselves to every method of altering the look of their natural skin pigment? It’s funny for the whitest girls to make all the typical self deprecating comments about their skin color, but for people on the other end of human skin color we do know exactly what we are dealing with, and that it is not at all funny.

    I do love beauty and having fun with appearance. I know we each have different places we draw the line in what we consider are fundamental physical traits that deserve acceptance and affirmation, for deep and worthy reasons, rather than to be fought with as we spend our lives altering them into something else.

    • e

      I wanted to add my thought that racism of white people against others has always had many other issues of culture, behavior, nationalities, etc brought into it. Today’s deal against light white skinned people seems to be very purely against the appearance of light skin itself.

      • Kristen

        My thoughts are that the issues against light skin ARE cultural/behavioral issues. It’s very closely related to judgement against anyone not the right body size. There was some sort of shift from the elitist, rich ideal of being pale and heavy because that meant you didn’t have to work outside (see the “peasants tan” comment above, for example) to a cultural ideal of having free time to be outside, be active, get thin and tan and “healthy” by participating in leisure activities rather than being stuck inside a factory or office doing work – and then pushing those ideals to extremes. I wouldn’t want to say that pale skinned people (myself included) are discriminated against or that not wanting pale skin is just like being racist, but I think there are more ideas floating around behind there.

        • e

          Thank you for sharing that! I think you are absolutely right.

  43. bubu

    Thank you! I was eyeing the JErgens at CVS today for just that reason. Will save my money and my sanity, and possibly my health. Pale it is.

  44. Hoosiermama

    I think you’re inflating this into an unnecessary guilt trip. For the record, I have used those moisturizer/tanners for at least 2 years now, and I think they’re great. I, too, am a Very Pale Girl and I have long been self-conscious about my fish-belly-white legs, exacerbated with spider veins.The contrast between the two really makes the spider veins show up. The colored lotion darkens my legs just enough to look normal (not tan) and that has been a real confidence-booster for me in the bare-legged summer.

    But “shame” and “hypocrisy”? You say you never considered why you were buying/using this product–yes you did. You were looking for a way to fix the white leg problem. (Do you put every beauty product you buy through a Purity of Motive Analysis?) The fact that this product didn’t work out for you doesn’t mean your motives were hypocritical. Some products just don’t work for some people–no big deal, no drama. Obviously, they do work for a lot of people, or they wouldn’t still be on the market.

    • Sally

      Well, as weird as it feels to defend my own hypocrisy, here’s the thing: I have written several times about how important it is to me to resist the pressure to be or look tan. And I encourage readers of this blog to be as mindful as possible of their image-related decisions, especially when they align with beauty standards that are driven by social, sexual, and gendered forces. Because of those two things, I felt that buying this product when a few people in my life had teased me about my pale legs was a hypocritical move. For me and me only.

      As I mentioned in this post, I am not declaring these products as bad or harmful. Hope you caught that, because I wanted to make that perfectly clear. I am relating my own experience, and my reflections on that experience as someone whose job it is to write about the links between style and body image.

      Do I put every beauty product I buy through a purity of motive test? Not exactly. But in an effort to walk the talk, I consider my beauty product purchases very carefully. That’s how I’m wired.

  45. Dawn

    I know every one seems to be so scared of the sun, but hold on ladies. The sun is actually good for you!! Vit D is a very important vit and up here in the north we don’t get enough. Get 15 to 20 minutes of sun a day can do wonders for you. Go out and do 10 minutes front and back of your legs get a little color and a lot of vit D. From what I read sunblock and all the lotions and their chemicals are worse then the sun.

  46. Em

    I actually have had decent success with self tanners, but my big problem with them is they are not meant for someone who exercises or sweats at all. As soon as you start sweating, any clothing in direct contact with your skin (sports bra, shin guards, etc) turns brown and the fake tan rubs right off those parts. I remember playing field hockey on a really hot, humid day and it was a disaster. Even just when I get a little sweaty, the collars of my clothes get brown and the stuff rubs off the backs of my knees. So I’ve given up on it and stick to getting dark in the sun (with sunscreen!).

  47. Kristen

    Pale legs here! I’ve tried a few different types of self-tanners and am NOT a fan. I can’t get them to apply evenly, even with exfoliating, being very careful, trying different formulas (lotion, mousse). And I hate that smell. I’m pale, so what? Just imagine what the reaction would be if someone started marketing an opposite type of product (ie something to lighten your overall skin tone) they way they promote self-tanners. Your skin is your skin, try not to damage it and let it just be what it is.

  48. katie

    Oh, this made me smile. I’m so pale I’m translucent, and I turn pink if I even think about going outside. Tan? Really? On a redhead? I’d love to be more freckle-y, but barring that I’ll go with pale, thanks.

    However, for years and years I regularly slathered on the self-tanner. Why? Irish dance. I was a competitive Irish stepdancer growing up (and pretty good at it!), for which the costume involved a huge poofy head of spiral curls and white knee-socks (fashion-glued to the legs, so that they don’t fall down). For maximum visual contrast on stage, you’d dowse your legs in self-tanner the night (or week!) before, so that the white socks against bronzed legs would show off the shape of your leg muscles. Naturally, then, you bronzed up your face as well with your stage makeup — have to be consistent! While not everyone who dances that sport is Irish, many of us are, and while yes, it’s a costume, I always did think it a bit ridiculous. Then again, that whole world of competitive Irish dance is a perfect storm of Olympic-caliber athleticism and beauty pageantry, so “a little bit ridiculous” is pretty much par for the course.

    Because of that, though, I will always see self-tanner as a costume accessory rather than a personal cosmetic. Just like false eyelashes and liquid liner, it’s something I will always associate with the stage and not integrate into even occasional use.

  49. litenarata

    I can tan (never did on purpose but didn’t try to stop it) but maybe 8 years ago I decided to switch to just avoiding tanning altogether and letting my skin stay however white it wants to be. It was partly because I HATED having multiple tan lines in a variety of colors from working outside, and my legs being ten shades whiter than my face or forearms. I also started realizing that sun damaged your skin and tanning just isn’t a good idea.

    I HATE the idea that being pale means there’s something wrong with you, and that it’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Sometimes I still wish I was browner (though not just for this reason) but I’m slowly ditching that silly idea the older I get.

  50. f.

    I too am a pale redhead, and my legs – which are big, fatty and muscular – are always a bit of an issue for me. I simply show them off when the weather gets warm now, even if they are super pale.

    However, I’m feeling some anxiety about weddings that are coming up… my formal dress has a pretty open back, and OF COURSE I’ve already acquired a major tan line from my favorite tank top, which has a scoop back that doesn’t match the cut of my dress at all.

    Now I don’t know whether I should step into a tanning booth for the first time in my life, in the name of looking good at the wedding!

  51. Julie

    I haven’t been following this blog as closely as I once did, and when I saw the headline and the product picture, I thought “oh, no, it’s all become just more advertising for things we don’t need to fix problems we don’t have.”

    As a fellow light-skinned person, I remember well the issue with commenters here criticizing you for being “too white.” Sally, I’m so glad I read all the way through–so glad you’re still embracing yourself as you are, and glad you call attention to how easy it is to slip into the prevailing cultural norms. Keep rocking those white legs! Many of us find them absolutely beautiful, as well as a daily inspiration to let our own white legs shine proudly.

  52. Annabeth

    After reading all the comments, I’d like to throw something out there — as it turns out that the majority of posters have paler legs than arms/face, we should maybe stop talking about white legs being a problem and just accept that legs being paler is in fact entirely normal and ordinary?

  53. Michelle

    Thank you so much for writing this; I’m fish-belly white and have struggled with it, especially in my teens and twenties, feeling so ashamed as my friends tanned easily, getting teased in the summertime was a bummer. I’m 37, and in the past couple of years I have come to appreciate my paleness and actually embrace it, no longer try to hide my legs in the summer by wearing long pants (ugh) It also helped tremendously when I went for an annual exam with a new MD and she looked me over and remarked how ‘lovely’ my complexion was. I could not believe it, and it helped turn the tide for me…..

  54. Lisa

    I have had the same experience as Em mentioned in her comment. Self tanner always gets runny and stains my clothes. I wish I could find something that works for me, but until I do I’m gonna continue to tan the normal way (in the sun). It sounds like I’m not as pale as some of you gals but I still think I need more color.

  55. Holly

    I’m far past caring if my pale skin offends anyone. I had a moment as a teen where I wished I could be tan like my best friend but soon realized that it would never happen for me. Then I saw Nicole Kidman’s beautiful skin and embraced mine even though mine is more freckled.

    I wear sunscreen every day, cover up in the sun most of the time (I have a collection of great hats), and have never felt the slightest urge to tan since the age of 16. It’s my skin and it suits me. I joke that my summer sport is blinding people with the pastiness of my legs but I don’t feel bad at all about their super pale color. Protecting my skin from sun damage is a part of self-care for me and I see a dermatologist once a year to have a mole check. I think my skin looks best when it is protected from the sun and pale, not because pale skin is intrinsically more beautiful than darker skin, but because that is my skin’s natural and healthy state.

  56. Kyra

    I’ve got pale, translucent skin (hello, blue blood vessels squiggling down my legs!), and my summer tanning program tends to be that I go out some sunny summer day in a tank top and with my hair done up, stay out in the sun all day doing something, and both completely forget sunscreen and (habitually) don’t notice anything until I’m pretty solidly burned, complete with tan lines for my tank top straps and bra straps. The result, after the red fades, is a decent summer tan that works just fine as long as I don’t wear something with thinner (or no) straps.

    Thing is, I am coming off of several years with an aversion to shorts and a completely different aversion to skirts, which means that my legs are decades pale. And the things that keep me absentmindedly out in the sun tend to be the sort of work that I wear heavy pants and boots for. The result is me trying out skirts and shorts and being dismayed by the color of my legs.

    I tried self-tanner once about a decade ago, which was about as successful as you might expect for a person who has no idea what “exfoliate” means. It was also stinky and a bit gummy and orange-looking and I never did get the hang of applying it evenly or avoiding those little smudges where I either doubled up or missed a spot. I probably tried three or four types of self-tanner on the faith that THIS ONE would be the one that would work properly (isn’t it appalling how many beauty products get purchased in the hopes that it’ll finally be The One that works perfectly and makes you magically beautiful?) before forgetting them in the bottom of a drawer somewhere.

    Nowadays, I put on a bikini and lie out in my backyard for a half an hour every so often with a nice book so I don’t get bored, which is nice to take the edge off of the whiteness. I’m also planning to experiment with a Pinterest hint that involves brewing up a couple cups of black tea and spraying it on one’s skin (at least it’ll smell better), which may or may not work, just as soon as I can remember to buy tea.

  57. Kalena

    Using tanning lotion isn’t any more “fake” than wearing lipstick/makeup, jewelry, or a stylish haircut. I live in Southern California and I’m sure part of it is ingrained in my psyche because of where I grew up, but honestly I think I look better with a little tan. I FEEL better with it. And as a pale freckled person, I spent countless hours as a teen baking in the sun to achieve beach-babe tan perfection (and now have a big scar on my leg where the skin cancer was removed in my 40s). Please don’t take my self-tanning lotion away or make me feel guilty or frivolous for using it, thanks — I love it and it makes me feel good!

  58. Kalena

    Could I just also implore anyone who has read down this far — DO NOT USE TANNING BEDS! Did you know that using a tanning bed gives you a 74% greater chance of developing skin cancer? Yep, you read that right. Google it. Would you eat something that increased your cancer risk that much? DO NOT USE.

    Someone above joked about being able to hide their skin cancer with mumuus…. not if it moves quickly into your bones, honey buns. DON’T RISK THE BEDS, BABES.