Last week one of the girls in my office came back from holiday. She had been away for a week, in Cyprus I think. That bit isn’t hugely important. What is relevant to this story is that she is now VERY tanned. Before she left her complexion was “generic white person colour”, but she has come back with skin which I can only describe as being the colour of a roast chicken. You know, a deep, golden brown, crispy to the touch (not a perfect analogy, I’ll admit). What really baffled (though didn’t surprise) me was everyone’s reaction:
“OH MY GAWD, you’re so lovely and tanned. Aren’t you lucky. I’m well jell of you tannage babes.”
(that sort of crap). Needless to say, I am not a fan.
Time for some full disclosure: I am a very white sort of person (both in terms of skin tone and stereotypical behaviour, I suppose). I don’t tan. I have two options. The first is to sit in the shade when the sun comes out, or preferably indoors, or alternatively, I can allow my skin to burn to a lobster pink. There is a third option, involving sun cream, but I really hate that stuff. It smells and is really greasy (even the expensive stuff that isn’t supposed to be), and if it’s hot outside (and it will be), my prolific brow sweat redirects a lot of the stuff into my eyes, which also sucks. If I do get burnt, it fades/peels (depending on severity) after about 3 days and my skin returns to seenaghost white by the end of the week.
I may as well be upfront about all this, even though you will now assume that this post is simply a nasty case of sour grapes. Truth be told, there may well be an element of that, but it doesn’t make what I am about to say anything less than completely true: I think tanning is really stupid.
60 years ago, doctors recommended people try smoking cigarettes to treat anxiety & promote weight loss (so I am told). Similar tales are told about alcohol and things like coca-cola. These days, the drinks are still tolerated in most societies, but I think everybody, deep down, knows that there is a point where alcohol stops being fun, and coca-cola will rot your teeth if you drink it all the time. It is rare that anyone will preach total abstinence, but we all know the risks and try and get along despite them.
Smoking is another matter. I look at my friends and colleagues, and the number of smokers is really very small. It may be that my peer group is smarter than the national average, but even so. There was a time when my dad’s accountancy firm had to paint the walls yellow because everyone smoked and it was the only way to hide the nicotine stains. Those days are gone, as people are starting to understand the health risks and really appreciate what they mean.
And here is the thing. I genuinely believe that in my lifetime I will see a day when people think similarly about getting a sun tan. My earlier comparison of tanned skin to cooked chicken wasn’t quite as lame as I made out – getting a tan (or sun burn) is damage to skin cells caused by UV radiation. Getting sunburnt hurts for a reason. You are damaging your skin and exposing yourself to the risk of getting cancer. I really hope that one day we will look back on current tanning trends and say “what were they thinking?!”, just like we do now when considering the doctors who prescribed cigarettes.
There are some counter-arguments that are worth addressing. First of all, yes, as far as I know, the human body needs exposure to sunlight to absorb/make (i don’t know which) vitamin D. This is important (ie: essential) and you can’t do it if you’re wearing sunscreen or a big hat. So yes, you do need some sun exposure. But I read about how much you need according to the NHS, and it’s 10-15 minutes, 4 or 5 times a week. Less than 1 hour a week. I personally would struggle to spend less than this much time outside, so please don’t argue that tanning is anything to do with vitamin D. If you walk from your office to the station every day, you probably get plenty already.
Second of all (and this one surprised me actually), people with dark skin are not immune to getting cancer, or getting burnt. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “African American people” (their words) have a natural SPF of about 13.4, vs 3.4 for white people. But if you spend all day outside, you can and will outlast your natural SPF and do damage.
I know this all sounds very preachy, and it is. But I also think that is has some merit. Clearly this little blog is hardly the place to start a huge publicity campaign – this is just something I got to thinking about. And now maybe you are too?