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Confessions of a Spray Tan Virgin

Why I finally decided to try it, and how I endured cleavage water marks, public bralessness, and the stench of rotten cupcakes along the way.

When I was a tween and teen, I spent much of the Chicago spring and summer months with a neck and lower arm farmer's tan, which looked spectacular when I was wearing my softball uniform (the reason I had this particular color pattern), but not so much when I wore summer clothes or a bathing suit. To even things out, I did what so many other girls in the '80s did: Applied baby oil and "laid out" in my yard, hoping to bronze the rest of myself to a crisp. I’m of pasty German and Lithuanian descent, and as you can probably predict, it didn’t go well. Popping sunburn blisters became an entertaining past time every summer. 

Later in high school, I started fancying myself as somewhat goth -- in my mind, if not actually in execution -- and embraced pale role models, which have changed over the years but are all similarly melanin-challenged:  Winona Ryder, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Cate Blanchett. I scoffed that tans were for strippers, Spice Girls and Victoria’s Secret models, and magnanimously  applied my SPF 100+ every time I set foot outside. And forget about spray tans and self tanner. If the Kardashians were doing it, I wanted no part of it. 

As a beauty editor, I’ve had to confront this bronzer bias every spring when I’m inundated with products meant to turn you into varying shades of Jennifer Aniston. “Why can’t we all just accept ourselves?” I’d say, while absentmindedly applying massive amounts of anti-aging skin care products to my face and thinking about how I could possibly get my hair to be any blonder. 

I gave self-tanning products to my many willing co-workers to test (thanks, Nora!) and focused on the sunscreen for myself. But this season, after years of resistance, I decided that I couldn’t possibly be a well-rounded beauty product expert without having experienced a faux glow at least once. After all, I’ve had pink hair, tried every hair-removal product known to womankind, and rolled tiny needles in my face, all in the name of enlightening the beauty-consuming public. 

Which is how I, while topless and wearing nothing but a paper g-string (another professional first), came to be interviewing Goop-recommended spray tan guru, Anna Stankiewicz

Stankiewicz, the co-founder and co-creator of the Suvara spray tan formula,  used to do spray tans at Rita Hazan’s salon, and now works at the Louise O’Connor Salon in New York City. While she’s never actually spray-tanned Gwynnie herself, I figured a Goop recommendation was the next best thing, and entrusted my ghostly, blotchy self to her experienced hands. 

A week before the big day, she sent an email telling me how to prep: “Exfoliate with an oil-free exfoliator, since oil leaves a residue on skin and prohibits the tan from developing evenly. Don't put on any perfume or body lotion the day of the tan. Dress comfy—but no jeans—and its best to not put a bra on after the tan.” That morning in the shower, I squirted some old-school St. Ives  apricot scrub onto my new favorite exfoliating tool, my konjac sponge, and scrubbed myself like I was trying to clean the floor of a gas station bathroom. By the end, I’m pretty sure there was not a spare dead skin cell left anywhere on my body. I also took the “no bra” rule to heart. The first thing I do when I get home is rip my bra off anyway, so I didn’t even bother wearing one to the appointment. (I highly recommend a braless day running errands in New York City. Just cover up appropriately on the subway to avoid unwanted attention.) 

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Once I got to the salon, Stankiewicz offered me a choice of the full monty or a more modest paper g-string cover-up. I chose the latter, mostly because I wanted the swanky tan lines, but also because my ladyscaping was still in winter mode, i.e. not fit to be seen by human eyes. She had me put plain Cetaphil lotion on my hands up to my wrists “to prevent Cheez Doodle hands,” and also on my kneecaps and on my elbows. Then she led me over to a screen flanked by two industrial strength fans. 

She didn’t waste any time getting right to business. “I’m going to spray under your tushie first. Take a bow forward as if you’re on stage,” Stankiewicz told me, while turning me around. “This is so you don’t have those tan lines under that area—the new term is ‘happy, smiley face.’” I certainly don’t need a smiley face calling attention to my ass, so I obediently bent over and presented my bare, string-covered bottom to a complete stranger. 

After the initial butt spraying, Stankiewicz placed me in various acrobatic positions to spray every inch of my body. Then she took out a small foam brush and said, “I’m going to detail you now,” and proceeded to brush my wrists and ankles to prevent lines. “This is what makes me different from other places, the detailing work I do on you.” Sort of like a vintage Mustang at a car show. 

As I stood drying in front of the fans, I snuck a peek of myself in the mirror on the door. Stankiewicz had warned me that the color can look a little “funky” on the first day, but friends, all I saw was a tan, oiled-up goddess whose cellulite, stretch marks, and tattoo-removal scars were all greatly minimized. Was that Gisele looking back at me?

Stankiewicz had warned me to minimize hot showers and to avoid taking any shower at all for the first day. That evening, while changing into my pajamas in front of my bathroom sink, I caught a glimpse of my tan, topless chest, and left my shirt off to admire it. Then without really thinking about the consequences, I started brushing my teeth and accidentally dripped some water right onto the spot where cleavage should be (I talk a big game about going braless, but the truth is, I don’t really need one). A huge drippy, water mark formed across my newly gilded sternum. 

At that point I wasn’t really worried about the water mark, because I was distracted by how bad I was starting to smell. The scent of DHA, the active ingredient in tanning solutions, is well documented; I’d liken it to decaying cookies. That night I dreamt of rotten cupcakes and slept fitfully. After showering the next morning, both my stench and the cleavage water drip disappeared. I was left with a natural, not-orange, flattering glow which made me look 10 pounds leaner naked. 

I hereby officially apologize to Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan for all the snarky things I've said about their fake tans over the years, because I am not setting foot out of the house in shorts this summer without a bottle tan.