I was a Seventies baby; the first baby of a man who was keen on photography. And so, there are boxes and boxes of small, square, yellow-tinted pictures of me still at my parents’ house: like an Instagram feed, but with unintentionally bad clothes.
The weather seemed to behave in the Seventies. There’s me, in the snow, poppy-cheeked in wellies and hand-me-down overalls. There’s me, rosy with milk and Spam, peeking through the cover of the raincover on the pram. And there’s me, with shocking white lines over patches of scarlet skin where the sun had fought with my clothes and caught my non-ginger mother unawares.
Back in the Seventies, suncream wasn’t A Thing. Sunburn wasn’t really A Thing either, just a bit of discomfort and humiliation. My mum, dark of hair and eye, would tan without even that; horrified at how easily her fair-skinned firstborn would fry in the daylight, she tried hard to protect me. I went in the pool, or to the beach, in soggy T-shirts long before UV swimwear was available; lumpy and clumsy, while other children swam lithely and gradually goldened around me. I was the first person I ever knew to wear proper suncream: factor 15, back in the days when that was medical-grade hardcore stuff compared to the coconut oil everyone else basked and sizzled in.
We redheads are never kissed by the sun. Kicked, maybe. We learn early on beach holidays and long, baking days that it will never render us bronzed, just send us from translucent to boiled to back again. Every so often, we’ll think that maybe it’s a case of mind over matter and determine to resolve ourselves brown, only to learn again the hard way to hug the shade abroad or in those occasional summers at home when everyone else strips off and sunbathes. I’ve made my peace with – am even quite proud of – the fact that in really hot weather I wear long loose clothing and a hat (slightly less so the fact that I’m also usually crimson with heat and distinctly sweaty nosed under some impossibly strong sun screen). Because of course, now, we know that the discomfort and humiliation of sunburn are the least serious of its gifts.
Doubtless the photos would show it if I really looked, but the thing is, I don’t remember burning in spring. I don’t remember other, less coppery, children getting pink noses and ears after playing outside in the winter term. Perhaps it’s age, perhaps it’s the curmudgeonly reaction of a worried mother who resents trying to coat three uncooperative children with slippery white goo, but I just don’t remember the sun being such a problem full stop.
I take the sun seriously. I really do my best. But there are days like today where I check the forecast before we go out for a trip, and see that it’s a pleasant, cool-ish, April day in northern England day, and – packing the waterproofs, but leaving the hats and cream at home – we come home burned. The children not too badly, but with enough of a glow to worry my poor over-read maternal heart. Me? Livid red stripes on brow and nose and scalp.
I know it’s my fault, and that I should have been prepared for all
bloody eventualities. But actually, beyond the grumpiness of an unpleasant chore and the annoyance of knowing that I’m to blame is a small, sharp gulp at what the guidelines (and the unseasonal straplines) actually mean.
Stocking up on sun cream for a holiday has become second nature. Being sensible in the summer here likewise. But getting used to skin protection year round, as part of daily life, living here in the North East? It feels as alien to suggest painting the children green before each meal, or remembering to plait feathers into their hair thrice daily – and about as practical. I am grateful that suncream exists, of course, but it costs a fortune and it is a pain in the rear. Who can afford to use it as recommended? Who, really, would want to?
I feel rather like a (mutant) canary in a mine. Orange. And probably doomed.