I’m a redhead who was born and bred with fire engine curls. There hasn’t been a day in my life when any given part of my body wasn’t covered in freckles. (But seriously, I think I exited the womb with them.)
Growing up, I ruined almost every family vacation due to bad sunburns that sometimes resulted in blisters and fevers. Aloe vera and I became good friends.
As soon as middle school began, so did the bullying. Sometimes, it was so bad, I’d do anything to remain invisible, even avoiding red t-shirts or orange headbands.
Acne medications made my fair skin even more noticeable by adding a rosey hue to it. By high school, those fiery locks turned to auburn waves, which allowed me to feel a little more “normal.”
The acne cleared, and I tried to brush off the occasional comments such as, “Do you like having red hair?”
Then, a funny thing happened. I started my freshman year of college at the University of Florida. How would a light-skinned redhead like me possibly manage the torturous heat and sun? I forced my body to acclimate.
The first test was game day in The Swamp. Every Saturday of that first football season was spent under the sun at 12 pm tailgates.
As soon as my first tan lines sprouted and the freckles on my nose tripled in number, I was pleasantly surprised. No sunscreen was needed.
Then, I took up running. Nearly every morning, I’d head out for an hour-long venture in year-round sunny Gainesville, FL.
A distinctive sports bra outline began to form on the nape of my neck. Still, I rarely used any SPF and had no burns. I was delighted.
Friends back home (in snowy Maryland) envied my sun-kissed shoulders whenever I’d return. I finally felt normal and loved every second of it.
"I’m not like most redheads," I’d remind myself. "I get tan. I can be pretty."
I took my love for fitness and the outdoors to the next level when I decided to study abroad for five months in Tel Aviv, Israel.
It was another paradise-like environment, where I spent almost every afternoon baking by the pool or sunbathing on the sand.
For the first time, I wasn’t known as just the redhead. I was known as me, Jen.
I was a froyo-loving, fitness fanatic with slight OCD tendencies who had an obsession with new adventures, my amazing friends and my loving family.
My hair color and freckles didn’t seem to define me anymore. So, the regimen continued for a while (little to no sunscreen combined with unlimited time outside).
My hair continued to darken, and I only had the occasional scalp burn due to my middle part. Needless to say, I felt just like every other brown-haired girl on the street.
In May, I graduated college, my OCD tendencies returned and I decided it was time to pay all of my doctors a visit. The dermatologist was first on my list.
Seeing as I spent my last month of college laying out 24/7, day drinking and running my last stadiums, I was getting concerned about a few new moles I’d noticed on my legs and arms.
As I entered the office and put on the blue paper gown in preparation for the full-body check, my heart pounded, and my head raced.
"What if I have to get something removed? Will it hurt?," I thought. I didn’t even want to think about the six-letter word that has wreaked havoc on nearly all the women in my immediate family.
The doctor examined every inch of my body, feeling for uneven textures and looking for abnormal colors. She brushed over my arms and legs, noting that everything looked normal. I was relieved.
As I started to reach for my clothes and get dressed, the doctor said a mole on my scalp looked suspicious. She assured me it was probably nothing, but it would be best to get rid of it.
Within seconds, I was lying on my stomach. The nurse and the doctor held my hair back and prepared the numbing injections.
The procedure took only 10 minutes and wasn't very painful. I could feel a small scraping sensation and smell the burning scent coming from the machine.
I left the office feeling scared and confused. While I was worried about the thousands of spots on my body, the real culprit was the one hidden away at the back of my scalp.
A week later, the pathology reports came back. The doctor classified the small mole as a blue nevus, which was considered benign. I was in the clear.
Although a huge weight was lifted off me because I knew everything was fine, the experience stuck with me.
At just 21, I had already needed something removed. The doctor emphasized that although everything else looked fine, I had to step up my sun protection game ASAP.
Aside from the possibility of skin cancer, the constant sun exposure on my face and chest from running outside without protection could lead to early aging, wrinkles and skin damage.
The years I spent desperately trying to change the color of my skin (just to feel pretty and accepted) had come at a huge cost.
Though I can’t reverse the last 21 years, I hope to prevent further damage as a young adult. I now diligently apply SPF 50 whenever I step outside, even if it’s just for errands. I won’t run without a hat, and I even wear a baseball cap or fedora if I’m sitting outside for lunch.
On top of my daily sunscreen moisturizer, I reapply an SPF mineral powder throughout the day, along with sun-protecting lip balm.
But just like anyone else, I get lazy. There are times when I know I should reapply, but I don’t.
However, I’m reminded of the risk whenever I run my fingers through my part and feel the stubbly hair that is slowly growing from the healing scab.
No matter how insecure I may have felt in my teenage years, I force myself to reach for the bottle of sunscreen.
I know beauty and confidence comes from accepting yourself within, regardless of the tan lines.