We’ve traded UVBs for tan in a can, but the quest for gold continues.

We've traded UVBs for tan in a can, but the quest goes on.

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Even as little kids, Southerners want a suntan. At the tender age of six, I knew my “shorts sets,” which Mama ordered from the Sears catalog, would look better with a little color on my arms and legs.  Maybe it’s all those summertime trips to the beach, where bronzed locals inspire us with their sun-kissed natural tans. Or it could be our climate, which allows for flip-flops when our northern sisters are fighting the chill in Uggs.

Once they hit high school, Southern girls go completely ga-ga for golden rays. Ah, those were the days—before wrinkle cream and Spanx, when we used concealer to cover the occasional youthful blemish, not age spots or dark circles under our sleep-deprived eyes. Tanning was the one enterprise to which were wholly devoted and for which we would sacrifice all comfort (and common sense).

The summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college, my girlfriends and I spent a blissful summer (funded by our graduation money) at a marina near Pell City, Alabama. Were we splashing and frolicking in the cool water? Every now and then. Mostly we were sizzling on a pier, arguing over who had to go to Fat Man’s Bar-B-Que and pick up lunch, thereby missing some of the hottest rays of the day. When the heat became unbearable, we would escape to our floats, where we could splash cool water on each other while frying—did I mention we were slathered in baby oil? Our only fear: Strap marks!

My maternal grandmother was horrified by the dark tan I had that summer. In her day, tan skin was a sign that you had to help plow cotton instead of sitting in the parlor fanning yourself and doing needlework. But I was thrilled with my natural tan. (No need for makeup! No need for hose!)

I picture "Grandme"  every time I shop for moisturizer and sunscreen and so-called youth-restoring potions. I no longer fry myself outside or toast myself in a tanning bed. And I can only hope I stopped early enough to prevent serious damage. But I still want a tan.

Just the other day, I plopped down $25 for a tube of sunless tanner. I did all the recommended skin prep. I applied liberally and carefully, mindful of those knees, heels, and ankles. The next morning, my legs looked like a preschooler’s art project. If I had blindfolded myself and applied a maple wood stain to my legs, the effect would’ve been the same.

What’s truly tragic about sunless tanning gone wrong is that you don’t always realize how unfortunate you look until you’re in natural light . . . as in outside . . . with other people. I went to the outdoor pool at our fitness center, of all places, with my maple-stain tan. Just as I was climbing down that pool ladder into the water, I noticed that my tan stopped abruptly above my ankles. I could only wonder what the backs of my legs looked like. That might account for the shrieks of horror from the swim team practicing nearby.

And so here I am, wearing pants to work every day and waiting for the last remnants of orange to fade so I can try something new. But I still want a tan. And I’m thinkin’ Ocean Potion Ever Glow.

WATCH: Southern Places You're Probably Mispronouncing

Next time you and your girlfriends are (sunless) tanning, quiz each other on these Southern spots that most of us are mispronouncing.

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