Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Enduring Popularity of the Suntan

The Enduring Popularity of the Suntan

Around this time each year—usually a hair later, but, hey, climate change!—I enter the same debate with myself: to self-tan or not to self-tan? After years of studiously avoiding the sun, fervently evoking old-timey movie stars with porcelain complexions as my reason for doing so, I spent time in the tropics a few years ago and returned with a deep allover tan that made people around me say, “Wow, you’re tan.” I freakin’ loved it and promptly spent a small fortune on Jergens Natural Glow. It lasted through the summer, but then the following summer I was faced with a conundrum: I’d adored having a natural tan and didn’t mind keeping it up artificially, but healthwise I couldn’t afford to do it again—I tick nearly every box on the list of skin cancer risk factors. (I’d initially done my best to avoid the sun in Vietnam but when that proved impossible, I threw off the towel and sunbathed for all it was worth.) Did I actually want to start from scratch, building up a “tan”—a tan made up of what amounts to skin dye, I might add—for no particular reason? Did I really want to invest the money and time in a fake tan, for a capitulation to vanity?
So here we are, leg-baring season quickly approaching, and I’m in the same spot again. And as I go back and forth with myself about whether I want to appear tanned this year, I’m asking myself a question that, surprisingly, I haven’t wondered before: Why do we want to look tan in the first place?
Part of the answer, as with many things fashionable, is Coco Chanel. Prior to the designer’s rise to prominence, clothes covered so much of women’s form that a body tan was impossible, and a tan on the face and hands signified what it still does in developing nations: that the tanned person is an outdoor laborer, most likely of low social status. Lily-white skin remained a sign of a lady even after industrialization, but legend has it that when Chanel was accidentally sunburned during a trip to the Riviera and developed a tan shortly thereafter, her new hue took fire as a symbol of all she herself embodied: modernism, luxury, and independence. The episode “coincided” with a shift in the medical approach to sunlight, as the medical field went from regarding the sun as dangerous to seeing it as a cure-all within a span of 30 years. In 1905’s The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, Dr. Chas Edward Woodruff wrote that “The American girl is a bundle of nerves. She is a victim of too much light,” but by WWI “heliotherapy” was readily used to treat wounds, rickets, tuberculosis. Whatever the case, according to Vogue, “The 1929 girl must be tanned,” and so she was.
But here’s the thing that’s sort of flummoxing: That was 83 years ago. We haven’t let up since. There have been plenty of developments that have kept tanning popular—the bikini in 1946, the foil blanket in the 1950s, a plethora of tanning aides from “gypsy sun tan oil” in the 1930s to the perfunctory Coppertone baby—and there have been fluctuations in the fashionability of suntans. But since their arrival, tans have never truly gone out of fashion. Even through the enormous rise of awareness of the dangers of UV rays, tanning is, if not a cultural imperative, something we don’t necessarily question. We might swat wrists of friends who bake in tanning beds, but we don’t really blink an eye at self-tanning creams even if we don’t use them ourselves (and up to 46% of us do). Plus, judging by the number of people who complimented my tan after my return from Vietnam, it still holds a good amount of cultural cachet. Since 1929 we’ve given up spit curls, drop waists, and breast binding, but we cling to the tan.
We cling to it in part because its significance hasn’t changed all that much, sure; it’s affluence, luxury, and even though we all know better, health. The idea now isn’t so much that we’re acting as if we’ve spent two weeks at Saint-Tropez but rather that we’re not desk-bound. It’s also the perfect accessory: A tan hits the sweet spot between conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption. It visibly shares that you’ve done something we still connect with leisure and affluence, but without the bourgeois connotations of furs, Jaguars, and jewels. Once tan, you cannot help but be tan; it’s literally a part of who you are. It’s the ultimate expression of “Oh, this old thing?” The dearth of tans among hipsters supports this: In a community definitively marked by inconspicuous consumption, the standards for visibility change, stigmatizing any visible consumption, i.e. tans, more than they would be elsewhere. The activities prized by the hipster community—not that such a thing exists, mind you!—with the possible exceptions of fixed-gear bicycling and rabid picnicking, are largely indoor: art, music, Tumblr. The less tan you are, the more easily you can create the appearance of partaking in these activities. Certainly I don’t think hipsters are avoiding the sun to act as if they’re not secretly weekend warriors. But taking the step those weekend warriors might—applying self-tanner or bronzer to advertise one’s proclivities to the outdoors—would send the wrong sort of social message at Chloe Sevigny’s tea party.
Beyond the idea of material luxury, a tan represents that we have the luxury to be connected to both nature and culture simultaneously. Tourism boards use tanning in their materials: “The bourgeois on their Mediterranean beaches can entertain the illusion of learning to love their bodies again as they did in childhood,” writes K.K. Sharma in his overview of the history of tourism. A tan is a message, and the message is that its bearer is a child of nature who has returned to one’s filing-cabinet life bearing proof of the nature connection. The idea of tans returning us to a state of nature makes tanning less stigmatized where more tangible icons of luxury might be sneered at.
But even with all these reasons for tans sticking around for more than 80 years, it’s still counterintuitive. I’m having trouble thinking of anything that we know full well is bad for us but that we do anyway, for vanity—rather, that we encourage the mimicking of. We might go on diets, wear high heels, quaff martinis, puff smoke rings, or any number of other things that have been glamorized that aren’t so hot for your health—but we’re actually doing those things, not pretending to do them. With self-tanner, it’s like we’re all standing around puffing on electronic cigarettes even if we’ve never touched real tobacco. We all know tans don’t actually represent health and that there’s no such thing as a “healthy tan,” but we don’t really believe it. Rather, plenty of us believe it but covet the tan anyway, and turn to products to help us regain what has been taken from us with our banishment from the sun.

And, as with so many thin
gs about the intensely personal choices we make, it just might come down to this: There is an enormous financial amount at stake in keeping us sunny-side up. Sunblock is a good-sized segment of the skin-care industry (it’s projected to hit $5.2 billion globally by 2015), but so are its cousins: sunless tanning products, spray-on tans, and cosmetic bronzers totaling $516 million annually, not to mention the indoor tanning industry and low-dose sunblocks marketed as “tanning creams.” I’d initially thought that the cosmetic approaches to tanning were developed as a “healthy” alternative to natural tans and tanning beds, but actually, various lotions and dyes have been around as long as tanning has been fashionable, for the very reason that a suntan is sought after in the first place: Most of us don’t have unlimited time to lounge around Biarritz (or, today, to lay complacently in tanning beds—which ain’t cheap, even if you’re willing to take the health risks). Mantan, a sunless tanning lotion popular in the 1950s, promised dual action with its “moisturizing” action that “lasts for days without touch-ups!”; even in an era when women were being supposedly liberated from housework with the modern kitchen, time was at a premium.

And we can’t look at tann
ing products without at least glancing at their counterparts: lighteners. Skin lightening creams are wildly popular in Asia; the idea isn’t to look white but rather to look sophisticated and wealthy—an elevation from the peasant class that works outside.The politics and implications of skin lightening call for deeper examination than I can give them here; for now I’ll just point out the obvious: Both self-tanners and skin lightening creams are class in a bottle. Asian women using skin lighteners don’t want to lookwhite any more than I want to look Hispanic when I put on self-tanner; we want to look lighter or darker, sure, but both of those are a route to looking what our cultures deem better. Skin lightening creams are making in-roads in the North American market, with claims about “radiance,” “brightening,” and “illuminating—but the truth is, those adjectives are similarly applied in Asia as well (as I found out when I bought a “radiance” face wash in Vietnam that didn’t strip away my tan but made me look chalky immediately after washing). These are the same formulas, mind you, but being packaged to apply to the inner desires of each culture: paleness in Asia, radiance in America, youth and “rejuvenation” in both. As this excellently reported piece on the rise of skin lightening creams in North America shows, “a brightener is whatever we want it to be.”
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes about how the beauty industry attempts to package the radiance each individual brings to the world. “The Rites of Beauty offer to sell women back an imitation of the light that is ours already, the central grace we are forbidden to say that we see,” she writes. If radiance can be bought and sold, in a consumer society that sends the message that the “real” radiance is what comes in the package, while the homemade stuff gets moldy. Add to that the reality that the homemade tan—that is, a tan acquired from actually being in the sun—is damaging to your health (and eventually to your vanity through a leathery appearance), and suddenly the stuff in the bottle becomes even more appealing than run-of-the-mill makeup that just promises to make you look “better.” Eyeliner makes you look more awake, but self-tanner (or lightener, depending on the culture) promises to give you back that light that was originally yours, and it does so in a way that lets you play by the rules. Good girls stay out of the sun, but good girls also look like they get plenty of the stuff regardless. The tan in the bottle—that “Radiant,” “Natural Glow,” that “Sublime Bronze,” that holy protection of the “Bronzing Veil”—gives us an out, allows us to have our radiance without the harm the real deal would inflict. The beauty of it for us is that we’ve figured out how to get that “healthy tan” after all. And the beauty of it for the industry is that we’re paying $8.49 for each opportunity to do so.


smart girls fake it !

Show Some Skin This Spring

A Death by Suntan at Age 26

For years, Glenna Kohl pursued a tan, both in the sun and in tanning beds — which new research shows are far deadlier than once thought. By 22, she was battling the most lethal form of skin cancer

In April 2005, while working out at her college gym in Rhode Island, 22-year-old Glenna Kohl detected a hard, golf ball–size lump near her groin. She left the gym and went home to put ice on what seemed like a sports injury.
When her roommate, Courtney Caulfield, now 25, returned to their apartment that evening, Glenna asked her to feel the lump. “I told Glenna she probably pulled a muscle,” recalls Courtney. “She wasn’t overly worried; she seemed more upset about cutting short her workout.”
But the lump hadn’t gone away by the time she graduated from Salve Regina University the next month. So Glenna, then living at her parents’ home in Massachusetts, visited her family doctor. Puzzled, she referred Glenna to a surgeon, who scheduled a biopsy.
A few days later, the surgeon handed Glenna and her family a terrifying diagnosis: The lump was melanoma, the deadliest of the three forms of skin cancer. When caught at an earlier stage, melanoma — which typically begins as an irregular-shaped mole or a bump on the skin — is highly curable. But by the time it reaches stage III, as Glenna’s had, the cancer has spread beyond the skin and into the lymph nodes (that’s why the lump she felt was in her groin, where there’s a cluster of lymph nodes). Only about half the people with her level of stage III melanoma survive for 10 years.
The news came as a total shock. “No one in our family knew what melanoma was,” recalls Glenna’s mother, Colleen Kohl. “We did a lot of crying.”
Mystified about how the cancer had reached stage III without Glenna spotting any suspicious moles on her body, the surgeon eventually pored over her medical records. He found something disturbing: In high school, Glenna did have an irregular mole removed from her leg. A pathology report identified it as benign, but the surgeon tested it again. The lab had made an error: The mole was an early stage melanoma.
“We can’t know for sure, but her odds of beating melanoma would have been greater had it been diagnosed earlier,” says Donald Lawrence, Glenna’s oncologist and clinical director of the Center for Melanoma at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Cancer Center, in Boston.
The misdiagnosis infuriated Glenna’s parents. But she didn’t share their anger, says her mother. Even when the Kohls’ lawyer confirmed they had a case of medical negligence, Glenna — positive thinking and not one to dwell on the what-ifs — agreed to let the lab settle out of court. “She wasn’t resentful; she focused on getting better,” says her father, Bob. “Back when we all first got the news, it wasn’t a matter of if but how soon she’d be cancer-free.”

Read more: Glenna Kohl – Skin Cancer Death – Cosmopolitan


Indoor tanning is not strongly linked to melanoma.
The ITA insists that no proof connects artificial UV light to melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer that is also the second most common cancer for women in their 20s and the third most common cancer for women in their 30s—and that rates of skin cancer today are probably based on having been sunburned 20 to 40 years ago.
But decades of research, including the previously referenced report, have shown that exposure to UV light can lead to melanoma, especially if you’re exposed to it in your teens and/or 20s.
And according to derms, it’s not bad habits from the past driving today’s high melanoma rates—it’s the increase in indoor tanning. “The age-group where we’re seeing melanoma rates increase rapidly is in young women,” explains Darrell Rigel, MD,clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. “They are up to eight times more likely to use tanning beds than young men are.”
Also, Dr. Rigel says that derms are seeing more melanoma cases on body parts that normally get no exposure to the sun, such as the labia, yet are exposed via a sunlamp session.
Indoor tanning is an excellent source of hard-to-get vitamin D.
Vitamin D helps build bone and muscle. And there’s no question that you can snag your daily allowance by exposing your skin to UV rays, which prompt your body to create D naturally. But the ITA misleads people into thinking that the vitamin-D connection makes tanning healthy.
It’s not. Besides the damage done to your skin, it’s impossible to know how much UV exposure you get in a tanning bed and if that translates into enough D. “No meter on the tanning device monitors the level of vitamin D your body makes,” says Martin A. Weinstock, MD, PhD, professor of dermatology at Brown University and chair of the American Cancer Society’s skin-cancer advisory committee.
Satisfy your D needs by being outside for 10 minutes per day, three times a week, with or without sunscreen, says Ellen Marmur, MD, chief of dermatologic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in NYC and author of Simple Skin Beauty. Or eat your D; one cup of D-fortified milk has 25%, 1.75 ounces of canned sardines has 63%, and a 3.5-ounce piece of salmon has 90%.
NEED TO KNOW: Indoor Tanning and Melanoma Rates
While rates of indoor tanning have risen by 27% since the 1980s… melanoma cases in young women shot up 50% in the same time period.
A base tan will protect you from sun damage when you go outside.
The ITA claims that getting darker via indoor tanning will help safeguard your skin from further harm once you’re exposed to the sun.
True, tanned skin does provide minimal protection. Problem is, any color is proof that your skin has already been damaged. “The base tan doesn’t give you enough future protection to offset the harm already done,” says Albert Lefkovits, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology and co-director of the cosmetic dermatology surgery program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in NYC.
“When you expose your skin to UV rays,” says Dr. Rigel, “your body perceives that it’s being assaulted and produces melanin—a pigment produced by skin cells—to protect itself. Those pigments are a sign that serious damage has been done.”
Also, not everyone can become tan. People with fair skin may go from white to lobster red. If they tried to get a base tan indoors, their skin would fry.
Tanning beds are safer than the sun, since you control the UV level.
The reasoning behind this myth: The time you spend under a sunlamp can be adjusted based on skin type and the intensity of the equipment. So if you keep your UV exposure low enough to achieve the color you want, you will avoid being burned.
But this “control” is not all it’s cracked up to be. “The intensity of the UV radiation is variable, generally not monitored by staffers, and unknown to the person receiving it,” says Dr. Weinstock. “That’s why burns from tanning devices are surprisingly common.”
Also, the bulbs used in tanning equipment are typically two to three times more intense than natural sunlight, says Dr. Rigel. Translation: One minute in a tanning bed may grill your skin the same way two to three minutes in bright, hot sun does.
Most important, this myth obscures the crucial point: When it comes to UV rays, there’s no such thing as a healthy or responsible level. “Any amount of UV exposure raises your skin-cancer risk,” says Dr. Weinstock.
Indoor tanning offers positive psychological benefits.
The ITA contends that basking in UV light boosts the production of mood-enhancing hormones called endorphins as well as levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which is associated with feelings of bliss.
Though some studies and derms back up these claims—and many indoor and outdoor tanners say they look and feel heathier and sexier while sporting a bronzed look—research isn’t conclusive.
Whatever the psychological effects may or may not be, think about it: Aren’t there easier, less wrinkle- and cancer-courting ways to hike serotonin and endorphin production and pump your hotness quotient? Yeah, we thought so.
If you do find yourself craving light exposure due to the winter blues, take a walk in the sunshine—armed with a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher, of course—or just enjoy being outdoors without being directly in the sun.
And if a golden glow makes you feel more attractive and sexier, check out the newest crop of self-tanners. Most contain a bronzer, so you get natural-looking color right away, as well as fragrance to mask that self-tanner odor. Plus, many are now packaged as presoaked towelettes and quick-drying foams, so no more brown gunk rubbing off on your hands and clothes. It’s easier than ever to look sun-kissed without risking your life. when you go outside.