How to Wear Bronzer If You're Pale

Shoot for the moon, and if you miss you'll land among the peach-toned blushes.
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Eliza Brooke
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Shoot for the moon, and if you miss you'll land among the peach-toned blushes.
Photo: Steven Meisel / Dior Beauty

Photo: Steven Meisel / Dior Beauty

Being the pasty girl at a pool party is never fun. I love summer just as much as anyone, but there's something about seeing a photo of myself in a bikini -- blindingly white next to the bronze beauties I call my friends -- that makes me feel as though perhaps I just don't belong in the summer months, period.

So when my editor suggested I test out bronzers for the good of science beauty research, I was game. Game, and a little bit terrified. The last known photograph of me with a tan was taken circa 2002, at my 10th birthday party.

There was once a time when I both owned and used bronzer. I had gotten my Too Faced Sun Bunny Natural Bronzer in a mail-order catalogue using the gift certificate my aunt had given me because nothing else looked appealing. For context, I also wore a lot of sparkly lip gloss and knit hats during this period, and I had braces.

In adulthood, I became a fan of the vampiric/tubercular/tragic gothic heroine look, mostly because my coloring is already 90 percent there. I just blend in some Clinique CC cream to take the redness out of my skin, leave the undereye bags as they were, add some chestnut liner that smudges out at the lower corner and top it off with mascara and a bit of blush to keep from looking too creepy. The whole thing evokes the world-weariness that I imagine most vampire princesses must feel at some point in their long lives.

Sun! Healthy glow! Bronze goddess! This was going to be a big change. Deep breaths.

Before testing anything out, I turned to Nars national makeup stylist Niko Lopez to get the ground rules of bronzing down. Girls with pinker skin tones (like yours truly) should opt for ashier bronzers, he says, while ladies with yellow undertones are better suited to neutrals. Since a light hand is key here, setting your makeup with a loose powder before going in with the bronzer prevents it from sticking to the foundation and getting too heavy.

"The best way to build up bronzer is to start below the cheekbone, closer towards the ear and lightly diffuse it outwards toward the cheek to blur out edges. Then, sweep the brush to hit the high planes of the face (check, forehead, and chin) using a figure-3 sweeping motion. Do the same on the other side and then finish down the nose," Lopez wrote in an email.

Right-o. With this in mind, I hauled myself down to Sephora to see what one of their makeup artists could do with my pasty face.

Our game plan was to do a full face -- with contouring -- starting me with a foundation that matched my skin tone and building up from there. And build we did, friends. Two Makeup Forever foundations, highlighter, a darker concealer to contour the forehead, cheekbones, nose and chin -- all blended really, really, ridiculously well. Then the fun stuff: Makeup Forever Mat Bronze, Laura Mercier Shimmer Bloc in Peach Mosaic, Hourglass Ambient Lighting Blush in Radiant Magenta and Soft Plum and YSL Gloss Volupté in a really pretty coral color.

The primary difference between Gisele Bundchen (left) and me (right) is that she tans more easily.

The primary difference between Gisele Bundchen (left) and me (right) is that she tans more easily.

If that sounds like a lot, it was. This is the "go big or go home (and wash it all off)" version of bronzing for pale ladies. The key here is to blend, blend, bleeeeend, particularly down your neck and at your hairline, lest you look like a survivor of the Dust Bowl. The latter is the trickiest, especially if you also have light hair. The easiest way to avoid that telltale tan line is to readjust your part and swing it downward.

Some people may be able to own it. Me, not so much. Coming home on the subway, with my face newly Kardashified, I felt incredibly self-conscious. These hipsters know, my paranoid brain whispered. They're staring, ALL OF THEM.

According to my roommate, the look wasn't bad per se, but it was pretty clear that I was rocking a look.

In her words: "It's really well applied, but you can tell you're wearing a ton of makeup."

Suspicions confirmed.

Luckily, I had discussed alternative routes with the lovely makeup artist at Sephora, since contouring isn't for everyone. The lowest level of commitment would be to add a bronze-y sheen with the Laura Mercier Shimmer Bloc and something like Nars Body Glow -- ideally over your entire body, that stuff is so good. The Nars you can mix with some setting spray in a little spritz bottle. Nars' Matte Multiple in Altai, a rose gold color, is equally low commitment.

A step up from that might involve a touch of bronzer at the temples and cheekbones (remember that 3-shaped sweep). Peachy lipcolor helps ramp up your overall glow and diffuses the need for more bronzer.

Done lightly enough, I'm convinced bronzer can work. People will probably know you're wearing it. That's okay, if it's okay with you. I may not be giving up my zombie-chic look any time soon, but I would definitely add a little glow with the Laura Mercier. Particularly if there are any pool parties coming up.