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.