Weird-Ass Tan Lines Are the Surprise Trend of the Summer

Safe socialization means we're spending a lot more time outdoors—and exploring a fun and stripy new aesthetic, courtesy of the sun.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, United States
August 5, 2020, 12:00pm
Weird-Ass Tan Lines Are the Surprise Trend of the Summer
Photo courtesy of Katie Way

All public indoor places are essentially off-limits, thanks to evidence that COVID-19 often spreads in enclosed spaces, forcing anyone who wants to distantly socialize this summer into being an "outside person." But, hey—that’s all right. Because it turns out that nearly everything we do indoors can be done outdoors. In LA, they’re doing haircuts out there. In NYC, people are eating hundred-dollar meals in parking spots. Equinox??? You mean, the freaking public park?

So things are sweatier. So what? Sweating is merely the inside leaving the body, I think. There are bugs. Again, who cares? Tell those guys to “bug” off, via some bug spray! What about the sun? Touché…. The sun is exacting in its mission to fry the F out of everything beneath it. Sunscreen is a suitable defense, but not even SPF 500 million can fully prevent the occasional burn and its inevitable companion: the tan line.

As we increasingly become outside people, we carry the evidence around with us in the form of straps, socks, shorts, and sleeves, painted in slightly paler skin tones all over our bodies. Tan lines are a reality in any summer, but this year, in step with the overall 2020 vibe, they are bolder and zanier than ever, due to the extra outside time.

Last week, my VICE colleague Katie Way sent me a chilling photograph over Slack of her feet, which had the harshest sandal tan lines I’ve seen since my days of high school church camp. “It happened the first time I wore them to a protest during the day,” she said. “I’ve just been letting it advance because I think it’s funny.” [NB: It is very funny, see the image above for proof.]

She’s not the only one. “My back is a series of X's and lines from sports bra tops,” Alix, a 28-year-old New Yorker who preferred not to use her last name, told VICE. Like millions of other people in the United States, Alix was furloughed during the pandemic and has been spending more time outdoors as a result: biking, running, evening out tan lines from all the biking and the running.

“I also have a white rectangle on my lower half because I wear shorts to run or cycle in. My lower leg is so tan and the upper portion is just bright white," Alix said. "I’m trying to even it out with bathing suits, but that’s making it more bizarre.”

Andrew (who also chose to omit his last name), 26, who was also furloughed early on in the pandemic from his restaurant job, has a similar tan situation due to his quarantine bike rides around Washington, D.C.

“I have acquired tan lines,” Andrew said. “That's what I get for stress-biking 30 miles every morning and otherwise only wearing sandals. The foot/bike jersey tan lines are sharp AF. Will they ever go away? Who knows.”

Andrew added that he’s also spending more time outside than normal, picking up—again, like millions of others—a more regular biking habit as it increasingly looked like the safest, most efficient way to get around this summer. “Get out there and burn the tops of my feet every day, just to feel something,” he said.

Tanning itself can be an outdoor activity, rather than a byproduct of one. As grownups, lathering on oil to soak up cancer-causing rays for the sake of looking cool is passé—a bad habit reserved for teens who don’t know yet about mortality or neck wrinkles. A sign of irresponsibility, of forgotten SPF, of death drive.

Similar to the occasional cigarette, “laying out” feels daring and divine. “I don’t drink or smoke much these days; tanning is my main vice,” said Katie, a 29-year-old in Virginia (who also chose to omit her last name). “I'm rocking the high-waist bikini/bandeau tan line, which makes my body look striped. I’m tanning like I haven’t tanned in a decade.”

All of the classic arguments against tanning do not apply this year; there are no events formal enough to merit a lack of lines. Like, God forbid you’re asked to be in a wedding party??? Good bridesmaids don’t show up with bikini straps inverse-graffitied onto their backs. None of that matters anymore. No one sees anyone—except outside—and anyone having an IRL wedding with bridesmaids right now is not really worth having as a friend.

For those who have the luxury of boredom during these times, this is basically a teen summer: sitting around inside, spending no money, texting friends about nothing. Rather than face reality, why not revert? Growing up in Texas, the months between June and August were a race to see who could get the starkest bikini tans before back to school started. If we couldn’t wear bathing suits to flirt in class, the suggestion of bathing suits, previously worn, was close enough.

A memory video I replay over and over: As I laid out by the community swimming pool one day, at maybe 13 years old, my friend looked up at me over her sunglasses and told me, “High maintenance means high quality.” She was tanner than me, and so I believed her!

So many things aren’t allowed. The appeal of getting a little burn on the bridge of the nose is sweeter than ever; a relatively harmless rule to break. For the first time in my adult life, I’m spending afternoons laying around in the grass in bathing suits, trying to even out the competing sports-bra tan lines all over my back. My butt cheeks are zebra-striped from my bikini bottoms, which fall all over the cheeky spectrum. It’s a mood thing. Sometimes I don’t even wear sunscreen at all! Look, it’s called having a base tan, which is a relic from youth that no one ever should have taught me about. I’m irresponsible with this knowledge!

Ultimately, the suspect freckles popping up all over affect only me and no one else. What a luxury that is, health-wise. As long as the predominant tan lines we acquire this summer form a rectangle over our noses and chins, I think it's fine to go ahead and fry.

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