The Ugly Side of Tanning: How That “Healthy Glow” Hurts Women
There are lots of causes we could argue are worth dying for: saving a life, freedom, maybe even religious martyrdom or something epic like that. Having “bronzed, sun-kissed” skin is not one of them. Not even Coco Chanel would argue with that, though she is credited with starting the Western trend of white women wanting darker skin when she returned from vacation and famously stated, “The 1929 girl must be tanned.”
Crazy enough, skin cancer statistics demonstrate that we ladies seem to believe a “healthy glow” is worth dying for, or at least worth having large areas of skin removed and tested for the rest of our lives. The incidence of melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) in young adults is sky-high, with a six-fold increase in the past 40 years. Most interesting to us is the fact that the rise is BY FAR most noteworthy in young women ages 18-39, where the incidence of melanoma increased eight-fold from 1970-2009, while it increased four-fold for men.
This is a significant gender-specific finding. There are lots of factors to be taken into consideration in this soaring number of skin cancer diagnoses, but we’re ready to argue that this is, above all, a beauty issue. This isn’t an issue of ignorance or lack of education on the harmful effects of sun exposure or indoor tanning. This isn’t an issue of young white females just absolutely loving UV rays more than their white male counterparts. This isn’t an issue of girls desperately seeking more vitamin D while boys are less interested. This is an issue of Caucasian girls and women being totally convinced that having tanned skin is equivalent to looking more beautiful, and that beauty is worth every risk. “Having tan skin makes you look thinner,” “Having tan skin gives you a radiant healthy glow,” “Having tan skin gives you confidence.” Yes, confidence that you look beautiful, because if you’re not tan, you’re “pasty white,” “ghostly,” “pale” or – if you’re a famous actress but not a regular shorts-wearing high school girl – “a peaches and cream complexion.”
Where did we get this idea that fair skin is embarrassing, unflattering or a flaw in need of fixing by desperate means? By “desperate means,” we’re referring to baking in an indoor cancer coffin (a.k.a. tanning bed), lying unclothed in the blinding sun on a lava-hot lawn chair/trampoline/beach (a.k.a, sun bathing), paying good money to get hosed down with orangey-brown skin dye that sheds off in patches within 5-10 days (a.k.a. spray tanning), or slathering yourself in smelly orangey-brown solutions at home twice a day for two weeks while not touching any fabric or light walls for an hour because you will leave a distinctly “sun-kissed” look on everything (a.k.a. self-tanners).
I know what you’re thinking. “No one uses those sun reflectors anymore!” (And I hope you’re right.) And also, “You’ve obviously never tried [insert favorite brand] tanning lotion/spray/skin suit! Pasty skin problems solved!” But that’s all beside the point. The point is that tan skin is a manufactured beauty ideal, and people are literally paying for it with their lives, or at least with huge areas of skin and debilitating treatments. When Coco Chanel made that game-changing statement in 1929, it began to turn tan skin from a sign of low socio-economic status (from outdoor labor) to a chic and glamorous characteristic of recently-vacationing white women. Just like the brand new fashion trend of the time that prized tall, thin, flapper-esque bodies for women, the tan skin trend hasn’t gone away (now with added boob jobs)! But it wasn’t until the 1980s that it started making the beauty industry LOTS of money. Turning women from pasty and pathetic to bronzed and beautiful became a brand new market for the U.S. and spawned a nationwide influx of indoor tanning salons that saw a revenue of $5 billion in 2012.
Fun facts that make tanning a distinctly young, white, female, deadly problem:
- Nearly 70 percent of tanning salon patrons are Caucasian girls and women, primarily aged 16 to 29 years.
- The US Department of Health and Human Services and the WHO’s International Agency of Research on Cancer panel has declared ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, as a known carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).
- Based on 7 worldwide studies, people who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 87 percent. (Source)
The indoor tanning people have fought back ferociously against the completely true and inarguable findings connecting tanning and skin cancer, but experts agree that there is no such thing as a “healthy tan” when it comes from UV rays. Their advice? “The number one thing – stop going to tanning beds,” says dermatologist and researcher Dr. Jerry Brewer. “All correlations point toward that as the reason for the [melanoma] increase.”
As the evils of indoor tanning, or “fake baking” as it is traditionally known, have come to light in the last several years, another brand new tanning industry was born! Sales of U.S.-produced self-tanning products increased more than 18% in 2012 to make it a $609 million industry. According to the industry itself, self-tanning “has grown furiously for more than a decade, and the economic downturn failed to slow it down.” (source) These self-tanners are largely marketed by beauty-related companies, which means, guess who the target audience is?! Us, women! We need so much help to fix our pasty messes! Thank goodness for these products. But just in case you don’t want to slather the tanning goo on your glowing white bodies yourselves, now a stranger can do it for you! The spray-tan industry popped up in the early 2000s to hose down nude or mostly-nude women with the perfect shade of “burnt sienna” or “blood orange” (thanks to “Bride Wars,” for warning us what can happen when this all goes terribly, terribly wrong).**
Still, despite the many millions of dollars we U.S. ladies are spending on these new-fangled indoor tanning solutions each year, our incidence of skin cancer is at an all-time high. Rather than advocating trading sunbathing for spray tanning – or arguing about the merits of either – we want to question our culture’s unflinching allegiance to the idea that girls and women must be tan. That tan skin is most beautiful*. That tan skin looks most “healthy” – regardless of one’s natural skin tone or how much damage gets done to it by tanning.
We see scary similarities to the worldwide skin-lightening industry that is set to rake in $10 billion globally by 2015 by convincing women of color from the U.S. and China to Nigeria and India that fair skin is most beautiful, most feminine, most desirable – and alternatively, that dark skin is ugly, shameful and unworthy of love. A full two-thirds of India’s dermatological industry is dominated by skin-whitening products, including totally mainstream companies with names like “Fair and Lovely.” Ew. Thankfully, there are great online communities that fight to push back against the whitewashing of beauty in countries like India, including “Not Fair, Still Lovely” that can be found on Facebook here.
Though the skin-darkening and skin-lightening movements might appear to be opposites, they’re extremely similar. The U.S. tanning industry has got nothing on the world’s “fairness cream” and “skin lightening” industry in terms of revenue (and shockingly degrading messages), but they use similar tactics to incite appearance anxiety in women and then capitalize on that body shame by selling products to “fix” the flaw. In many cases, those so-called “solutions” to our skin tone problems are extremely dangerous to our health – whether it’s burning your face with hydroquinone to get a lighter complexion or burning your whole body with UVA/UVB rays to get a darker complexion. Both have proven to be deadly.
This vicious cycle of “never quite good enough” is fantastic for a consumer culture supporting $100+ billion beauty product and weight loss industries, but it is certainly not conducive to real progress as individuals or as a culture. Join with us in pushing back against the skin tone ideals that have been manufactured for us and used against us. Let’s own our skin tones. I’m white, with blue eyes and blonde hair and absolutely every possible risk factor for skin cancer. I’ve learned that I have to use sunscreen all the time and that I can never ever go fake baking again (yes, I’ve done it. The last time was 2 years ago before I got scared enough/smart enough to stop). Whether you’ve got the risk factors like me and Lexie or not, please commit with us to no more fake baking and spreading on the sunscreen when we’re out in the sun. We want to live long, healthy, cancer-free lives with you and your beautiful-as-it-is skin!
To decrease your chances of getting skin cancer, dermatologists recommend:
Wearing hats (big, floppy, bright-colored ones are highly recommended by me) and other protective clothing when out in the sun
Staying in the shade or bring an umbrella when possible
Applying lots of broad-spectrum sunscreen often
Avoiding sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest
Never, ever, ever, ever, ever using tanning beds
Believing that you are capable of much more than looking hot
Taking back beauty to its rightful place within you every day
Trying out these strategies for recognizing and rejecting harmful messages and kicking bad body image habits
Offering to slather sunscreen liberally and often on friends, lovers and nice-seeming strangers
Joining our awesome community on Facebook for extra help to love your skin color and avoid tanning when you’re feeling especially weak* What the tanning oil and tanning bed people want us to forget (or at least disregard for the moment) is that what they advertise as a “bronzed, sun-kissed look” right now will very likely become a “leathery, sun-shriveled look” later. If we’re so motivated to improve our appearances, let’s let the vanity-based consequences of our sun worship help us kick the tanning addiction! ** Lots of people are questioning the health implications of these faux-tanning products, but at only about 15 years old, the industry is new enough that long-term complications haven’t been proven.