Anyone who knows me personally knows that I am pretty much the palest you can get before you’re an albino. Well, that may be pushing it–my skin is capable of turning various shades of pink. Light pink if I’m outside for more than 5 minutes, rosy pink all over my face if I’ve exercised, lobster red if I spend the entire day outside and my sunscreen somehow fails me… I used to think that if I was just diligent enough, if I just spent enough time “laying out”, with the proper combination of low-SPF sunscreen and tanning oil, I might be able to get what I considered to be a tan. It would never be a tan in anyone else’s eyes, but if I could just get my skin to turn a color somewhere in-between pink and brown, I would have succeeded in my eyes. It never happened, of course, except the one summer I spent approximately 7 hours a day outside at Cactus Pool, teaching swimming lessons in the morning and swimming on the summer swim team in the afternoon. That summer I wore sunscreen every single day, yet somehow managed to make it to August with a distinct racerback “tan” from my Speedo that I was immeasurably proud of.
But that tan faded, and I’ve since come to accept that my skin was made for Swedish winters, not Arizona summers. I wear sunscreen on my face and neck every single day, and try to be very good about wearing a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen any time I know I will be outside for longer than that. I’ve had my hiccups here and there, but I’ve pretty much managed to avoid any serious sunburns since the day I came home from an 8th grade end-of-year field trip to Sunsplash with a magenta criss-cross design on my back. My father used to laugh at me when he called to see how we were doing and my sisters and I told him that we were laying out–“LaPrades don’t lay out. LaPrades don’t get tan.” I always knew that he was right, but it just took me a bit longer to be confident enough in myself to own my pale skin. This might be partially because of the teasing I endured in 7th and 8th grade. No one had ever made me feel self-conscious about my skin until middle school, when the boys dreamed up cruel nicknames for me such as “Casper,” “Powder,” and “Albino.” It shouldn’t have, but it really hurt my feelings at the time. Luckily, I grew out of those feelings of shame with the realization that my skin was never going to change, and if I was careful enough, I would make it to old age with fewer wrinkles than any of the bronzed girls at my high school.
And so, while ever since I got over my complex about my skin and began to pride myself in my skin care knowledge and habits, it wasn’t until I arrived on Okinawa that I realized that even my reformed self can’t hold a candle in terms of sun protection to Japanese women. It’s one of the first things Bryan and I noticed when we started venturing to Japanese markets, stores, and beaches, as opposed to the BX and Commissary on base–Japanese women are EXTREMELY dedicated to sun protection. Most Japanese women wouldn’t consider going out in the sun without clutching to a ruffled parasol of some sort. They hold their parasols sideways, so that their face is completely blocked by the sun as they wander through botanical gardens, outdoor markets, and even at the beach. On top of the parasol, many of them wear fisherman-style hats pulled down low over their ears with large sunglasses to protect their eyes. While the girls on base, the girlfriends and wives of American GIs, astound me with their towering high heels, spandex mini-skirts, and low-cut tops, I’ve noticed that “regular” Okinawan girls are extremely fashionable, yet conservative, dressers. They don’t show a lot of skin, even on days when the blistering heat and humidity combine to turn the island into a sauna, preferring to don floaty babydoll dresses over leggings so that most of their skin is protected from the sun.
The women are not the only ones here that take what most Americans would find to be extraordinary measures in the name of sun protection. Every morning, when we’re on our way back from the gym, we drive by hordes of Okinawan youngsters walking, skipping, and running to school. We always laugh at how cute they are, holding on to their siblings hands as they cross busy highways without a parent in sight. Their backpacks are enormous, sturdy, leather contraptions. And the cutest thing is that almost all children under the age of 10 wear what I have termed “mullet hats”, hats with low-hanging flaps of fabric to cover their necks, and oftentimes sunglasses as well. Okinawans are known for living extremely long lives, and I can’t help but think that the parents’ devotion to protecting even their tiniest children from the harmful rays of the bright Pacific sun play a big role in this.
Another interesting phenomenon are the “ninja” workers–farmers and landscapers who, forced to work outside all day long, have attired themselves so that not one square inch of skin is exposed–long pants, long sleeves, turtlenecks, gloves, traditional straw hats, and veils covering their faces. It’s pretty creepy to see these ninjas at work, usually on the side of the road on Kadena, but it’s even more unsettling to see the ones that don’t appear to be working in the sun, but are just even MORE devoted to sun protection than seems healthy, if that’s possible. They drive around on motorcycles, take walks, drive to the store, all dressed like a ninja.
Many people have heard of the traditionally long life spans that many Okinawans enjoy. People have written books about the Okinawan lifestyle, the Okinawan diet, Okinawan health secrets…I’ve never read any of these books, but it’s quite clear that sun protection plays a huge role in all of this. The effects are clear when you meet Okinawans themselves. Bryan and I like to play a game called “guess how old she is,” because time and time again we’re shocked to meet someone who looks to be in her 20s, with a wrinkle-free, completely unmarred complexion, only to find out that the lucky woman is actually closer to her 40s! I might look a little strange walking around Boston with a parasol on a (rare) sunny day, but, just like I eventually got over my fixation on trying to get a tan, this might just be one habit I will try to bring back to the U.S.