Dying for a tan

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As the holiday season approaches, Cancer Research once again desperately tries to warn young women off the beaches and sunbeds.

It’s a strange thing, beauty. The idea of it ebbs and flows with time, and with our culture.

Few of us now would paint our faces white and our lips green, then mix a paste of iron filings and brush it on our teeth to stain them black. And yet for centuries, this was what passed for beauty in Japan. Without black teeth a woman could not be considered beautiful. In other cultures, it’s lip discs or neck rings, or facial tatoos, or broken feet – tastes which we in the modern west find utterly bizarre. 

So, I suspect, will it one day be with tanning. Just as we look back with astonishment at the poisonous white-lead-painted faces of Elizabeth’s court that led to so many early deaths, in a hundred years will people look back at our tanned teenagers and ask: "Didn’t they know what it was doing to their SKIN?"

The answer, of course, is yes, they do know. But they don’t care. When you’re a teenager, you’re invincible. You won’t get melanoma – it’s someone else’s problem. 

Rather than banging on about the health risks to try to stop them, a better approach might be to show young women how it’s ageing them. As a (rather guilty) fan of the programme 10 Years Younger, I’m astonished time and again by how a serious sun habit can age a woman 10 or 15 years. A few lightboxes dotted around UK shopping malls would show up some shocks for the female populace. 

I am not, personally, a big lover of the sun. When nature gives you blonde hair, blue eyes, white skin and freckles it’s trying to tell you something. I last sunbathed on the roof of my hall of residence in 1982 with my mate Ann Mahony, then gave it up as a bad job. I haven’t been in the sun since and I’ve always bought the maximum sunblock available, and worn a bit hat, long sleeves and trousers – even cuffs that I can fold down over my hands.

Back in the 80s, this was considered a very weird sort of fad. "Nah nah na-na nah," said my sun-loving sister. "Just can’t get a tan, can you?" And she was right, I couldn’t, but the truth was, I had also stopped wanting to, stopped applying the (then odiferously orange) fake tans that were all the rage, stopped regarding a tanned skin as a sign of health and begun instead regarding it as a sign of damage. 

Because the truth is that on a Caucasian skin, ALL tan is damage, even the lightest. A tan is your skin’s way of protecting itself when it’s burned. The idea that it makes you look ‘healthy’ is a very modern one, and it’s false. Nothing that hurts you can make you healthy.

Let us remember, only in the 1920s did tans become fashionable, because they were a sign of conspicuous leisure and meant you could take foreign holidays. For centuries in the West, women had striven to keep their skins as white as possible because THIS was the sign of leisure – a suntan was the hallmark of a manual labourer who was forced to work outside.

Rather than applying God-knows-what chemicals to our skins to mimic sun damage, isn’t it time that the idea of a tan as a good thing was ended altogether, and consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs? It is as psychologically damaging as whitening your skin when you’re black. The colour that your skin naturally is, is the colour that it should be.

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