A heat wave had hit New York in recent weeks. “Slayings soar as city hits boiling point” screamed the NY Post headline. Outside, the deep grey of the concrete and asphalt that give the city its customary hue, looked washed out in the blazing sun. The silvery tones of glass and steel shimmered and sizzled.
But here at Central Park — a man-made oasis at the heart of Manhattan — the grass was as green as ever, at least the patches that were not covered with towels, tarps and sheets on top of which lay picnickers and, astonishingly, sunbathers. The term ‘sunbather’ refers to people who like to, well, bathe in the sun, implying sunlight is something like a shower. But given the intensity of the rays that day, the effect was more of a deluge than a gentle sprinkle. And yet, there they were sprawled across the sloping grounds of Sheep Meadow — several football fields’ worth of clear grassy land enclosed on all sides by thick-trunked trees. It was like Woodstock for sun seekers.
“I’m just hanging out with my boyfriend,” said Vanessa Anderson, a 27-year old blond from Long Island. “It’s nice to be out. We were cooped up in his apartment yesterday because it was too hot,” she said as sweat dripped down her neck in the 90-degree searing heat. Anderson said she liked the sun. “I don’t mind,” she said, referring to the sweating. She had been lying in direct sunlight for close to 3 hours now. I could feel a patch on my leg burning as I sat next to her. Surely there was more to this than making acquaintance with Apollo? I asked her if she was trying to get a tan.
Anderson, who worked in the shipping business, said she had been out in the sun around 10 times already this summer. She did not like going to tanning salons, she said. But she did like a bit of sun and a bit of color. “I think you feel good and you look thinner,” she said.
I thanked her and moved on to the two Brazilian ladies sunning themselves nearby.
“We are used to the sun. But I guess it does feel good because if you look around everybody is doing the same. It’s like a drug,” said one of them.
For Hannah Zeffrico, a 28-year old financial consultant and her two friends the activity was also a way to get together with friends.
“We haven’t seen each other in couple of months so we’re getting updated on life and love and men,” Hannah said.
“Having a few snacks,” said the second friend.
“And getting a tan and being outside and getting fresh air. We’re all inside 50 hours a week,” added the third.
Hannah described tanning akin to “having bronzer on your face,” she said. “It defines any sort of muscle contour.”
Then Hannah asked me “Do women in Pakistan like to tan?”
I looked at myself. I was a study in contrast to the members of this congregation. Unlike the bathing suits, shorts and t-shirts around me, I wore full-length trousers, a cotton top with a denim jacket (yes a jacket, I did not want to burn) and a large sun hat I had bought at a specialty store. Nothing had been left to chance and whatever little skin was exposed was slathered in 40 SPF sunscreen. Sunglasses covered half of my face; that is, if you could see them under the hat. I may have been overdoing it perhaps, but in Karachi, where I grew up, the sun was ever-present and thus not much appreciated. A cloudy day was our idea of good time to venture outside. Sunbathing would never occur to us there.
On the contrary we did everything to avoid its rays: from the tinted window on expensive cars to the schoolgirls holding their folders to shade their faces. The huge market of skin lightening products in Pakistan speaks for itself, with advertisements splashed across bus stops and an armada of products available at every price range.
“It’s like the weight loss industry in the West,” Hannah said. “I heard that it’s comparable to the skin lightening industry in India, and probably Pakistan, where everyone aspires towards lighter. Everyone here aspires towards thinner,” she continued.
Then Hannah remembered something she had seen recently seen on a news website.
“Did you guys see the thing about bleaching on Jezebel?” she asked her friends, referring to the recent advertisement for a bleaching product for women’s nether regions being aired in the subcontinent.
“It was like an absurd commercial where a woman walks in and she is like sitting on a couch next to her partner, like feeling really unattractive, and then she goes into the bathroom and bleaches herself and comes back and he ravishes her. It was absurd,” she said.
“That’s just scary,” her friend added.
As I walked home in what must have looked like a beekeeper’s suit on this record hot day, the old saying about grass being greener came to mind. It seemed this was especially the case in Sheep Meadow.
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