‘You’re so tan’ was always my favorite compliment.

If you’re like me, you spend a laughable amount of time sending your friends memes from parody accounts on Instagram. Claudia Oshry, aka @GirlWithNoJob, is one of the most popular Instagrammers for Millennial women, and one of her most-liked posts recently is this one about being tan:

The fact that this sentiment struck so many of her followers (myself included) as #relatable got me thinking. Why are we so consumed with an element of vanity that we know is mostly superficial and mostly bad for us?

Growing up in South Carolina, I was surrounded by rolling hills and beautiful lakes. My afternoons were spent on the tennis court, at the horse barn, or splashing in the creek that ran behind our home. Nearly every day I was living out my youth under the beaming southern sun. During my teen years, I took advantage of every opportunity to sunbathe and sat for hours on the beach or by the pool without a trace of SPF. From spring break until Labor Day, I had not a care in the world—except for achieving a deep tan. I got a rush from hearing people say to me, “Wow, you’re so tan!” and I made it a personal goal to hear it every time the season rolled around.

You might be surprised to learn that I am now a licensed esthetician and clinical skin therapist. So what happened? After college, I became a registered yoga instructor. This set into motion a series of several small, yet significant, changes in my life. I was hungry for that feeling of well-being, which ultimately forced me to ask, “Why am I not taking care of my skin?” This led me to a job as a medical assistant for a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon.

After years of sunbathing, the threat of skin cancer was no longer just some hypothetical bad mole that people my grandparents’ age got removed; it was right in front of my face—twenty times a day. I saw the anguish in the eyes of our patients when they heard that dreaded word—cancer. While many skin cancers can be successfully treated with a comprehensive plan for removal and continuous prevention from recurrence, nothing compares to the anxiety that follows such an ordeal. Knowing you had actual cancer (or even a near miss) is enough to permanently alter the way you think each and every time you’re in the sun.

As awful as any cancer is, I think skin cancer carries with it an extra stigma. On the one hand, it’s seen as less serious, and it is generally treatable. But unlike most cancers, skin cancer is associated with self-infliction. Like a smoker who gets lung cancer, skin cancer is sometimes seen as a deserved punishment for irresponsibility. But we forget that, much like smoking, the danger of UV exposure is, historically, a newer concept. The more I picked up on these stigmas, the more I was forced to confront my own habits. It doesn’t take six decades for skin cancer to set in—I’ve seen people my age and younger having to face the harsh reality that can come from overexposure or unsafe UV consumption.

This year to date we have already documented hundreds of cases of malignant melanoma and thousands of cases of basal and squamous-cell carcinoma. And I’m talking about just one dermatology office. Most patients in a dermatology office are considered “regulars” because it is common to see recurrence of cancerous lesions. Not only can previous lesions return, but new ones can also present themselves at any time. Depending on the stage of the cancer and the invasiveness of the cells, even more extensive measures may be necessary. By and large, people are not aware of the effects their habits have had on their skin until it is too late.

After becoming engrossed in health care and seeing how just one fifteen-minute doctor’s visit can change your life, I made a shift. I was once a sun-seeking, reckless adventurer paying no mind to the choices and habits I was making; now I’m someone who sees firsthand the damage that can be done to the body’s largest organ and its first line of immunity defense. Where once tanning gave me a drug-like rush that made me truly euphoric and confident, it now serves as a constant reminder of what I was risking. As loud as my inner voice that loved to chase a summer glow was (and trust me, it was loud!), the look of fear on the faces of all those diagnosed patients is much stronger.

I wish I could say I heeded warnings about the sun, but truly I never did and probably never would have had cancer not become part of my everyday life. I wish I could go back in time and hand my younger self a bottle of sunscreen instead of dry oil before hitting the lake with my girlfriends. But I can’t. At the end of the day, a golden glow earned from hours of direct sun exposure (no matter how great it makes you feel) is not worth it. Tans always fade, but you will have your body for the rest of your life. I had to remind myself that I’m not a better person when I’m tan (like Instagram would have me think); I’m a better person when I’m healthy and conscious of how I care for myself.

I would be lying if I said that I would not be caught dead lounging on the beach under a hot sun. I still go for beach days and take every opportunity I get to be on a boat. The difference now, though, is that in my bag, the first and most important thing I pack is sunscreen.

Photo Credit: Noah Sahady