On a sunny afternoon in June, Mark Davis is peeling off the top of his wetsuit after taking a swim at La Jolla Shores. Davis, 23, just returned to San Diego after graduating from Humboldt State University, but his skin is dark enough to convince you he'd never left. "I'm actually here to go swimming, not surfing." At six feet and 150 pounds, Davis's build is a bit more slight than the surfers here.
Unlike many beachgoers, Davis's tan is of little if any concern to him. "I honestly don't think it's that important to get a tan. You can have an excess of anything. I like a natural tan, but tan people who overdo it can look hideous, especially an artificially brilliant tan. I would definitely consider marrying a fair-skinned woman. In fact, I really like redheads, who are usually pretty pale."
Davis says that he's never consciously tried to get tan, that it's just a by-product of his lifestyle. "I try to go swimming every day -- if not at the beach, then at the pool. It's just that I'm out when the sun's at its peak, around 1:00 or so. I'm not really susceptible to skin cancer because I'm naturally dark. I'm half Lebanese, a dark-skinned person, and I don't really get burned. I'm low-risk." In spite of his confidence against burning, his dark skin has a red hue. "Well, I have gotten sunburned, but I know my limits. That's why I have the wetsuit."
Noah Diaz, 20, is throwing a Frisbee with his friend. Diaz is 5´9´´ tall, 145 pounds, and wearing a T-shirt, even though the sun is out. A Santee resident and student at Cuyamaca College, Diaz drives far to live the beach lifestyle. "Tans definitely look better to me, especially when looking at the opposite sex. It's something about the shine -- it just makes everything look a lot better. I might consider marrying a woman with fair skin, depending on the woman, but it would help out with the physical attraction is she were tan."
Diaz says that the legs are the most important part of the body to keep tanned. "You can be wearing shorts and still have your shirt on and have the tan." More concerned with tanning than Davis, Diaz occasionally uses lotions. "A lot of my friends use Banana Boat and a lot of girls that I know. Probably the best time of day to tan is between 11:00 and 3:30. After that, the sun's going down and not hitting you too hard in the target areas." Keeping the right look also makes it necessary for Diaz to shave more than his face. "You gotta keep the chest trimmed. I don't have much hair there anyway, but it just looks a little better if you shave it."
Diaz knows about melanoma, but it doesn't keep him from coming to the beach at least twice a week, where he spends an average of four hours each time. "It's important and everything, but I'm not too stressed about it, which I probably should be. I should use oil and lotion more than I do, but I think they're good for fair-skinned people, because you don't want to get skin cancer. I see older people at my job with skin cancers. My mom and dad comment about me getting darker, but it's no major deal for them. Sometimes my friends compliment me for getting tan, but not strangers. I've got a buddy that goes to a tanning salon, but it looks different. I've seen some girls come out looking orange."
Zach Shepard, 16, could easily pose for a California postcard. At 6´3´´ and 190 pounds, Shepard is muscular, athletic, and deeply tanned. A student at Santana High School, he plays football, soccer, basketball, and lacrosse. As he plays paddle ball with three bikini-clad girls, he appears not to have a care in the world -- but he cares about tanning. "If people are pale, they don't look very good. I would never consider marrying a girl who wasn't tan. I'm not attracted to pale women."
When asked what the most important part of the body to have tanned is, Shepard's thoughts immediately drift to the opposite sex. "Her shoulders and arms -- the upper body. For me, it's probably the upper body and torso. I don't use any tanning lotions, but the best time to work on your tan is between 1:00 and 3:00. Guys don't really have a choice -- girls try to get tan, but for guys, it just happens." Like Diaz, Shepard says that hairy chests are out, and he has shaved his for a smoother look, as well as his legs.
Shepard is not familiar with the term "melanoma," and when it is explained, he doesn't seem to care. "I don't really think about skin cancer too much. I'm not really worried about it. I've had a bad sunburn before. I couldn't put any lotion on or anything. Even aloe vera gel hurt. My mom's pretty tanned too. My mom's jealous of my tan, and my dad kind of makes fun of me. He tells me I look like a black man with two white parents, and my brothers tell me I'm adopted!" Shepard spends an average of three days a week at the beach and is usually in the sun for three hours.
On the same afternoon South Mission Beach is nearly deserted. A few high school-age girls are lying on towels, talking on their cell phones, but their boyfriends are nowhere to be found. A lone visitor from Salt Lake City, John Witucki, 23, lies face down on his towel after a swim. "I'm just here on vacation. I'll be to the beach every day. Even at home, I'm usually at the pool, especially on my days off. In the summer I'll spend a couple of hours per day."
Another postcard candidate, Witucki, is six feet tall, 195 pounds, and bulging with muscle, even though he doesn't play any sports. "I think a tan helps people look better. If it's between being really pasty-white and tan, I think the tan look is always better, but I would still marry a fair-skinned woman."