Who's afraid of tan marks? Not me

"Tan lines. Dark spots. Dry skin, dry hair," clucks the beautician. "And so many scars."

I want to thank her, but it is not a compliment.

Who wouldn't lie in glory in the marks left by running, swimming and other sports? Much of society, including me once upon a time. The prevalent ideal of feminine beauty is someone plucked, painted and pale.

Exuberantly sweaty and physical? Leave that to the boys.

Would it have been different if I had lived with my family all my life? My father and brother were competitive athletes and my mother can still hold a side plank for a minute without breaking a sweat. As a child, I was encouraged to run, swim and try out for school sports. I had bowl-cut hair and clothes engineered for hard wear. Most were so non-decorative that they spawned my obsession with my mother's elaborate wardrobe.


The messages became mixed when I was 15 and studying in Singapore. Yes, there was a physical fitness test we all had to pass, but it was the boys who did their best to break records. The girls of my class, with whom I longed to fit in with, competed in doing the least possible work in order to scrape through.

We schemed to get out of PE lessons, so we could relax, braid one another's hair and devise ways to individualise our school uniforms.

My fondest memory of those first two years in Singapore involves a mixed-gender football game organised one evening at my hostel. I was excited because I had never played football, only cricket, hockey and basketball.

As it turned out, the game was played on two levels - boys kicking mud in the direction of certain squealing girls. I did get the ball once and kept it for almost 10 heady seconds, amateurishly zig-zagging towards the goal posts. Then a laughing lad took it away to threaten the object of his affection.

We never had another such game. The girls shied away from the mud and grass stains. As a lone female and a novice player, I shied away from asking to join the boys' matches.

At a certain age, girls are taught that their bodies are to be preserved, not risked in rough-and-tumble games. Not for us the reckless slide across a field, trading torn clothes and skin abrasions for an endorphin high. Not for us the slapping of a basketball out of an opponent's grasp, nor the thud of boxing gloves. Such activities are dangerous. They might scar our skin.

There are too many Japanese manga that repeat this line: "I'm not a girl, so a scar doesn't matter." Or "You're a girl, it won't be good if this leaves a scar."

Buzzfeed writer Aishhwariya Subramanian had a cycling accident in Bangalore and wrote in a column last November that, for her family, "the true tragedy was that I got marred before I got married".

When even elite female athletes are called out for looking unlike the prevalent beauty stereotype, rather than focusing on their achievements (think Serena Williams), the message is clear. A woman's body must be beautiful in others' eyes, never mind whether she enjoys pushing it to its full physical potential.

Certain types of physical activity are fine: dance, perhaps, because the blood blisters of the professionals can be hidden in pretty shoes.

Society says the average woman can endure an hour of cardio and a diet that wouldn't sustain a hummingbird for the sake of looking a little smaller in a swimsuit. But to like getting physical? To enjoy sweat and a little pain and much effort for the sheer love of movement?

Think of the toll on your body.

"I like to swim, but it gives me broad shoulders," one friend says.

"I like being outdoors, but my skin becomes dark," says another.

"Dark skin. Fine lines." The beautician stretches the skin beneath my eyes and cheeks. "Sagging skin. Why don't you use this cream? Your face will look younger."

Such words indoctrinate. Incapacitate. It was only in 2011 that I heard another message. At a family wedding in Canada, I saw aunts in their 70s cycling for hours, exploring the new country. They walked from sunrise to sunset wearing serviceable saris and sunscreen and, in the evenings, regally attired, danced to Bollywood rock and Canadian hip-hop.

I envied their energy, the ease with which they used their bodies and the delight they took in physical activity. Not long after, I began living with my parents again, who have never cared how I look, only that I keep up with them on their adventures.

Now I run, swim and sprout bruises and tan lines. A toenail torn on the plastic line separator in a swimming pool. Scratched legs and bruised arms after slipping on the MacRitchie trail. A face that sports dark spots despite wearing sunscreen. Open pores, which I used to think were good, helping the skin to breathe, but apparently they do not.

The beautician sighs. "We'll do the EverYouth facial and I'll give you this cream. Apply every night."

I pat her hand. "Don't worry. I come to you because I like the pampering and massages. I don't expect anything else."

After all, I'm quite proud of my marks and my scars.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'Who's afraid of tan marks? Not me'. Print Edition | Subscribe