Is it postcolonial irony or just plain depressing that in a week in which Broadsheet reported on the skin-whitening craze in Asia, we've got to cover the reverse obsession in the United States?
With summer just around the corner there's no better time for the New York Times Styles section to make women feel self-conscious about pale skin. So it was a pleasant surprise to read an article actually warning against the very real risks of the tanning salon. According to the Indoor Tanning Association, an industry trade group in Washington, "an estimated 30 million Americans visit a tanning salon at least once a year, the majority of whom are women 20 to 35 years old," the Times reports. And while many of these women know about the risks associated with skin cancer, they'd prefer to "temper" the practice by cutting back on the intensity of UVA light, keeping a towel over their face or visiting the salon less often than stopping altogether.
Barabara A. Gilchrest, the chairwoman of the dermatology department at Boston University School of Medicine and skin cancer research, told the Times that "young, healthy people who think they are invulnerable cannot really imagine that someday they are going to be 40, 50 or 60 and get skin cancer. What drives them is not health concerns. They go to tanning salons or sunbathe because of pervasive and persistent societal beliefs that tan skin is attractive." Indeed, almost all of the women whom the Times spoke to at tanning salons around New York admitted that even though it's potentially dangerous, it's worth it because they "don't want to be pale." Casey Brooks, 18, a student at Syracuse University who will tan three times a week before a special event like prom or a wedding, observed, "It's so ironic that you think a tan makes you look healthier, even though it's just the opposite."
The good news is that the dangers of the fake-'n'-bake are starting to attract political attention. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., are introducing a bill "asking the Food and Drug Administration to consider making warning labels on tanning beds more prominent and strident." Maloney made a smart analogy, saying that 50 years ago "warnings on cigarette packages said smoking may be dangerous to your health. Now cigarette packs say smoking causes cancer. We don't want to wait another 50 years to have labels that adequately warn people that tanning beds cause cancer."
And besides, as Gilchrest says, "You don't want your skin to look like an old Louis Vuitton wallet." Truer words have not been spoken.