Dying for a tan…

Last night there was a programme on BBC3 in which Nicola Roberts of girl band Girls Aloud highlighted the dangers of our tan-crazy culture. She explained how, as a bright young slip of a thing starting out in the band, she felt enormous pressure to fit in with her more bronzed counterparts, how after a long day’s work and an evening’s gigging her bandmates would flop into bed exhausted while she would go home to face the nightly ritual of bathing, exfoliating and fake-tanning before she could hit the sheets. She noted that she used fake tan, not for health reasons, but because as a porcelain skinned redhead going on a sun bed wouldn’t work, would simply burn her. Meanwhile, she interviewed sun bed addicts as young as 13, twenty- and thirty-somethings dealing with skin cancer and a BEAUTIFUL fair-skinned young dancer who had simply repeatedly used the sun bed until her skin had stopped peeling and been forced to deal with the abuse.

She challenged the dancer and another fair-skinned bronzer from Wales (whose problems went far beyond his tanning addiction – this guy was using sun beds twice a day, had cupboards full of faking products and injected himself to increase his body’s production of melatonin) to give up tanning all together. They did, and while the Welsh lad was made miserable by the result (see below) the dancer looked absolutely amazing, and I hope has realized that she doesn’t need the fakery…

I’m fair skinned. I have known since that fateful snorkeling trip at the age of 10 that I don’t tan, but blister, and can be pretty obsessive about sun block as a result. (There have been slip-ups, of course – one particular nine-hour ferry ride back from Corfu springs to mind, when, our interail tickets not allowing us access below deck and our luggage being in the hold, I fell asleep in the Mediterranean sun and woke up a delightful shade of lobster. Except for where my hand had been resting on my shoulder, leaving me a perfect white handprint… Comical, yes; funny, not really; dangerous, definitely.) In winter, I stop looking quite so “porcelain” and veer closer to “cadaver” as my legs turn a translucent shade of baby blue. I remedy this with brightly coloured 70+ denier tights, and in spring, apply a very light glow with gradual tanning lotions – though I’m careful to choose the lightest coverage possible, as my colouring simply can’t pull off anything approaching tangerine dream…

Nicola (centre) in the days when she attempted to
keep up with her bronzed bandmates

But I don’t think I’ve ever felt the pressure to be tanned. It’s not something I’ve thought about and made a decision on for health reasons, it’s just something I’ve never experienced. When friends have gone for a quick sun bed session, or told me how they lay for 6 hours straight catching scorching rays on their cruise, I’ve always just tutted and told them they’ll regret it – but I don’t remember feeling pressurized to join them. Neither do I remember having the dangers of sunburn hammered into me by my parents, teachers, or the media. I mean, I know it’s there, but it hasn’t consciously affected my decision to protect myself. It just seemed to me that if my choice was between soft, coconut-scented limbs and the soreness of peeling itching strips of white skin off to expose  raw flesh, there was really no choice at all…

Nicola now – au naturel!

Maybe I’m just very lucky that this has passed me by. Maybe I’m just that little bit too old for the craze, or maybe I saw enough fair-skinned role models as a child to never feel particularly different. Or maybe, just maybe, my hang-ups are elsewhere – certainly my less-common colouring is one of the things about myself in which I find solace when I’m feeling particularly low about my weight, chins or teeny-weeny facial features. Maybe if I hadn’t expended so much energy worrying about my too-wide hips or my too-small mouth I’d have had some reserves left with which to stress about my skintone.

Either way, I think Nicola’s message is an important one, which is why I wanted to write this post. At one point in the show a radio presenter asked her on air if she agreed with her critics who claimed she was taking her fight to the extreme, militantly promoting the porcelain and demonising tanning to an unhealthy extent. The poor girl looked as if she was unsure whether to lash out in indignation or cry with frustration. As it was she (slightly irately) highlighted that this was her natural colour, that the whole point was that she now did absolutely nothing to alter her skin tone. Her message is about celebrating our own individual colour, whatever it may be, and most importantly of all, protecting it.

Which is exactly the message I wanted to relay on her behalf.

Well done, Nicola, for highlighting such an important issue, for taking this issue to the Commons (Nicola is campaigning for an 18 age limit to be put in place at tanning parlours), for creating an important role model for little ginger girls to look up to – and, particularly, for over-coming what must have been a crippling sense of insecurity when you stood alongside the likes of the lovely Miss Cole, bronzed babe, nation’s sweetheart, and frankly not nearly so inspiring a role model.

View The Truth About Tanning on BBC iplayer.


12 thoughts on “Dying for a tan…

  1. What a terrific post! I’ve never felt pressure to be tanned either, in fact I wear sunscreen all year round and carry an umbrella with me every day of Summer to avoid uneccessary exposure. I get laughed at now but I know taking care of my skin will pay off.

    • This is the thing – it’s worth looking after yourself now to look good later. One of the teenage girls they interviews actually said hse wasn’t worried if she died in 10 years cos she looked good now – where’s the logic in that??

      I have carried an umberella in hotter countries, and after the sunburn-on-deck incident I spent a day running around Pompeii from shad to shade to avoid worsening it. Must’ve looked like a crazy person…

      I’d love a vintage parasol though – maybe if we can bring parasols back into vogue people will start carrying them?!

  2. A great post – I’m in Australia and last year, there was a case where a girl frequented salons regularly and then developed skin cancer, she campaigned to get the govt to regulate an age limit, which they are now planning to do. Unfortunately she died before this came to pass, which is sad – http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/crackdown-on-tanning-salons/story-e6frf7jo-1111114245828

    On another ironic note about the lack of self acceptance, my background is Asian and in Asia, fair skin is worshipped and people do carry umbrellas in the sun as the first commenter mentioned.

    That’s fine but as usual, people have gone to the other extreme and skincare with ‘whitening’ ingredients are the norm. Imagine, how strange to market a whitening lotion! And I kid you not, that is the term! And some of these are marketed to people of Indian origin, with beautiful dark skin.

    When will the madness end?!

    • Hi Michelle,

      That is a very sad story, and if last night’s show was anything to go by, really not unusual. The way we’re going over here the NHS are expecting an epidemic of skin cancer cases in the near future.

      I recently read Barack Obama’s first autobiography, and one of the key moments in his life/identity he describes as having been the first time he saw adverts in a magazine for skin lightening products. Even as a young boy he describes a feeling of incredulity that people would go to such extremes.

      It’s the whole culture of wanting what you haven’t got, isn’t it – we pasty Brits want to be olive skinned, a couple of my Chinese friends from my masters course, as you say, always carried umbrellas in the sun (in Scotland! – There is no sun!!) and constantly cooed over (and in one case stroked) my face. Meanwhile, on the train just this morning I was transfixed by an Asian girl’s amazing shining curtain of hair. Sometimes I think it’s just easier to see beauty in other people.

      There’s also historical context to the tanning argument. Queen Elizabeth I famously used chalk to whiten her skin, as pre-industrial revolution only the coarse peasants who worked in the fields would have caught the sun. The paler you were the higher your apparent ranking – because it signified that you didn’t ever have to leave your parlour, you had so many servants. I believe the same is true in Asian countries where the poor worked (and work) the rice paddies. The only reason things have changed here is that now those with money choose to leave these drab shores as often as possible – so a tan is a symbol of your second home in the South of France or your recent cruise around the canaries…

      Eek – sorry, essay… I guess I have a lot to say on this subject!

  3. I really admire Nicola for this – as you say, it can’t have been easy for her to make the decision to drop the fake tan!

    As you know, I’m also a pale-skinned redhead: I can’t say I’ve ever really felt any pressure as such to be tanned, but I do get so, SO tired of the constant “ooh, you don’t have much of a tan” comments when I’ve been on holiday or something. For some reason, people always seem to make those kind of comments sound like a criticism, as if I’m to understand that I’ve “failed” in some way by not having a suntan, and I always think it’s so irresponsible of them!

    Anyway, thanks for this post – I’ll definitely have a look at the show when I get a chance!

  4. We did actually tell you constantly about protecting your skin but never in a direct ‘Don’t do this!’ way so if you can’t remember, I guess we got it rignt!
    I remember traveling back from France after the snorkeling trip and praying the blister would be gone before your grandmother saw it, but that was for my sake!!!

  5. I’m a freckly, Irish-white person who, whilst not red-headed these days, was definitely a ginger child. My relationship with the sun is shaped by strong childhood memories of a trip to the seaside on a day which turned unexpectedly hot and sunny. A rare occasion on the North coast of Ireland. I got such bad sunburn that I had to sleep in the sundress I was wearing for 3 days and the family doctor made a house visit to check up on me. I was about 3 and a half at the time and I can clearly remember the pain from my burnt shoulders, and the huge flakes of skin that peeled off for ages after.

    I dabbled briefly with fake tan in my teenage years because all my friends were doing it, but the colour looked so strange on me that I gave up and happily went back to my natural skin colour. Like you I don’t remember any of my tanning friends pressurising me to join them.

    Years later both my parents have had small, non-malignant skin cancers removed from their faces; and the doctors tell them our skin type is particularly vulnerable to sun damage. It leaves me relieved that I’ve been a factor 30 or P20 person on foreign holidays.

    Besides, I love wearing bright red or bright green and they just look so much better against pale skin than tanned orange skin 😉

  6. Its really not often I feel the need to comment on things but I thought on this I wanted to add my voice to those others wanting to add an age restriction or better health warning to sun beds.

    2 years ago I lost my olive skinned, dark haired mother to melanoma. She never went on a sun bed, wasn’t a fan of sunbathing (although she played on the beach with us on holidays) and was fairly sensible with sun cream.
    She was 54.

    I’ve turned myself orange and had horrible stripy legs with fake tan in the past but if I ever decided I need a bit more colour in the future I’ll still be reaching for a bottle. Or just trying to make the best and enjoy the skin tone I have.

  7. It didn’t take me long to learn that I have 2 choices of skin tone: white (almost transparent) or red. There is no such thing as tan for me. Oh, OK…so my freckles seem to multiply like evil stepchildren, but other than that, white or painful red are the choices. I suffered a few painful burns as a child but nothing as horrible as a snorkeling trip to Cancun when I was 20. I lathered up everywhere with sunscreen unfortunately missing the major part of my body that was revealed to the sun while I snorkeled. I could not sit comfortably for many days!

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