Aspen Untucked: Pale People Can Vacation, Too

Barbara Platts

In my nearly 27 years of life, I’ve been very fortunate to travel a great deal. I studied abroad in Europe for a semester of college and did a language immersion class in Mexico in high school. My grandparents and parents also value traveling and have taken me on trips to parts of Africa and South America.

But, no matter the province, country or continent I visit, there always exists one harsh truth about myself that I cannot alter: my pale skin complexion. Yes, it’s true. My exterior layer is as white as the fur of a polar bear, and I’m certain it’s destined to always be that way.

This fact became blatantly clear to me last week, when I went with some of my family and my boyfriend to Elbow Cay in the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. This 8-mile-long cay is home to roughly 300 locals — and about the same number in tourists at any given time — making it an incredibly intimate vacation destination. With the small population pool on the island, it quickly became clear that I was the palest person there. However, the competition was a close one. My boyfriend came in at second place for this superlative.

Since the possibility of procuring a suntan was damn near impossible, we tried our best to avoid a sunburn over the weeklong trip. Day in and day out we drowned our skin with SPF 75 and looked for random bits of shade to hide underneath at every opportunity. It soon became clear that, when it comes to island time, we had little to no social currency. Our separate lineages — both involving some kind of western European amalgamation — gave us skin that does not bode well under a surplus of Vitamin D. Our pallor made us stick out like sore thumbs, with people asking questions like, “Where did the pale ones go?” and making comments like, “Wow, you sure are white!” And it certainly didn’t help that our travel buddies were forming beautiful caramelized tans, making us feel more handicapped as the days went by.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t loathe my skin tone. Since a young age, people have commented on its illuminating ivory beauty, telling me over and over how I will be thankful for it when I’m older. With my dark hair and hazel eyes, pale skin works well for me. It only feels out of place when I travel and realize just how colorless my skin is compared with everyone else. And, much to my own dismay, this just isn’t a trendy look anymore. The person I blame whole-heartedly for this is the French fashion designer Coco Chanel. The tanned look is said to have become popular after she accidentally got a sunburn while on vacation in the French Riviera in the 1920s. She returned home and people were shocked by her sun-kissed look. Photos of her tanned skin traveled far and wide. Today, people still credit her with inventing sunbathing. The fad only continued to grow from there. People did everything they could to get that bronzed look, from female movie stars in Hollywood to self-proclaimed guidos on the New Jersey shore. Tanning beds became all the rage, until scientists started showing how they were linked to skin cancer. Today, tanning beds are less popular than they once were, however nearly 10 million Americans still use them, according to studies in the journal JAMA Dermatology. Those who don’t are finding alternative ways to brown their skin, from spray on tans to laying out and catching some rays. None of these methods have ever worked for me. Even tinted lotions or spray on tans make me look extremely out of place. One can spray paint a polar bear brown, but at the end of the day, everyone still knows it’s meant to be snow white.

Despite the skin tone woes, our week on Elbow Cay was a blast. We all enjoyed our stay and the relaxing time away from civilization. My boyfriend and I considered our time in the sun a success because we didn’t get sunburns. We returned home with the exact same skin tone we arrived with. I suppose it’s better than ending up as red as a lobster.

Barbara Platts is learning to accept her pale complexion for what it is. However, her next trip may be to England or Ireland where she doesn’t feel so entirely out of place. Reach her at or follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPlatts.