I fear the sun. My version of the turning-up-to-school-in-your-underwear nightmare involves me arriving at school with only a low SPF sun screen. This is not neurosis, at least not entirely. My skin is very pale, and I’ve spent my life trying to avoid turning into a piece of human leather.
So when I recently noticed a group of Asian tourists sheltering beneath hand-held brollies on a blistering summer day, I decided to try it myself.
The results were impressive. Umbrellas cover far more surface area than even the broadest-brimmed hat, so they freed me from the marinade of sun-screen that I once basted in. As a bonus you can also use them to mask your identity from passing acquaintances you wish to avoid.
Discovering the umbrella as a sun shield was a “eureka!” moment for me. I assumed my example would inspire a flood of imitators, all greeting me on the street with high fives and shouts of “You beauty!”
Yet my brolly-embracing was not met with the popular enthusiasm I anticipated. Instead, teenagers pointed at me and snickered. On playgrounds, the parents of small children avoided me as if my umbrella were the modern day equivalent of a trench coat. I was even abandoned by an old friend who refused to be seen crossing the road with “an umbrella person”.
I do occasionally see other umbrella converts, but the way they scuttle shamefaced down the street suggests that they too have suffered at the hands of the narrow-minded.
Of course it was not always so. Parasols were fashionable in the 19th century, a sign of refinement rather than weirdness. The beach umbrella was once popular on our shores, but their tendency to become fast moving weapons of impalement on windy days did little to entrench their appeal.
Even so, you’d expect that the skin cancer awareness campaigns that emerged in the 1980s would have picked up on the umbrella’s potential. True, “slip, slop, slap and unfurl” doesn’t quite have the same ring, but could it really be a mere failure of alliteration that has kept them off the sun-smart agenda?
Sadly, awareness campaigns have not been entirely effective, with the rate of some forms of skin cancer continuing to rise. And if you venture outside on a 40-plus degree day, you’ll quickly see why. Our national pastime of “soaking up the rays” (aka slow roasting your skin until it resembles the rind of a Christmas ham) is as popular as ever.
The problem is that Australians have never really accepted that the sun is bad. We are willing to make small concessions to being sunsmart as long as they don’t diminish our out-doorsey bravado, or contradict our fun-in-the-sun ethos. Floppy hats make you look like a relaxed, sun loving larrikin, so they’re fine. And blockout has been morphed into modern day war paint by the likes of cricketer Andrew Symons. But carrying an umbrella will never look like fun. You might as well wear a sandwich board that reads: “Yes, the sun bothers me. A lot.”
There are parallels here with the history of cigarette related health campaigns. When it became clear that tobacco smoking was dangerous, cigarette companies cleverly re-branded their product as “extra mild” or “special filter”, allowing smokers to move to a supposedly healthier variety of cigarette, while still maintaining their habit. The shirtless man on the beach, frying himself while wearing a cap and a token band of zinc cream on his nose, is the equivalent of the nicotine addict who smoked two packs of “special filter” a day, telling himself that the smooth menthol flavour would protect him from terminal lung disease.
But ultimately this is more than a simple matter of self-delusion. It’s a question of national identity.
Colonising Australians have never felt entirely at home in the country’s unforgiving landscape. Our brief and sometimes violent history has left many of us feeling like a people who don’t belong, and the climate hasn’t helped. By par-boiling ourselves on the beach every summer we defy this unease, claiming the country as our own, as a place where we are completely at home, comfortable and relaxed, even as the skin blisters and peels off our bodies.
To cringe behind an umbrella on a hot day is a symbolic rejection of this part of our national identity, an admission that the term “sunburnt country” is more a lament than a reason to celebrate (or head to the beach).
Perhaps, in order to mature as a nation, we need to stop protesting so much; to accept that while we may never be quite at home in our climate, we can learn to live with it. After all, our nation wasn’t just built by lobster-red lifesavers and heat-stroked stockmen but also by pale neurotics who pay far too much attention to the freckles on their décolletage.