Tan Lines by Michael Todd

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feet and legs in pool

Every summer of my childhood, I burned, my skin not so poetically white as marble or alabaster but pale enough to blotch in pinks and reds like a bloody Rorschach test.

Once, around age 10, I burned the tops of my feet so badly that I couldn’t walk, had to submerge them in a small bowl of aloe. My mother coated my body in the same translucent gel, like mucus being massaged into open wounds. I plastered shorts and a t-shirt to my body, mummifying myself against the sun, watching through the windows, the rest of my family swimming, boating, laying out on the docks.

Skin has never felt quite the same as body. Skin has always come first, a sheath concealing that which is honest, sometimes dangerous.


Skin is technically an organ, like the outermost shell of Russian nesting dolls. In 12th grade biology, we learned that an organ is: a differentiated structure of cells and tissues performing a specific function.

And skin’s function? To protect—a boundary between us and what we perceive as other, the outside world. While we carry the rest of our organs around inside of us, cradled in cages of bone, muscle, and blood, we bear this one like a shield.


On family vacations throughout my life, I have collected shells, sometimes sitting and digging for hours, plucking them from sand and surf; other times they washed up at my feet, like gifts from an admirer. As I grew older, I began to feel guilty, for these were the potential homes of hermit crabs, miniature crustaceans born soft and vulnerable, damned to spend their lives foraging for a shelter they carry around on their backs. But in some ways, this lack is also a freedom, for they can shed their exteriors when something better comes along, fixed interiors with flexible faces; scavengers, maybe, but ones open to opportunities.

My female cousins and sisters placed shell fragments on their stomachs as they tanned, a visual measure of how dark they were getting, with the benefit of temporary tattooing. My sister first introduced the idea with a pale, quarter-sized Playboy Bunny on her hip, the negative of a strategically placed sticker. Together they curated tessellations that traced across jutting hip bones as I applied generous coats of SPF 50, propped up in cobra pose, an open book shielding my tank top lines and doughy body.

There is a special, double-edged protection that comes with being the only male sibling, cousin, grandchild, of growing up in a herd of women. When you lie with them on brightly colored towels and cute boys walk by, you can watch from behind a pair of dark sunglasses, feigning dozing. When the boys look back at the girls, you can pretend that they are looking at you. With a book placed strategically before you, you can see their smiles, their waves, their flustered looks and quick glances away and think, for a moment, that they’re meant for you.


“Michael’s looking very healthy.” My mother lounges in the hot tub, speaks to my sister with her gaze fixed on me, beaming.

“You do have some color, Mike,” my aunt agrees. “Some good color.”

This clarified, as if color could be bad. Considered a sign of vitality and beauty, a tan is still, when all is said and done, a successfully inflicted damage. Our very DNA is compromised when the sun penetrates too deep. Devoid of malice or even intent, this golden flush is nonetheless a failure of our body’s attempt to protect us.

Even still, I do not count myself a loser of more than a battle. Skin cells are not merely soldiers but alchemists, absorbing the rays of light and transforming them into heat. The sun burns, but tanned skin responds with a radiance of its own. In all the ways bodies are assaulted, in all the ways bodies defend themselves, in all the ways this action simultaneously injures, this feels at least like some attempt at creation—a kind of communion with the sun.


My tan lines are not exactly lines, but more of a gradient; deep browns at the shoulders and arms, the tops of knees where there is the most exposure. The scale gradually pales as thigh approaches pelvis, the primed white that is my skin most of the year, kissed by some men I’ll always remember, many more I never even knew.

It took me 22 summers to successfully tan, and only then with practice—short sessions by rivers and in backyards, like an athletic endurance training schedule for the skin. After two days at the beach, my tank top tan is finally fading but still vaguely outlined, a ghost. The blonde hairs of my legs blanch to nearly white and pop against skin, the colors pushing away from one another like magnets. My face and arms become overrun with small black and brown freckles, pin pricking up and down legs and arms like paint splatters from my studio.

I long ago learned not to care so much about my body. I am not nervous about it anymore, can walk shirtless down the beach without feeling self-conscious. I don’t cover up with a shirt out of embarrassment as I once did as a child. And my body is leaner now. My thighs don’t grate and chafe the netted lining of my bathing suits, and my stomach feels, if not taut, at least well behaved.

But even with this kind of confidence, I am still constantly aware, constantly vigilant. There is a kind of guilt that comes with passing. Even camouflaged, you feel seen, exposed.


I lay with him on a sleeping bag spread in the middle of a road cutting through a cotton field far from the highway, a place no other cars go. From the trunk I produced a bundle of every blanket that I own, a cooler with his favorite sushi, red wine, hot coffee. The sky above was slick obsidian except for jolts of light, as sparks from a bonfire—a meteor shower I’d driven him an hour outside the city to watch.

Beneath the asphalt, the ground, like the bodies that build us, is another series of systems, of tiers. The uppermost layers of soil tend to be the softest, the bedrock below practically impenetrable. But the outermost mantle of skin begins as the innermost, its cells birthed in the presence of vital blood vessels, a spring of life. As they mature, they push upward, layer through layer, like blooms through the topsoil.

“Your hands are so soft.” He turned and whispered into my open palm, kissed the downy skin that a moment before had cupped his cheek.

Our skin is like the earth in reverse, hardest at the outside, fortified by keratin, the same stuff of hair and feathers and nails and hooves. We are thickest in the hairless places of our feet and hands that make the most contact with the world. But my arches are curved high like a dancer’s, my palms balmy like moist clay, thickened only at the creases and fingertips, calloused from hot glue gun burns and weights I can barely lift. I am softest in places I should be the hardest, unscathed where I should be scorched.

His hair was bright, bleached like mine in the summers. His eyes were pale like a reflection of the sky missing a then reclusive sun. The November air was frigid around us and we clung together for warmth, tangled beneath blankets, his hands under my dress shirt counting ribs. His skin spoke to mine in heat, in a language of burning.

Meet the Contributor

Michael Todd

Michael Todd is a writer and ESL teacher currently living and working in Madrid, Spain. After obtaining their BFA in sculpture and extended media from Virginia Commonwealth University, they worked freelance as a writer, teacher, and scenic artist, among other hodgepodge arts jobs (and loved every moment).

Their current work engages with ideas about queer identity, bodies and intimacy, and notions of free will and inheritance, among other themes. One of their recent favourite reads was “Mothers” by Rachel Zucker, and they continue to find new life with every read in “Bluets” by Maggie Nelson.


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