Skin cancer is among the most common forms of cancer in the United States. In fact, over the past three decades, there have been more cases of skin cancer than all other forms of cancers combined.1 Furthermore, a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Dermatology estimated that more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer each year in the United States may be the result of indoor tanning, with approximately 6,000 of these cases being melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.2
Most people are aware of these risks. Warnings of cancer and other related health problems are broadcast widely, and reminders to slather on sunscreen can be heard from all corners of our pools and beaches. At the same time though, the pressure to acquire the media’s ideal body is strong, and this culturally defined ideal frequently includes obtaining a “luxurious summer glow” or becoming a “bronzed beauty”. For some, the perceived benefits of tanning via sun exposure, or tanning bed, seemingly outweigh those severe health risks and they continue tanning despite the danger. In research on UV exposure, some excessive tanning behavior has even been described as an addiction. Many other people, including 1 in 10 adolescents, opt for what is promoted as the safer option – sunless tanning.
Sunless tanning products (creams, foams, sprays, stains, etc.) are heavily promoted as a viable option for someone looking to achieve a summer glow without assuming the health risks of tanning beds or sun exposure. But is it completely without risk? If we know UV exposure is unhealthy, then why are we spending time and money trying to fake it? It’s a million dollar question with a million dollar answer, or more accurately, a $763 million answer; that’s how much the fast-growing sunless tanning industry was worth in 2014.
Like the bikini body, the elusive summer glow represents an unfair and unrealistic expectation that can contribute to an individuals’ experience of body dissatisfaction. Additionally, trying to change skin color with the use of sunless tanning products can be viewed as a form of body image avoidance. An inability to achieve the tan ideal, or the time and mental resources spent focused on one’s perceived inadequacies, simply magnify negative feelings towards the body. Thus, sunless tanner may help dodge the bullet, so to speak, by avoiding UV rays, but it is not completely harmless. Body dissatisfaction, body image avoidance, and low self-esteem are some of the most well documented risk factors in the development and presentation of eating disorders. Furthermore, studies have found links between general tanning behaviors and unhealthy weight control practices. Consider the following associations:
- Steroid use and unhealthy weight loss strategies were 4x and 2.5x more likely, respectively, among high school males who used indoor tanning, compared to their non-tanning counterparts.3
- Boys who tan were more likely to be trying to lose or gain weight than non-tanners.4
- Female students who engaged in indoor tanning were also more likely to engage in unhealthy weight control practices.5
- A belief that a tan improves appearance is one of the strongest predictors of UV exposure behaviors.6
We know that body dissatisfaction can drive both tanning and unhealthy weight control behaviors. These correlations underscore the point that, despite a lower skin cancer risk, promoting sunless tanning may still be problematic, especially in individuals who struggle or have struggled with body image. Promoting or validating the quest for a tan body has the potential to reinforce negative body image thoughts and perpetuate appearance related obsessions.
It is important to keep in mind that any beauty ideal is carefully crafted and enforced by an industry that profits from the body dissatisfaction it’s “standards” create. Tanning is no different. In fact, it’s important to point out that the tan ideal is just one way that westernized beauty ideals promote insecurity or dissatisfaction across the spectrum of skin colors. The media’s pressure on Caucasian women to be tan occurs concurrently with tactics like whitewashing and digitally lightening the skin (and hair) of women of color in prominent advertisements. Writers at Beauty Redefined unpack the cultural implications of those practices in the post: Beauty Whitewashed: How white ideals exclude women of color.
By creating the narrowest possible margin for beauty, the media essentially convinces everyone their skin is either too light, too dark or some other shade of inadequate. As a result, people who internalize the cultural definitions of beauty feel ‘required’ to purchase some sort of product or service to achieve the ideal, or risk being invisible. As Director Elena Rossini reveals in her masterful documentary The Illusionists, the very same company that promotes tanning products in the U.S., profits off of skin-whitening creams in India.
Media influencing what we perceive as beauty is not exactly a new conversation, but sometimes these ideals become so much a cultural norm that we cease to question them. Just think how often the phrase “you look so tan!” is thrown around as a compliment or “I’m so pale” is delivered as a self-criticism. Great diversity of skills, skin colors, body shapes and sizes is a natural and healthy part of life. Any group who tries to change that, especially for profit, should be met with critical speculation. Just as we attempt to challenge the thin ideal, we should seek to debunk tanning myths and push back against unrealistic or unhealthy expectations. One way to do that is by helping to build families and peer groups that prioritize body positivity and body acceptance.
As individuals, we can push back by refusing to buy-in to a heavily marketed tanning industry that includes outdoor tanning, indoor tanning or pre-packaged tanning. Perhaps the money, time, and mental resources devoted to the quest for a perfect summer glow could be better used elsewhere?
Find out just how much money you could save by expanding the infographic on the right. Then head on over to Twitter or Instagram to tell us what you would do with your savings and how you intend to finish out your #bodypositivesummer free from the grip of body dissatisfaction.
About the Author:
Taylor Sorensen is a rising senior at Trinity College in Hartford, CT where she is majoring in Neuroscience. At Trinity, Taylor is involved in research focusing on the neuronal underpinnings of Autism Spectrum Disorder. She joined The Center for Eating Disorders as a summer intern in both the Research and Community Outreach Departments.
Stern, RS. Prevalence of a history of skin cancer in 2007: results of an incidence-based model. Arch Dermatol 2010; 146(3):279-282.
Wehner, MR. International prevalence of indoor tanning: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Dermatol. 2014 Apr;150(4):390-400. doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.6896.
Miyamoto J, Berkowitz Z, Jones SE, Saraiya M. Indoor tanning device use among male high school students in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2012;50:308–310. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.08.007. [PubMed]
Demko CA, Borawski EA, Debanne SM, Cooper KD, Stange KC. Use of indoor tanning facilities by white adolescents in the United States. Archives of Pediatriac and Adolescent Medicine. 2003;157:854–860. doi:10.1001/archpedi.157.9.854. [PubMed]
Guy, GP. Et al. Indoor Tanning Among High School Students in the United states, 2009 and 2011. JAMA Dermatol. 2014 May; 150(5):501-511.
Pagoto, SL, Hillhouse, J.Not All Tanners Are Created Equal: Implications of Tanning Subtypes for Skin Cancer Prevention. Arch Dermatol. 2008 Nov; 144(11): 1505–1508.