Sunbathe and be damned: Her family fear for her health. To fashionable friends, she's suddenly beyond the pale. But this summer JANE GORDON returned to the sun lounger - and she's never felt better

For eight long years, I didn’t slip once. I resisted what was often unbearable temptation. It took a lot of restraint, but I knew the consequences if I cracked — the health implications, the disappointment of my family and disapproval of friends, the risk of social exclusion.

In a bid to overcome my addiction, I even tried artificial substitutes, but the effects were never as powerful or as satisfying as the real thing.

But finally, just a few weeks ago, in the 40-degree heat of Provence, the lure of the sun lounger by the pool proved too much, and I confess... I gave in and sunbathed.

Writer Jane Gordon with a tan

Sun fun: Writer Jane Gordon with a tan

If my revelation sounds like that of an alcoholic slipping off the wagon or even a recovering drug addict who has relapsed, then that’s exactly how friends have treated me when they discover I basked in the sun for ten days.

At dinner last week, my friend Amanda, whose pale, perfect complexion has been achieved through a lifetime of sun deprivation, told me I was ‘dicing with death’.

And when I visited my cousin Caroline (who shares my fair hair and skin) she accused me of being an appalling example to the next generation of our family.

I suppose she meant her two sickly looking teenage daughters, who spent their childhood summers in North Yorkshire slathered in factor 50 sunscreen on the rare occasions the temperature hit 19c in the shade.

And while I admit I did feel guilt and doubt on the first day on my sun lounger, it lasted only as long as it took my skin to shed its pallor and turn a healthy, glowing bronze.

The rest of the world — the health establishment, beauty gurus and most of my female friends — might regard sunbathing in the same way they view taking Class A drugs, drinking 60 units of alcohol a week or smoking 50 a day, something socially and physically unacceptable. But I don’t care.

I will sunbathe and be damned because I have not felt or looked so good at any point during my eight years of abstinence.

It might be taboo to admit, but I will not be going back to the shade or fake tan bottle.

I am well aware of the scientific link between exposure to ultraviolet radiation — from the sun or sunbeds — and skin cancer. It would be impossible, in the past decade or so, not to have absorbed the fact skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK and that it is on the rise annually.

Jane Gordon gave into her love for sunbathing after eight years of abstinence - and loved every moment (posed by model)

Welcome surrender: Jane Gordon gave into her love for sunbathing after eight years of abstinence - and loved every moment (posed by model)

It was in response to these statistics that I was prompted to stay out of the sun. 

As a pale, blonde child I was never allowed to discover the wondrous transformation of a suntan.

This was partly because of my protective parents (my brother and I were only permitted to be in direct sun for ten minutes a day) and partly due to the fact most of our holidays were spent trying to keep warm on a chilly Cornish beach. 

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens — on a three-week visit to the South of France  — that I achieved my first sun-induced golden glow of the kind that can make you feel, and look, wonderful.

I can remember the shock — arriving back in England — of seeing my reflection in a mirror. My hair was white blonde and my skin a perfect bronze.

Every year after that I turned my back on British beaches and headed for a two-week toasting in the sun (always creamed with high-factor sunscreen).

My favourite photographs are those taken on holidays when my skin had a golden glow.

But the discovery, eight years ago, that my suntan was deemed dangerous sent me scuttling into the shade. In 2004, I had my final baking on the Cote d’Azur. The South of France gave way to Scotland.

It wasn’t just the health scares about fatal melanomas, though, that led me to ban the tan. The beauty pages of fashion magazines were also becoming obsessed about the way sun damage speeded up the ageing process. The sun, they decreed, was responsible for frown lines, wrinkles, open pores, dry, dull skin, the lot.

Pale has become de rigueur in the fashion and celebrity world —beauty is the snow-white skin of Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow, not the orange glow of Katie Price and Jessica Simpson.

And sales of skin products claiming to hold back time are worth £544 million a year.

But it was ill-health that prompted me back into the sun. Normally ridiculously healthy, last summer I developed a kidney infection.

While it cleared up with antibiotics, over the following two months I developed a series of other, apparently unrelated, infections — involving several more courses of antibiotics.

I felt exhausted, irritable and, for the first time ever, depressed. My symptoms (which my GP described as ‘indications of a low immune system’) prompted a visit to hospital for a series of blood tests and X-rays.

Internet searches revealed a number of frightening causes — TB, cancer, hepatitis — but my problem was far less scary and increasingly common.

Jane's cousin makes sure her daughters are coated with factor 50 sun cream

Peer pressure: Jane's cousin makes sure her daughters are coated with factor 50 sun cream

I had a severe vitamin D deficiency that had not only lowered my immunity to infections, but had resulted in fatigue and depression.

The chief source of vitamin D — essential for regulating the phosphate and calcium in our body so our bones and teeth remain healthy — comes from sunlight on our skin.

A deficiency lowers the immune system, causes depression and, in children, results in rickets.

My GP said she believed the increasing number of women suffering from depression might just be deficient in vitamin D. Sunshine and a vitamin D supplement (my cure) could, she said, be ‘nature’s Prozac’.

One day, after three weeks of taking the vitamin supplement and spending half an hour a day outside exposing my skin to as bright a light as possible, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of euphoria.

I felt happy, excited and energetic. But it was my stint in the blazing sun in France (protected by nothing less than SPF 15) that was the final part of my vitamin D cure.

No one dares admit it but nothing looks better on a woman than a sunbaked tan. The bags beneath your eyes diminish, and the bronzing effect on your body makes you look half a stone lighter.

While many substitutes promise to look as good as the real thing, most of them smell disgusting, stain your bed linen and — unless professionally applied — streak and make you look like an extra in TV’s The Only Way Is Essex.

Nor are fake tans necessarily a safer alternative — it has been revealed that a few brands can be more damaging than UVA rays, enabling carcinogens and other chemicals that can result in fertility problems, allergies and cancer to enter the bloodstream.

I remain, then, proud and unashamed of my tan and booming vitamin D levels.

I accept in the long term my not-quite-all-over bronze may accelerate the ageing process, but in the short term I don’t think there’s a cream on the market that is as effective in taking years off your appearance than a week in the sun.

My proof of the power of a real suntan came when I arrived back at Heathrow airport and was held up by the Customs officer because he questioned the ‘likeness’ between me and the hideous, pallid, pre-holiday picture in my passport.

And what woman wouldn’t be swayed by that?