Surviving Your First Spray Tan

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When I did my first figure competition, I knew from reading and research that I would need to take the stage with a deep, dark tan. Under the harsh glare of stage lighting, the hard, dry definition your muscles achieve during peak week can fade out and leave you looking pale and smooth. What I did not know was that the process of receiving a spray tan would be as mortifying as a first-time visit to an OB/GYN, sans the stir-ups.

On the Friday night of registration, I showed up with my freshly minted NPC card in hand, full of nerves and excitement. I had taken pains in the week or two leading up to the show to prepare my skin to receive the tan, as many an online blog had suggested. I had visited a tanning bed to even out my swimsuit tan lines. I had bought an exfoliating glove and loofahed myself within an inch of feeling raw. I had shaved myself as smooth as a newborn naked mole rat.

After signing in, I was led into a large hotel meeting room that had dozens and dozens of pop-up tents as far as the eye could see. It looked like a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with row upon row of pods. A low-hanging mist hung over the room, and an army of small fans roared from tables. All was confusion and chaos (to my amateur eyes), but it appeared the room was informally sectioned into a Male side and a Female side. However, there was no barrier separating the two sides, and no one seemed to notice the spectacle of semi-nudity going on.

A staffer ushered me to the Female side of the room and into one of the tent pods. I slipped of my flip-flops and stepped inside, unsure what to do next. Poking my head out of the tent, I glanced around and saw beautiful naked bodies with perfect symmetry parading back and forth from the small tents to slightly larger spray tents at one end of the room. Ducking back inside, my heart was racing. I had mentally prepared myself to don a competition bikini that covered a grand total of 5 square inches of my body and parade around a stage in 5” stripper heels, but I was not prepared to have to strut naked from my tent pod to the spray tent in front of complete strangers.

I huddled in terror in a corner of my shelter, waiting for the inevitable. Before long, a cheery girl wearing rubber gloves and a ponytail poked her head in my door, laughed when she found me still fully clothed, and told me it was my turn.


I stripped off my clothes and left them in a pile, along with my modesty. I poked my head out again, then scurried as fast as I could to the end of the room, trying hard not to peek into the tents I passed. From my peripheral vision, I had glimpses of my competitions’ washboard abs, ripped delts, and muscled glutes. I was suddenly very aware that my last-minute six-week prep was woefully not enough to put me on the level with these women but, alas, it was too late to stop now.

Reaching a spray tent, a curvaceous sister, who would turn out to also be my make-up artist, smiled at me from behind her face mask and ushered me into the tent with a wave of her spray gun. In a series of carefully orchestrated moves, she had me raise and lower my arms, flex my back, and, most humiliating of all, spread my legs and arch my bum toward her so she could spray the bits that would likely be unseen by the judges but definitely not covered by the bikini.

It was a long, excruciating 3 minutes, and I was then shepherded back to my tent without explanation. Another cheery girl walked by, peeked in at my still-damp skin, and aimed one of the legion of small fans at me to dry the spray.

Wet skin + nudity + fan = freezing.

I shivered stoically and joked with the woman in the tent next to me, acting as though spray tanning in the buff with strangers was old practice for me. Once dry, I started to slip back into my clothes until a stern voice ordered me to stop. Confused, I asked the voice why, at which point she informed me it was time for the second coat.

A second coat? Good grief.

After a second walk of shame and a second series of immodest poses to ensure even and total coverage, along with even and total embarrassment, I was stained a deep, dark shade of Orange Dreamsicle and allowed to get dressed. What followed was a (mostly) sleepless night wrapped in a spare sheet to keep my new tan from staining my blankets. By morning, that orangey color had mellowed into a beautiful shade of mahogany that would stay on me for a week and fade gradually, leaving me looking like I had spent a restful vacation on a beach somewhere warm.

Gretta Vitta and Amy Engelberg - 1st time meeting in spray tan line for the 2014 Florida Gold Cup

Gretta Vitta and Amy Engelberg – 1st time meeting in spray tan line for the 2014 Florida Gold Cup

To prepare you mentally (and physically) for your own first-time tanning experience, here are some tips:

1. Exfoliate several times in the week prior to tanning to remove dead, dry skin and ensure your fresh skin will hold the color better.

2. Make sure you have even body skin tone and, if you have old tan lines, even them out at a tanning salon in the weeks prior to the show. Spray tan will not be able to cover and match your pale, untanned skin to your spray tanned skin color.

3. Arrive for your tanning appointment wearing very loose, long-sleeve clothing, preferably silk or lightweight cotton, and no underwear or anything that is binding and could rub off the color. Plan on sleeping in these clothes to prevent the color from rubbing off on your sheets. If you’re staying in a hotel, consider bringing your own sheets so you don’t stain the hotel bedding.

4. Shower and blow dry your hair prior to tanning – this will be your last shower and hair wash until AFTER the competition to prevent your color from running or streaking from the water. A good dry shampoo can help add fullness back to hair on the day of the event and absorb any excess oil. You’re not supposed to use deodorant after tanning, so prepare for a day of being slightly stinky along with everyone else!

5. The staff that runs the spray tanning will usually be on hand the day of the event to do touch-ups if needed and as time allows. They will also usually be available to spray you with an oil to make you shine before you go on stage and glue your bikini into place. Two mistakes I witnessed first-hand that you should never, ever do: (a) never use cooking spray in lieu of spray oil because it is slippery and can cause accidents for those walking in heels on slick stages and (b) never use anything but a glue intended for the skin, such as Bikini Bite, or else you’ll be pulling your skin off with your suit after the show. Ouch!

6. If it’s within your budget, a spray tan by the company promoted by the event is your best option. Although you can do your own color at home with a roller brush, it is a much bigger investment of time, requiring several applications over a period of days, and the help of a patient friend who will need to paint you.

7. Pretend your body is not your body, but a machine that is there for painting. If you can survive the mortification of being spray tanned in the buff, once you get into your tiny competition bikini you’ll feel downright modest!

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