Confession: I was a total nerd throughout elementary school and into high school. Maybe it was the glasses, the braces, or the schedule full of honors classes, but I was painfully shy and an easy target for class bullies. At home, in the privacy of my bedroom, I spent hours poring over glossy magazines, cutting out pictures of Britney Spears look-a-likes and creating collages that I posted all over my walls. If only I looked like this, I thought to myself, then maybe people would like me.

When I turned 16, my mom finally lifted the ban on bleach and I guilt-tripped her into taking me to a tanning salon. “You’re beautiful the way you are,” she would say, and then go on a rant about how tanning would make my skin look like leather by the time I turned 30. No matter what she said, though, I hated the way I felt when I looked in the mirror. I was sick of being known as the “smart girl” or the “theater geek.” So many other girls were tanning (plus getting highlights and French manicures). Why shouldn’t I be able to do it, too?

Every time I tanned, both indoors and out, I imagined the kids who used to make fun of my ghostly pale legs. If only they could see me now, I thought to myself as I slathered on the oil and powdered my cheeks with bronzer.

Tanning gave me a sense of control that I’d never had before. With the swipe of my debit card (and 12 sweaty minutes in a tanning bed) I was able to transform into a whole new woman. Gone was the girl who shied away from boys and was afraid to speak up in front of the class. I felt like I was on top of the world and that if I ever did get skin cancer, it wouldn’t happen until I was older. Besides, doesn’t everything cause cancer these days?

I never imagined that only a few years later, I would be diagnosed with melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. I *thought* I understood the risks of tanning, but who really thinks they’re going to get cancer before starting their first real job or saying “I do”? In reality, melanoma has become the most frequently diagnosed cancer for women aged 25-29 (second most common for 15 to 29-year-olds)—and it’s not going to stop unless we take a stand and start taking care of our skin.

My doctors told me I was one of the lucky ones. I caught my cancer early, so there was no chemo, no radiation, and I got to hang onto my lymph nodes. But honestly, despite my “good luck,” being diagnosed with melanoma did a number on me. For months I stopped hanging out with friends, I broke up with my boyfriend, and I drained my savings to pay for surgery (it’s not fun living with your parents when you’re 23, I promise). It shook me to my core that tanning in my teens could have killed me in my 20s.

It’s taken me years to realize this, but I feel much more beautiful now—my complexion fair and my hair naturally brunette—than I did when I spent years trying to make myself into a life-sized Barbie doll. My colleagues seem to treat me with more respect, and oddly enough, so do the guys I meet when I go out for drinks with girlfriends.

When I was 16, I’m not sure there was anything anyone could have said or done to keep me from tanning. That said, if you use tanning beds or even just occasionally forget the SPF, I encourage you to ask yourself: why do you do it? Write your answer down. Is the answer, “So I look better in a bikini” or “Because everyone else is doing it”? Sometimes when we take the time to write down our feelings or share them with a friend, they seem less rational. Realize that we all have our insecurities, and it could be that you just need a yoga class to boost your confidence and de-stress. This summer, I challenge you to flaunt your natural glow like Emma Stone, not like Paris Hilton. And don’t feel bad about splurging on a designer bottle of SPF and a cute floppy hat—you’ll thank me when you’re older.

Questions? Email me anytime at Katie@prettyinpale.org.