Why I no longer covet caramel skin in summertime

When I was 20 I went on my first sun holiday to Nice in the South of France. While sitting on the beach, a gentleman selling snacks and treats knelt down beside me and earnestly asked, “Is there no sun in your country?” My skin was so pale, it had reflective properties.

Despite being there with a bunch of Irish friends, I was the only one blessed (cursed?) with a truly Celtic complexion. There was even a red head among us who managed to develop a warm, soft caramel colour to her skin that I would have gladly exchanged my boyfriend for. To say I looked like a fish out of water is an understatement. I stood out like a stick of pink Irish Rock in a box of Belgian chocolates.

During the day, the other girls looked effortlessly sexy and cool, throwing on simple shorts and T-shirt combos without a second glance in the mirror, while I anxiously lathered myself in thick scoops of sunscreen and agonised over whether there was any way I could make myself look chic not Goth-like in a pair of black leggings in 30-odd degree heat. They looked bronzed and smelled of coconut while I reeked of putrid petroleum (sun creams then weren’t what they are now) and looked paler than the white sundress I’d mistakenly thought was a good idea to buy. I looked like a corpse bride. Summer is supposed to be the time of year when dressing gets easier, but for me back then it was just a series of complications. All my sartorial instincts failed me. In theory, I knew how to dress in summer, I just didn’t know how to dress myself.

Since that first experience as an adult in the sun, dressing for summer has been a challenge and it’s taken me years (about 20, in all honesty) to get to grips with it. Had my skin been a pretty petal shade of white, I think I would have been braver about embracing my own style of summer dressing, but because I was typically blotchy and blue, I felt the only answer was to get a tan – if not naturally, then some other way. I had a single sunbed session in my early twenties, which I found to be an incredibly boring and slightly ridiculous experience (I’ll never get back those seven minutes I spent standing, arms and legs outstretched, in a tiny booth with an eye-mask on), so I never repeated it. Thankfully.

By now, I was living in London, where summers were properly hot (not the cardigan-wearing weather we have here in Ireland... if we’re lucky) and every woman seemed blessed with the covetable colouring of Cindy Crawford. I adored clothes and wanted to try every type of summer “look”, not just maxi dresses, so I took the leap and tried fake tan.

I became a St Tropez devotee, and spent the latter years of my twenties feeling like other women did in summer: healthy-looking and attractive. It was as if because of my pale skin I’d been forced to wear a summer uniform my whole life until that moment, when I was suddenly told I could wear anything at all. The stores literally doubled in size before my eyes as I no longer disregarded entire floors filled with strappy sundresses and white blouson blouses. In fact, I devoured them and developed a summer wardrobe worthy of Sienna Miller (at the time, she was the queen of boho chic). Summer sale rails that were once of no concern to me became my holy grail. I snapped up tank tops and tea dresses, flirty skirts and broderie anglaise blouses. I shoved the cover-all kaftans and maxi dresses to the end of the rail as I’d seen so many other women do over the years. I had no need of them anymore. What a difference a tan makes!

But how we dress changes from one decade to another because our opinion of ourselves and our attitude to the world changes too. In my twenties, I didn’t care that my tan or my persona (sun-kissed blonde) were fake. But in my thirties, I did. I wanted to be authentic, to feel that the woman people saw was the real deal (for better or worse). And to be honest, I didn’t want a man to fall for the sun-kissed Marie, only to reject the waxy one when the tanned facade faded. In my twenties, superficial admiration was enough. In my thirties, I wanted something more.

Surprisingly, binning the fake tan was no big deal, probably because it’s an awful lot easier to look pale and interesting in your mid to late thirties and beyond than it is in your early twenties (although, I know several fabulous millennials who are pulling it off beautifully). I developed a sense of self that you don’t imagine having when you’re a teen. I had something to say now, and experiences to share.

On a purely practical level, the older I’ve gotten, the more low maintenance I’ve become too. Spending an evening every week exfoliating, moisturising and applying fake tan – after which you look and smell like a puddle and stick to chairs – is just too much effort. I’ve since discovered that if I rub a bit of Garnier’s Summer Body moisturising lotion over my body a couple of times a week and dust a puff of Rimmel bronzing powder over my limbs, it gives me enough of a glow to make me feel like a human in summer rather than a ghostly apparition.

What I’ve also learned as I’ve gotten older is that I like to cover up. That’s always been my signature style in winter (layers of polo-necks, chunky knits, midi skirts and wide-leg pants), and I realised that (lightweight) layering is the style I like best in summer too. I guess in my twenties, I wanted “the London look”: short denim skirts, white tank tops and caramel skin. In other words, I wanted to look like everybody else. Now I want palazzo pants and tunics, fine-flowing knits and fluid silhouettes; clothes that reflect my personality rather than hide my insecurities.

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