Dying for A Tan

Lexie at her first appointment at Huntsman Cancer Institute on Sept. 9, 2014. Yuck.

Two years ago, we at Beauty Redefined published a popular post arguing that the soaring increase in the number of young women with skin cancer is a beauty issue above all else. It has to do with young, light-skinned women believing tanned skin is equivalent to looking more beautiful, thin and “radiant.” We acknowledged there are a few causes worth dying for, but having a “bronzed, healthy glow” is NOT one of them. In a startling turn of events, I (Lexie), was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. On Sept. 24, 2014, I had surgery to remove a large chunk of my thigh and three lymph nodes that could spread cancer throughout my body. And I can 100% confirm that tan skin is not worth dying for.

Friends, before years of research into how harmful unattainable beauty ideals can be and before forming Beauty Redefined, I was a light-skinned girl that bought the lie sold to us at every turn that tan skin was most beautiful. I’ve stepped foot in a tanning bed at least 15 times throughout my life. I laid out at the pool without reapplying sunscreen more times than I can count. And I would *beg* my younger self to do things differently. I would shout to her what I shout to the world now – You are more than a decoration for the world! Don’t buy the lie that your value and power are dependent upon your looks! Our lives are valuable, and that is abundantly clear after receiving a skin cancer diagnosis at age 28.

Crazy enough, skin cancer statistics demonstrate that we ladies really do 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 the game-changing statement in 1929 that “a girl simply has to be tanned,” 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.

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. 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

Check your skin every month. Here is all the info you need.

Beauty Redefined recommends:

Believing that you are capable of much more than looking hot

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

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

* 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.

Vanity Fair-Skinned Only? The Race Issue in the “Hollywood Issue”

VF Hollywood Issue 2010

I guess the last few years of backlash weren’t enough to convince Vanity Fair to stop whitewashing beauty out of its pages. Here’s a refresher: the “Fresh Faces of 2010” featured a lineup of nine beautiful young stars, all of whom had one noticeable attribute in common: they were all white.

 Keep in mind that was the year of Zoe Saldana in “Avatar” and “Star Trek,” Gabourey Sidibe in “Precious” and Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire,” among many other stunningly talented women of color who shared the Hollywood spotlight. The 2011 issue featured a slight improvement with the inclusion of Rashida Jones, though she was pushed to the far right of the tri-folded cover photo, which means one had to not only open the cover of the magazine, but also unfold the flap, in order to see the one and only woman of color. Perhaps not surprisingly, 2012 fared no better for the two women of color (Paula Patton and Adepero Oduye ) included in this much-anticipated issue, as they were also – you guessed it – relegated to the right side of the folded-over cover.

The Feb. 2014 “Vanities” section of the magazine included Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o, star of “12 Years a Slave,” though backlash ensued as soon as people were able to compare her digitally lightened magazine-approved skin color to her stunning red carpet photos from the Golden Globes in Jan. 2014.

You’d think that with approximately one-third of the women in the U.S. representing an ethnicity other than Caucasian, media would wake up and catch up – both in terms of writing and offering film roles for women of color and in representing those women positively after they’re stars. In terms of capitalistic common sense, that’s an undeniably large segment of this country’s consumers who don’t see their own races, ethnicities, skin tones, hair colors and styles reflected in mainstream media. Does it matter that women of color are dramatically underrepresented in media, that they’re digitally and physically whitewashed when they do appear in media (by their own choices and the choices of stylists, editors and directors), and that the women we do see almost always already look like white women – with light skin tones, long, straight, lightened hair, digitally lightened eye colors (also achieved through colored contacts), traditionally Anglicized facial features, and slender (and shrinking) bodies? The answer is YES. It does matter.

VF Hollywood Issue 2009

It matters that Vanity Fair essentially refuses to feature a woman of color on the cover of one of their most popular issues of the year that names Hollywood’s newest, most important stars. Consider this in light of their own mission statement: “Vanity Fair is a cultural filter, igniting the global conversation about the people and ideas that matter most…Vanity Fair is the first choice and often the only choice for the world’s most influential and important audience.”

With an audience of 6.76 million readers, the one thing VF has right in their mission statement is that it is undoubtedly influential. But in its role as a “cultural filter,” we’re sorely disappointed to see the diversely beautiful faces of our culture filtered entirely out of the conversation. By repeatedly leaving women of color out of the conversation, and literally out of the picture, VF tells us over and over again exactly who and what “matters most.”

VF Teen Star Issue 2003

Regardless of the race or ethnicity of the women featured, the constant theme women’s magazines like VF teach readers is that your appearance matters more than anything. Fashion and lifestyle magazines have long been the target of research that demonstrating startling links between media viewing/reading and body hatred, eating disorder symptoms, drive for thinness, and other factors. Research shows us that females’ exposure to the beauty ideals in women’s magazines is consistently related to an increased perception of the importance of beauty and the centrality of physical appearance for women (1). This is achieved through images and editorial content that consistently emphasize thinness, weight loss, and the attainment of what the magazines define as “beauty” in order to achieve personal success, happiness, health and attention from men.

As if unattainably thin ideals (that look completely normal due to repeated exposure) across all genres of media aren’t enough of a strike against women’s perceptions of their own bodies, why don’t we throw in a skin color as the foremost standard of beauty – one that at least a third of the women in this country don’t have. In addition to being extremely thin yet curvaceous in all the “right” places, the beauty ideal presented in mainstream media is almost exclusively white, making it all the more unattainable for women of color. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try. Even with the conspicuous absence of women of color from the highest-selling magazines, real life women of color suffer nearly the same effects as white women from our unrealistic, generally unhealthy, white ideals.

Lots of people assume women of color are more capable of resisting the influence of dominant standards of beauty than white women, but plenty of evidence shows otherwise. In studies where Latina girls under age 18 report greater body satisfaction compared to white girls, they still report comparable or higher rates of disordered eating (2). Latina adolescents frequently describe an ideal body type that is comparable to the white norm and report an interest in weight loss at rates similar to those reported by white peers (3). Same goes for African American females: Scholar Kristen Harrison conducted a study with 61 teenage African American girls, measuring the girls’ “thin ideal” television exposure (shows that emphasize thinness through characters’ bodies and dialogue) and how they thought their classmates expected them to look. She found that the larger girls who were exposed to thin ideal media consistently thought their peers expected them to be smaller than they were. For smaller girls, media exposure was strongly connected to the belief that they needed to gain weight and be larger (Harrison & Gentles, 2006).

Studies like this prove that profit-driven media is working exactly as it is intended to work. Beauty, cosmetic surgery, weight loss, fashion and media industries make billions by sparking and feeding into anxieties in women about their bodies. It’s the classic “grass is always greener” idea – white women need to be darker through tanning and dark women need to be lighter by any means necessary. As long as they can keep women dissatisfied with themselves, they can keep selling us the products and solutions to fix our flaws! Billions of dollars in skin-lightening products are sold worldwide, often by the exact same companies that sell tanning products in the U.S.

Sofia Vergara, with an arm reportedly Photoshopped to fit the Pepsi “skinny can” ideal

You’ve probably, definitely, noticed that Latinas are represented a little differently in mainstream U.S. media, and they always have been. You know, the ultra-sexy, seductive, curvaceous, va-va-voom, exoticized Latina lover – think Sofia Vergara, Eva Mendes, Eva Longoria, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Selma Hayek, Penelope Cruz – the list is seriously endless. In researching the effects of this, young Latina and black women are shown to describe an ideal body shape/size that has more “feminine curves” than the dominant white ideal. Instead of always subscribing to the thin ideal, girls and women of color, in some cases, value a “thick” ideal, comprising a slender but curvy body, with a thin waist, big breasts and hips, and a round behind (4). Greater acculturation into mainstream U.S. culture has been associated with preference for thinner body types among Mexican American women (5), Cuban American women and Latina adolescents. Chamorro and Flores-Ortiz found second-generation Mexican-Americans had the highest levels of disordered eating and acculturation among first- through fifth-generation Mexican Americans (Goodman, 2002). That means girls whose parents came from Mexico are more likely than those whose families had been here longer to starve themselves or binge and purge. THAT is what this culture does to women who have been in this country just long enough to figure out what to do to their bodies in order to fit U.S. ideals.

VF Hollywood Issue 2012

VF Hollywood Issue 2012

Essentially, “the feminine ideal is tanned, healthy slenderness, with no unsightly bumps, bulges, or cellulite, and bodily and facial perfection that results from hours of labor: exercise, makeup, and hair care” (Coward, 1985; & Kuhn, 1985), and 25 years later, plastic surgery and digital manipulation. Whereas Latina icons such as Christina Aguilera, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have achieved renown in both mainstream U.S. media and media geared toward Latin audiences, media representations of these women have become increasingly anglicized within U.S. media, with shrinking figures and lighter-colored, straighter hair (6). Essentially, “the feminine ideal is tanned, healthy slenderness, with no unsightly bumps, bulges, or cellulite, and bodily and facial perfection that results from hours of labor: exercise, makeup, and hair care” (Coward, 1985; & Kuhn, 1985), and 25 years later, plastic surgery and digital manipulation. Whereas Latina icons such as Christina Aguilera, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have achieved renown in both mainstream U.S. media and media geared toward Latin audiences, media representations of these women have become increasingly anglicized within U.S. media, with shrinking figures and lighter-colored, straighter hair (6).

Not too dark, but not too white; not too bodacious up top, but not too flat either; not too skinny, but not too fat. 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.

Today, the prevalence of body dissatisfaction and related disordered eating is impacting females at younger ages and they are no longer confined to a particular class or ethnic group. Does being aware of the insidious nature of media’s representation of women – really its misrepresentation of women – make any difference? Absolutely. You can recognize and resist those messages that tell us white actresses matter the most, that white features are the most beautiful, that large or small chests are ideal, that you need to be thinner or more curvaceous or that your skin needs to be darker or lighter. Reject and resist messages that treat women as objects to be looked at, judged for their parts and relentlessly flawed. Take the words of awesome Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldua and consider what progress you can make armed with this knowledge:

“Every increment of consciousness, every step forward is a travesia, a crossing. I am again an alien in new territory. And again, and again. But if I escape conscious awareness, escape ‘knowing,’ I won’t be moving. Knowledge makes me more aware, it makes me more conscious. ‘Knowing’ is painful because after it happens I can’t stay in the same place and be comfortable. I am no longer the same person I was before.” -Anzaldua, 1999, p.70

1)Goodman, 2002; Harrison & Cantor, 1997; Harrison, 2000; Thomsen, 2002; Stice, Shaw, & Stein, 1994; Labre & Walsh-Childers, 2003
2) Barry & Grilo, 2002; Crago et al., 1996; Granillo, Jones-Rodriguez, & Carvajal, 2005; White & Grilo, 2005
3) Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2002; Poran, 2002; Rosen & Gross, 1987
4) Goodman, 2002; Rubin, Fitts, & Becker, 2003; de Casanova, 2004; Goodman, 2002; Greenfield, 2002
5) Cachelin, Monreal, & Juarez, 2006; Jane, Hunter, & Lozzi, 1999; Gowen, Hayward, Killen, Robinson, & Taylor, 1999
6) Cepeda, 2003; Guzman & Valdivia, 2004
7) Eggermont et al., 2005; Fouts & Burggraf, 1999, 2000; Gentles & Harrison, 2006; Greenberg, Eastin, Hofschire, Lachlan, & Brownell, 2003; Hall, 1996; Harrison & Fredrickson, 2003; Hendriks, 2002; Pompper & Koenig, 2004

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